By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Perth may hold key to California’s water woes

by in Environment.

City of Perth skyline. AFP/Getty Images

City of Perth skyline. AFP/Getty Images

by Erin Wright

California’s water woes have precipitated much debate on how much blame should be assigned to three major factors: water-parched crops, overpopulation and climate change.

But while observers tend to agree on the probable causes, their proposals for immediate relief all seem self-centered and likely to do little to reverse the generation-crippling effects of one of the United States’ worst droughts in more than a century.

Farmers are switching to crops that don’t require as much water, but experts feel the impact on the state’s dwindling water table will be negligible, at best. Even a “super El Niño,” they say, would amount to the proverbial drop in the bucket in this uphill struggle.

Of course, there is a rather big water source that seems so tantalizingly available along California’s 840-mile-long coast. And some cities already have desalination plants connected to the Pacific Ocean, albeit idle ones, their permits having long ago been allowed to expire.

Officials in Santa Barbara have discussed the possibility of dusting off the works and taking them for a spin. Why has this not been implement before now? The cost, they say, in real money and potential environmental damage.

And while Israel is pretty much considered the world’s desalination leader, as noted by Bloomberg News, having “managed [for six decades] to provide water to a region that is 60 percent desert,” some Californians are instead looking to a Pacific Ocean neighbor – Perth — for guidance.

The bone-dry capital of Western Australia has faced down many of the same water issues by enacting reforms to its water-management system that some California politicians seem to find intriguing: the introduction of graywater systems reusing water from showers and washing machines to irrigate gardens, banning lawn sprinklers, a program to purchase water for the environment — in lieu of curbing farmers’ water rights — paired with a $4.5 billion investment in water-saving infrastructure.

But perhaps most impressive is Perth’s approach and commitment to providing by tapping into the vast saltwater source nearby. Officials unveiled the $1.4 billion Kwinana Desalination Plant just south of the city in 2006, and it has since become a model of efficiency in the industry, Al Jazeera reports.

Water from the Indian Ocean undergoes a five-step filtration process through technology so innovative that the plant was named the world’s best in 2012. Its carbon emissions are offset by nearby solar and wind farms, and Kwinana is now responsible for 45 percent of Perth’s total drinking water.

Not bad for a place that once feared it might become the world’s first ghost city from a lack of water. Attitudes in that regard have markedly changed. In 2013, when the plant launched its second phase, doubling its capacity, Premier Colin Barnett declared Perth virtually “drought-proof” (though that appears a bit of an overstatement since Perth, like much of Western Australia, still caps its water usage, with offenders nowadays often publicly shamed by their neighbors via social media).

In California, meanwhile, naysayers argue that, in the long run, desalination is not a sustainable option. But that isn’t stopping Santa Barbara’s $55 million effort or that of its bigger neighbor to the south, San Diego, whose controversial billion-dollar desalination plant is ready for its own close-up. Both would do well to strive to emulate the success Perth has enjoyed.

Other California municipalities are certain to follow suit — especially as the industry’s eyes turn to the promising possibility of solar desalination, which would eliminate the enormous amount of fossil fuels required for the traditional process, making the endeavor much more environmentally friendly.

And the blogsite reports that Australia’s newest desalination effort, dubbed “the Bubble Greenhouse,” utilizes “an existing seawater greenhouse concept [that] uses the evaporation and condensation of salt water to produce fresh water for irrigation.”

This last approach is low tech and low maintenance and a far cry from the cutting-edge sophistication embodied by the Kwinana plant, but as California dries out, its officials may well grasp at any straw drifting by in the ocean.