California is currently experiencing its worst drought in 500 years. Although it’s always been an arid state, there’s reason to believe that California’s current crisis is being made worse by climate change. After announcing that it will not give water to farmers, the state has turned its discussion to the ocean. With more than two-thirds of California still under extreme drought conditions, the state has invested $1 billion in a massive desalination plant that will turn ocean brine into potable water. When finished in early 2016, the plant is expected to provide up to 50 million gallons of fresh drinkable water–enough for 112,000 Californian households–every day.
In its quest to find a way to keep an entire state–including a large agricultural industry–well hydrated, California has taken a page from Israel’s playbook. As a country that is more desert than not, Israel has pioneered water conservation and generation technologies for six decades. In that country, desalination now provides about one-quarter of the country’s water supply, and Israeli engineers are now sharing their knowledge and experience with California.
Israel’s IDE Technologies Ltd. is helping to build the massive new desalination plant, which will use reverse osmosis to make normally deadly ocean water potable for humans and animals. The process works by “taking water from the Pacific Ocean, removing the silt, sand and ‘organics,’ then pressurizing the water through very fine membranes,” says Peter MacLaggan, a developer with Poseidon Resources, which is working on the plant.
The best part, says MacLaggan, is that desalination is “droughtproof,” meaning that it doesn’t depend on melting snowpack or rainfall–both of which are increasingly lacking as the planet warms. Although that term may comfort Californians, those working on the project are quick to point out that desalination isn’t a silver bullet. It’s extremely expensive, consumes a lot of energy, and can treat a limited amount of water at a time. Regardless of the plant’s success, officials say water recycling and conservation efforts are still sorely needed.