Monterey, California Switching to Desalination As Primary Water Source

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In the face of an increasing water shortage, last November state regulators told Monterey County to curb its withdrawals from the Carmel River, the current main water source, by 70% by 2016. With no where else to turn for water, the county is turning its eyes to the ocean, and launching an enormous desalination project to provide water to about 100,000 customers. It's controversial, but some argue desalination is the only choice the penninsula has for finding water outside of the Carmel River. Sand City, California also saw desalination as the only option available, and built a relatively low impact plant. However, the city is a tiny fraction of the population needing to find a new source of fresh water. The environmental impacts of a larger desalination plant will be quite different for Monterey County customers. Still, by the end of 2014, most residents will be drinking purified sea water.

The SF Gate reports, "While other Northern California communities are just dipping their toes into the desalination pool, water utilities in Monterey could get the final go-ahead late this year on a project to desalt some 10 million gallons of brackish water each day from 200-foot deep wells on the beach near the town of Marina. In addition to providing most of the region's drinking water supply, the project will help restore flows on the Carmel River - home to one of the southernmost runs of steelhead trout in the state and a long-running source of tension among water users, regulators and environmentalists."

As many as 20,000 threatened steelhead are relocated every summer as the lower Carmel River runs dry. By finding an alternate water source, residents will be restoring the trouts' ecosystem.

Knowing the energy costs and environmental impacts of desalination, other ideas were considered first, including a new dam and reservoir, tapping into the Salinas River, and recycling more water. But the desalination plant -- and it's estimated $500 million construction cost -- seems to be the only way to reliably provide enough fresh water to customers.

Desalination plants are becoming more popular as an alternative to diverting river water and pumping aquifers. Spending on desalination technology is set to double over the next six years to $16.6 billion, and the US is expected to be one of the top five markets. However, much of the research going into desalination must focus on energy efficiency and protecting the ecosystems from which the water is drawn and into which brine is released. The environmental impacts of desalination can be severe if precautions in design aren't taken.

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