Sun and sea could be our salvation

By From page A8 | February 27, 2014

By Marvin Goldman

All the talk about our drought brings something up that we have yet to face. Yes, all the water conservation measures are important and we should rapidly implement them. But what are we conserving? Simply put, we are conserving Sierra snowpack.

California has always relied on the snowpack for most of its water. The annual winter mountain snow slowly recharges our underground aquifers as well as feeding our rivers and streams; snow is our main source of both ground and surface waters.

Unfortunately, our best science tells us that in the long run we will see less average snowpack in the years to come. Of course, there will be wetter and drier years, but the fact is that our part of the continent is slowly drying and even with draconian conservation measures, we are in for severe desertification.
I’ve recently been reviewing a fascinating and promising option in which we harness two things we do have in great supply — our long seacoast and our sunny climate. Although in its infancy globally, solar-powered ocean desalination is a proven technology — albeit a bit costly at this time — that can take advantage of these two components. Concentrated solar heat boils sea water and the resultant steam is condensed and is a source of pure water.

I’m not saying anything others haven’t said (more eloquently), but what I am saying is that it is time for the state to address the water issues of future decades, and not just this three-year drought. The development of a West Coast solar desalination industry can offer economy of scale, lowered costs, opportunities to stimulate greater innovation, and the promise of a reliable adequate water supply for our next generations. That makes more sense to me than mile-long tank trains bringing us East Coast surface water.
Perhaps instead of pumping shrinking flows of Sacramento River south under San Francisco Bay, why not pump Bay seawater south to massive desalination plants? At least let’s talk about it.
The politics of this issue have already filled many books and I wish I knew how to get everyone on board. I recently suggested that having a carbon tax might help in slowing climate change, but the word “tax” is a big red flag to some and a pie in the sky to others. If I now suggest a water tax, the red flags could become even larger.

However, since the long-term future of our state depends on having enough water, how do we convince the population and our elected officials that the time to wring our hands is past, and that the time for intelligent, long-range action is upon us? Let’s go!
— Marvin Goldman of Davis is a professor emeritus at UC Davis.

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