Why do enviornmental groups hate desalination?

April 12th, 2014
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Water is one of the most important resources to society.  The availability of water has dictated the locations of some cities and limited the growth of others.  It is also one of the major necessities for agriculture.

Many areas have limited supplies of water and others are prone to shortages or droughts.  Still others do have sufficient water supplies, but in securing necessary water, huge quantities had to be diverted, resulting in ecological disasters such as the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

kennedyquoteOf course, there is an effectively limitless supply of water in the world’s oceans, and many of the most arid regions are located near the coast.  However, ocean water is far too salty for consumption by humans, for irrigation and for most other uses.   Thus, it is not that the world lacks water – we have plenty of it, but that many areas lack fresh water.

Therefore, assuming it could be made economical, desalination would seem like an ideal solution to this persistent problem.  Desalination is the only source of water that can be considered to be, for all intents and purposes, unlimited.  After all, all nearly all water ends up back in the ocean anyway.  With desalination, there are no concerns over droughts or of overdrawing an aquifer.  There are no seasonal shortages or reduction in the availability of water.

It could also be argued that desalination, in and of itself, has virtually no negative ecological consequences.  The need for water has lead to aquifers being depleted, rivers being diverted, lakes running dry and to the construction of massive dams and canals, sometimes with severe environmental consequences.   Therefore, even in areas where adequate fresh water is available, using desalination for basic water needs could greatly reduce the impacts of water sourced from rivers, lakes and aquifers.

The only negative environmental consequence associated with desalination is the need to dispose of the highly concentrated brine that is produced.  Separating the water from the sale of seawater means that salt must be disposed of.  It is usually in the form of a highly concentrated brine, much more salty than the water that was taken in.  This brine is not itself toxic, but the salinity levels are too high for most marine life.   If it were to be discharged directly into the ocean, it would result in the area around the discharge becoming too salty for most marine life.

This is certainly not an unmanageable problem.  The most obvious solution is to dilute and disperse the waste bring back into the ocean.  This is possible, but it can be a major task for large facilities.  Other options include recycling the brine into a useful product.  For example, it can be used to produce saltcrete.  Or, it can be further concentrated and then dried into salt, which can be sold commercially.

desalplantoperationalwThe one major downside of desalination is that it is energy intensive, far more energy intensive than more conventional means of obtaining freshwater. In addition to energy usage, desalination plants can be complicated, and the handling of saltwater requires the use of corrosion-resistant materials.  The water produced often requires additives for PH adjustment and the addition of trace minerals.  All of this adds to the expense of desalination as a water source.

For this reason, it is not generally used if other alternatives exist.  Many parts of the world, including much of the middle east and numerous islands are dependent on desalination to provide for their basic water needs.  While it does work for this, it remains the option of last resort, due to the economics.

That said, the economics of desalination have been improving steadily over the years.  With increasing demand for water, a great deal has been invested in desalination research and development.  New plants are constantly being built with ever-increasing efficiency and improved economics.  In recent years, major improvements have been made to reverse osmosis-based water desalination systems, which are now being deployed on an industrial scale.  The efficiency of distillation systems have also improved with the introduction of better heat recovery and multiple-effect distillation.

Modern desalination plants can now get a large portion of their energy requirements from the waste heat produced by power generation.  The use of co-generation for desalination further improves economics and reduce energy requirements.  Nuclear desalination is an especially appealing option, since nuclear reactors can produce ample process heat without emissions.  The Soviet Union built a highly successful plant to produce water from the Caspian Sea and today, India and China are exploring the use of nuclear reactors to run large desalination plants.

So, desalination is a good thing and we would like to see it continue to improve and become more economical, so it could be put to greater use….right?

While the improvements in desalination have not made it economically viable for use in most temperate areas, they have lead to greater use in areas where the supply of freshwater experiences occasional shortages.   Once reserved for islands and extremely arid areas, desalination is now being put to use in places like Florida.  Proposals have even been made to build a desalination plant near New York City, where it would draw brackish water from the Hudson River.  Although the New York region hardly qualifies as arid, it would be cheaper to provide water by desalination than to build additional aquifers to transport water into the city from further.

In addition to the possibility that nuclear reactors could provide large-scale economical desalination, alternative methods of desalination are being investigated, some offering the potential for enormous savings.  For example, an electro-chemical separation process has been demonstrated by the University of Texas at Austin, which researchers hope could result in significantly more efficient desalination systems.    Other approaches have been researched, including the use of new materials, such as graphane.   While it’s impossible to know if these experimental methods will become comercially viable, they certainly seem worth rooting for.

As someone who cares about both the environment and the needs of mankind, my reaction to this is generally “That’s great.  Here’s hoping that the technology continues to improve.  Maybe some day, we’ll get to the point where it’s cheap enough to compete directly with conventional sources of freshwater.  That would be fantastic.”

After all, while it may be a ways off, the idea that desalination could continue to be developed to the point where it could be a source of cheap, limitless water seems like a dream come true.   Perhaps one day, we can live in a world where farmland can be irrigated without danger of drought, where aquifer depletion is no longer a concern, where waters of plenty are available to all.

And yet, environmentalists HATE desalination…





Yes, that’s right.  They HATE it, or at least many do.  It’s not even one given project, although many groups do target one or another example.  As a general rule, environmentalists seem to loathe the idea of making freshwater from the sea.

(of course, this is a sweeping generalization.  Not *all* environmentalists hate desalination, but a large portion do)

Via citizenscampaign.org:

Local Habitat Destruction

The water intake stations of desalination facilities, similar to power plants, kill larvae, eggs, juveniles, and adult fish in two key ways:

Entrainment – the capture of aquatic organisms with the water through the intake valve; and
Impingement – the fatal pinning of organisms too large to fit through the mesh screens.

Fish mortalities, due to entrainment and impingement, vary based on the quantity and speed of the water that passes through the intake valve. The amount of marine life in the area of the intake station also plays an important factor in loss of marine life. Haverstraw Bay is an important nursery area for: Stripped Bass, American Shad, White Perch, Tomcod, and Atlantic Sturgeon, Anchovy, and Blueclaw Crab. A desalination plant could interfere with the protection of these critical fisheries and habitats, particularly for the Atlantic Sturgeon, which was recently added to endangered species list.
Harmful Discharges

High concentrations of salts, minerals, chemicals, or any other pollutants including heavy metals and PCBs will be returned to the Hudson River after the water has been extracted. These discharges are called brine discharges and they can impact benthic creatures that may be unable to survive in an environment altered with higher concentrations of salts and minerals.
Public Health Impacts

Because Haverstraw Bay is less than three miles from Indian Point Nuclear Facility, the water contains additional contaminants, including radioactive Tritium, Stontium-90, Cesium-137, and Iodine-131. These elements are known to cause cancer and cannot be filtered out by the reverse osmosis process used in desalination.
Rate Increases

Building, operating and maintaining desalination plants is expensive and will likely cause rate increases. Estimates by United Water anticipate the construction of the Rockland County desalination plant to cost up to $189 million, which would be paid for by increasing rates. Due to the immense amount of required energy, operational costs can potentially skyrocket due to their link to the already unpredictable energy market. United Water has already requested 2 rate increases before construction has even begun on the facility. Unanticipated problems during construction and maintenance, combined with increasing energy costs could cause Rockland’s water rates to increase further.
Rockland Needs Conservation, Not Desalination

The most cost-effective way to protect drinking water is conservation. Protecting streams, rivers, and lakes that recharge aquifers and reservoirs is critical to protect the quality and quantity of drinking water. The quality and quantity of drinking water is threatened by sprawling development covering ground water recharge areas; polluted runoff from agricultural, commercial, and industrial sites; and failing wastewater infrastructure. Implementing better water management practices is an effective strategy to protect drinking water at the source.

Rockland is a water-rich county, with 49 inches of rainfall per year; there is no need for an additional water source. By implementing a county-wide Comprehensive Water Management Plan, utilizing conservation measures, and implementing green infrastructure projects, Rockland can easily offset the need for an expensive, energy-intensive desalination plant.


Via Causes “Stop Desalination Plants”:

Desalination plants should be shut down because it causes social harm and destroys habitats

This proposal should not go ahead because it will have a negative impact on the environment. Desalination plants have an overwhelming effect on the environment. The amount of energy and greenhouse gases desalination plants produce is phenomenal. The desalination plant releases approximately 945,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year this is equivalent to an extra 240,000 cars on the roads.

The WWF stated ‘Removing salt from seawater…may end up worsening the crisis.’ On September 17, 2007, Senator Allison states, ‘Global warming is lowering rainfall… Yet desalination is an attempt to tackle the water crisis and by so doing the Victorian State Government is only exacerbating the problem.’ The desalination plant proposal should not be accepted because of the negative impact in the social health and well being of sea life, causing massive destruction to their social habitat.

A .pdf file containing “Ten Reasons to Oppose Ocean Desalination” can be found at citizen.org

Via Food and Water Watch:

Desalination: Not Worth It’s Salt

There is a reason we don’t drink the ocean. It takes so much money, energy, and pollution to take salt out of water that usually only desert nations think seawater is a serious drinking water option. Yet the corporations selling ocean desalination in the United States want us to think that we really are so desperate for water that we need their technology. They would love to have local and federal governments shell out millions of taxpayer dollars to fund their projects‚ which might be why they don’t advertise that these factories will be sticking consumers with a higher water bill, burning fossil fuels, killing fish, polluting the ocean, and endangering our public water supply.

They also don’t advertise the many ways we can improve our water supply without even looking at desalination. For example, our nation‚ water systems lose 6 billion gallons of water a day just to problems such as leaks. All the desalination plants in the country now could only produce a quarter of that water.

Unfortunately, some communities facing water shortages are buying into the hype. For example, in Florida, water managers feel pressure to consider desalination as an option. Yet Florida has a long history of ignoring conservation measures recommended by state agencies.

These are only a few examples. However, if you do a search online, you’ll find nearly every major desalination plant that has been proposed or is under construction has inspired large protests and opposition. In Australia, plans to build desalination plants have become the major focus of many regional environmental groups.

The reasons you will normally see for opposition include the following:

  1. Desalination produces waste brine which can be harmful – This is the one issue that is not entirely without merit.  However, it hardly seems to be a reason to abandon desalination.  If anything, it should be reason to demand good discharge standards.   The problem is far from insurmountable.  Mixing the waste bring with several parts seawater before discharge will reduce salinity considerably.  Dispersing it far out to sea will reduce the impacts further.
  2. Desalination plants are big facilities that require lots of material to build – This is also not entirely inaccurate.  Big desalination plants are major construction projects, and may require special materials to reduce corrosion problems.  However, this is the case with any large facility, including wind turbines, sewage treatment plants and conventional water supply systems.
  3. It is energy intensive – It is energy intensive, but so too is pumping water from extremely deep wells and transporting it long distances through pipelines.  Arguably it may be more energy intensive, but that does not mean it is bad for the environment per se.  It seems that improved efficiency of plants does not appease the environmentalists.  One would think they would want it to be improved further, but this is not the case.  Even solar, waste heat or geothermal desalination have been opposed.
  4. Water intakes can harm fish or other wildlife – This is not an unmanageable problem, as ways of reducing intake of things like fish larva and plankton.  It’s also strange to see this being made an issue with desalination, since any surface water usage can result in fish larvae or other life being sucked in and killed by the facility.   If anything, the ocean is far less sensitive to this issue.
  5. It is expensive – This seems a strange reason to oppose something, when the same groups will support huge subsidies for wind or solar power.  Even if desalination does cause increases in the rates paid by end users or water, one must ask why this is considered a bad thing by the same groups who would like to see the cost of electricity more than double.  It’s also a groundless argument because no water provider will go out of their way to use an expensive technology when cheaper alternatives exist.  If a water district decides to build a desalination plant, it is because the economics favor it in a given area.  If it was possible to provide water more cheaply, then the market dictates that the plant would fail.
  6. Conservation is the better solution – This seems like the most common argument.  It has much in common with the arguments against nuclear energy, genetic modification and damn near everything else.  It’s claimed that it is better in every way to be more efficient with water usage.

There are any number of reasons why the argument for conservation is a fallacy.  For one, there is a limit to how much you can conserve water before it begins to have some major impacts on capabilities.  Most large users of water already take steps to conserve it, since it would be expensive not to.  Simple economics dictates that any resource will be used to the maximum efficiency up to the point where more efficiency in use of that resource would become the more expensive option or would consume more of other resources.

It is very difficult to force individuals and organizations to use less water.  One way to do so is to make water extremely expensive, up to the point where instituting extreme use reduction becomes attractive.  If water were five dollars a gallon, for example, people would likely take one thirty second shower every other day.  The problem with this is it will tend to impact people, especially the lower classes, the hardest.  It will also hurt industry and agriculture enormously.

recyclesewageOne could also try to modify behaviors of people by instituting draconian laws, like banning homes from having grass lawns, making the game of golf illegal, mandating the installation of timers on all showers and forcing the replacement of conventional toilets with incineration or composting units.   This might work, but to really make a difference, it would have to have some very strong enforcement.  It would be expensive and, in the end, it is fighting the will of what people want to do.  It will therefore almost surely fail.

It may well be possible to take some measures, like mandating only one day a week for watering of lawns.  Such measures are routinely taken during droughts.  But such actions will not result in the kind of conservation necessary to make desalination nonviable in many areas.

And no amount of conservation will ever be able to completely solve the problem of limited water in certain areas.  It will never end the problems associated with the impacts of drawing water from limited supplies such as aquifers that are slow to recharge.

So why is it actually hated?  

Here are the best reasons I can think of

  1. It uses energy, and any energy use is always bad and should be discouraged.  It does not matter whether the energy comes from a clean source or whether using it solves some much larger problem.  It is, almost as a matter of religion, always a bad thing to use energy.  This may relate to other reasons.  Energy usage is enabling and limiting energy use limits everything.
  2. It is a technical fix to a problem, and technology is seen as a bad thing.  It might be considered “meddling with nature” or being overly brash or something like that.
  3. Desalination has the potential to solve a major problem.  Not remedy the problem, manage the problem or lessen the problem, but actually solve it, and that’s a bad thing to environmentalists.  Environmentalism seems to be based on the idea of having to continuously worry about water resources and fight for water resources and protection of the aquatic environment.  If you can just end all these problems, they have much less to complain about.
  4. It goes against the ideal that humans should “live with” nature and not change nature.  In other words, the environment should dictate how you live and it is sinful to think otherwise.  If you live some place arid, you should accept that mother earth has dictated that you get by with very little water and you must change your life accordingly.  To go against this is wrong.
  5. Environmentalists will get themselves bothered about building damn near anything that’s big, industrial and isn’t a wind turbine.  If you whether it’s a desalination plant or a something else, they will find an excuse to hate it, because that’s just what they do.
  6. Research and development of desalination along with advocacy for desalination often is motivated by the desire to improve quality of life, and desalination is often suggested to improve some of the poorest areas of the world.  It has very clear humanist overtones, and environmentalism is the antithesis of humanism.
  7. Environmentalists love scarcity.  Anything that forces sacrifices, forces conservation or limits humans is considered good, because it makes people consume less and makes them think more about the environment is considered good.  Desalination is clearly an anti-scarcity technology.  It seeks to produce an otherwise scarce resource and, ideally, provide limitless supplies.  Limitless supplies of anything is a nightmare for environmentalists.
  8. It takes something from nature (saltwater) and turns it into something else (freshwater) for human usage.  Hence, it is modifying a natural material artificially and that is considered bad.

The actual reason varies from group to group and individual to individual.  While the above reasons likely reflect why it is opposed by many individuals, even if they won’t admit it, there is really only one reason a big group like Greenpeace would oppose it: money.  Every time they get an excuse to make a stink about something, it means media attention.  And that, in the end, translates to money.

Opposing desalination seems to be completely in line with what the environmental movement has become.  Not only does opposing it mean there is another thing to complain over, but, as a technology, it goes against the philosophical route of the movement.  Desalination is a technical solution to scarcity.  It is the use of industry and science to bring about a world where something is more plentiful and the need to worry about where it will come from is reduced.   This seems to run against the grain of the ideology that consumption is bad and extreme measures of conservation area good.

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 12th, 2014 at 4:25 pm and is filed under Agriculture, Bad Science, Enviornment, Good Science, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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58 Responses to “Why do enviornmental groups hate desalination?”

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  1. 51
    DV82XL Says:

    As far as selling water from the Great Lakes is concerned, I would think the major issue would be getting tankers of a size large enough to make this an economic proposition through the Seaway. At any rate as even the other options cannot be made to pay enough to make bulk shipping of water worth it the question is moot.

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  2. 52
    HenryB Says:

    If the arabs have tankers big enough to ship and sell us oil and gasoline, why can’t we build ships to do the same with water? Water is worth what the arabs wil pay. If the arabs get thirsty enough, they will pay.

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  3. 53
    DV82XL Says:

            HenryB said:

    If the arabs have tankers big enough to ship and sell us oil and gasoline, why can’t we build ships to do the same with water? Water is worth what the arabs will pay. If the arabs get thirsty enough, they will pay.

    Not enough apparently to make building terminals for this trade a sound investment. One would think bulk shipments of water from Alaska to California would pay as well, but this is just not the case as yet.

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  4. 54
    George Carty Says:

            HenryB said:

    If the arabs have tankers big enough to ship and sell us oil and gasoline, why can’t we build ships to do the same with water? Water is worth what the arabs wil pay. If the arabs get thirsty enough, they will pay.

    The problem with that is that demand for water (by volume) is orders of magnitude larger than demand for oil.

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  5. 55
    HenryB Says:

    George Carty says: “The problem with that is that demand for water (by volume) is orders of magnitude larger than demand for oil.”

    Yes! Exactly! So let the arabs wash their clothes, flush their toilets, and water their lawns with desalinated ocean water. But lets sell them fresh clean water from the great lakes for drinking and cooking.

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  6. 56
    Jim Baerg Says:

    BTW if transporting water did turn out to be cheaper than desalination, the Great Lakes wouldn’t be the place to take fresh water from. Instead the mouth of a river that flows from some sparsely populated area like Labrador or the Amazon basin would make more sense.

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  7. 57
    drbuzz0 Says:

            HenryB said:

    George Carty says: “The problem with that is that demand for water (by volume) is orders of magnitude larger than demand for oil.”

    Yes! Exactly! So let the arabs wash their clothes, flush their toilets, and water their lawns with desalinated ocean water. But lets sell them fresh clean water from the great lakes for drinking and cooking.

    It’s both an issue of the volume necessary and the cost of shipping it. Shipping oil in supertankers costs money. However, a barrel of oil, which is 42 imperial gallons, costs a good 75-100 USD, depending on the market. That makes it more than worth the cost of shipping it.

    But water? Even in arid regions, you could not sell water at anywhere near that.

    That said, your idea of selling the Arabs drinking water is already in practice. Except we don’t ship it in tankers, but in plastic bottles. And it gets sold for absurd prices. But then again, we sell it to our own countrymen at absurd prices too.

    Much of the bottled water sold around the world is bottled in the US or Europe.

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  8. 58
    DV82XL Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    That said, your idea of selling the Arabs drinking water is already in practice. Except we don’t ship it in tankers, but in plastic bottles. And it gets sold for absurd prices. But then again, we sell it to our own countrymen at absurd prices too.

    Of course. As the old saying goes, ” Why sell it wholesale when you can make a killing selling retail”

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