Last week, California announced the opening of the largest desalinization plant in the western hemisphere. Located in San Diego, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant will be able to extract salt from ocean water in order to provide 50 million gallons of safe drinking water to the surrounding county each day. The plant was constructed as a solution to the current and recurring drought conditions affecting many southern California residents.
While it addresses a very real water-shortage issue in Southern California, this plant is not without it’s drawbacks. Desalinization is perhaps the least energy-efficient method for providing drinking water to communities. To address these concerns, the company responsible for the plant’s construction has agreed to pay for carbon offsets and claims that approximately a third of the plant uses renewable energy. Still, since the energy currently used to transport drinking water to San Diego County won’t likely be reduced (it’s thought that water will just be diverted elsewhere), it seems as if this plant results in a large net increase in carbon emissions.
The plant also releases extracted salts into the ocean in the form of a highly saline brine solution. This solution can be harmful to nearby corals, which are already suffering fatalities from increased sea surface temperatures and ocean acidity. Finally, the plant poses a deadly threat to mobile marine life in the area. According to Jonas Minton, the Water Policy Advisor for the Planning and Conservation League, the system’s intake has a 100% mortality rate for anything that gets pulled in.
With all of these concerns, it would seem that desalinization is not a viable long-term solution to San Diego county’s drought problem. However, I don’t think it is meant to be. This plant symbolizes the reality we’re facing regarding climate change; we no longer have the luxury of investing solely in big picture solutions. If we wanted to have that, we should have began addressing climate change decades ago. Plants like this one are one of the many short-term solutions we’ll have to incorporate into our global economy just to tread water. This certainly does not prevent us from investing in long-term solutions (like reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, cutting down on our consumption of single use plastics, and lowering our domestic energy usage) whenever possible. However, the reality is that in some situations the long-term and short-term solutions may be mutually exclusive. How we decide between the two will dictate the legacy of our generation.
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