Thursday, June 29, 2006 | 7:42 a.m.
The Pacific Ocean promises an endless supply of what the arid Southwest needs. Turning that salty bounty into fresh water, however, may be tougher than some people hope.
A study released this week by the Pacific Institute, an Oakland, Calif.-based think tank, suggests that enthusiasm for new desalting technology is understandable but misplaced. Proposals to build 20 desalination plants in California fail to address economic problems, environmental issues and social impacts, the study says.
Officials with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas and its suburbs, have said desalting Pacific Ocean water will one day be part of the regional resource portfolio. The authority could trade an investment in a coastal desalting plant for some of California's credits from Lake Mead.
Those officials also say that it could be decades before the Water Authority invests in a California plant. In the meantime, the authority is seeking rural Nevada ground water to help provide future supplies.
Environmentalists, some of whom are sharply critical of in-state water transfers, have publicly pushed for greater and faster investment in desalting.
Heather Cooley, lead author of the Pacific Institute report, said the technological difficulties and rising costs are likely to outweigh potential benefits. She noted that construction, interest and energy costs are rising rapidly. Electricity, for example, accounts for almost half the costs of operating a typical desalting plant.
"We don't necessarily conclude that desalination should not happen, but now may not be the time," Cooley said. "Our communities cannot be rushed into desalination projects - the economic, environmental and social costs are too high. Local, state and national laws do not sufficiently protect our communities from costly mistakes."
Desalting costs are declining but can still top $1,000 for an acre-foot (about 360,000 gallons) of water. In contrast, the same amount of treated Lake Mead water can be delivered to Las Vegas customers for less than $300.
Environmental impacts from desalting include returning highly saline brine back into the ocean and the killing of marine organisms when the water is drawn from the ocean, Cooley said, noting a lack of information on the marine impact and the need for further study.
She said the intent of the Pacific Institute study was not to take a side, but "to have a public, open, systematic decision-making practice.
"We are in favor of well-planned economically viable desal. Thus far, in California, it doesn't meet that criteria."
Kay Brothers, Water Authority deputy general manager, said her agency is looking at all possible sources to meet the valley's water needs. In May, the agency awarded a $750,000 contract to two national engineering firms to study different ways to augment the local supply, now almost entirely dependent on the Colorado River.
Authority officials believe desalting ocean water will be part of Las Vegas' future, but Brothers said the cost and environmental issues are real. Even when Las Vegas invests in California or Mexican desalting plants, she said, the resulting fresh water will not be the region's major source: "It's going to be part of the solution. It's not going to be the silver bullet that's all of the solution."
Dale Devitt, director of the UNLV Center for Urban Water Conservation, said that desalting will be an important resource: "Seventy percent of the Earth's surface is covered by saline water, so we'd be foolish to ignore that resource. I think it's the future. There are some major challenges, but that's what universities are for - put young scientists onto these issues."
The issue comes down to money and politics, he said, but the financial and environmental obstacles can be overcome. Technologies that are expensive and difficult on the coast might make more sense inland for recycled water or saline ground water, Devitt added.
Mark Bird, a CCSN professor and desalting advocate, has argued for the technology during Water Authority meetings. He noted that costs are coming down, while environmental issues are being solved through new technology. The 20-plus new plants proposed for California indicate that at least some experts think it is a good idea, he said.
Global warming and climate disruptions will only make desalting plants more important, he said. Bird said that using renewable energy sources such as solar and tidal power for desalting plants will be part of the solution.
The environmental costs are outweighed by the benefits, he said.
"There are environmental issues with every car that's ever been built, with any technology," Bird said. "That doesn't mean you abandon it."
Steve Parker, a UNLV associate professor of political science, takes a less bullish view: "For the foreseeable future, I think it is politically unfeasible in terms of relations among the three lower (Colorado River) basin states - Nevada, California and Arizona."
While Arizona and Nevada are talking about investing in desalting in exchange for a share of California's water from the Colorado River, there remains "massive resistance" to widespread desalting among many in the Golden State.
"I just don't see it as something that is doable," Parker said.
He and Devitt agreed, however, that one thing could change the political equation in a hurry.
When people get thirsty, they are willing to pay a lot for water. Devitt noted that a liter of bottled water in the local store costs about a buck. On that basis, an acre-foot of water costs $1.2 million.
"When people realize how precious water is, at some point it will be priced accordingly," Devitt said.