Environment

Desalination plant would go deep to protect marine life

Map of proposed Deep Water Desal desalination plant
Map of proposed Deep Water Desal desalination plant
View 4 Images
Map of proposed Deep Water Desal desalination plant
1/4
Map of proposed Deep Water Desal desalination plant
Topography of Monterey Canyon, the deepest submarine canyon on the west coast of North America
2/4
Topography of Monterey Canyon, the deepest submarine canyon on the west coast of North America
Intake valves with 1 mm openings in fish screens
3/4
Intake valves with 1 mm openings in fish screens
Map of Monterey Canyon off of California's central coast
4/4
Map of Monterey Canyon off of California's central coast

A desalination project proposed for California's central coast would draw water from one of the world's deepest submarine canyons, making it potentially less harmful to ocean life. The Deep Water Desal facility would require substantially less energy to operate than typical desalination plants, use renewable energy sources, and provide cooling for a data center that would be built in tandem. It's projected to produce 25,000 acre-feet (30 million cubic meters) of freshwater per year, serving 50,000 homes.

The Monterey Bay region suffers from long-term water issues, such as overuse of groundwater, lack of storage reservoirs and diminishing surface water. There's also no access to the State Water Project, which provides imported water to much of the state.

Monterey Canyon is the deepest submarine canyon on North America's west coast at more than 10,000 ft (3 km) deep, twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. Within just 2 miles (3. 2km) from shore it plummets to a depth of 1,600 ft (488 m). Deep Water Desal would draw its seawater from an intake pipe at about 1,000 ft (300 m) offshore at 130-ft (40 m) deep, an area with a quarter of the sea life compared to shallows near shore.

Typical desalination projects pull in water close to shore, exacerbating the harmful effects on sea life. At the same time, those murkier shoreline waters require two energy-intensive filtering stages to clean the water before it can be desalinated through reverse osmosis. The deeper water to be drawn by Deep Water Desal is cleaner and would require only one filtering step prior to desalination. Thus, the energy needed to run the facility would be reduced by an estimated 40 percent.

Intake water at the proposed depths is also colder and more dense, which requires more energy to push it through the micropores in filters for reverse osmosis. Since the region is also in need of more data storage and faster internet infrastructure, developers have proposed building a large data storage facility to be cooled by the cold seawater before it's sent to the desalination plant. The seawater would then be warmed, thus requiring less energy to desalinate.

Planners are also hoping to make the project carbon-neutral or carbon-negative. To achieve this, they're working on creating a municipal power authority that would acquire all its electricity from renewable sources, such as wind or solar, and at wholesale prices.

A portion of the facility would be located inside the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), meaning the agency would have final approval over any proposals. To mitigate harm to sea life, such as plankton and fish larvae, the Deep Water Desal would use an open-water intake with 1-mm openings to screen out as many creatures as possible.

To more safely discharge the highly concentrated brine that results from desalination, the NOAA advises to mix it with treated wastewater or power plant cooling water. For now, Deep Water Desal plans to build a diffuser pipeline to disperse the brine 2,000 ft (600 m) offshore.

An environmental impact study is currently being drafted, with construction to possibly begin in 2018. The cost of construction is estimated at around US$300 million, with the final water cost to consumers estimated at less than $2,000 per acre-foot (1,233.5 cu m).

Source: Deep Water Desal

8 comments
GWA111
Being an Hydraulics engineer (water,fluids etc.) and being Ex-Navy, where we used desalination, and having worked for PALL Corporation - I can tell you the environmental damage does not come from where you draw the water, but from where you dump the brine afterwards. The rule of thumb on R/O desalination is 1/3 potable, 2/3 waste - and this is super-concentrate brine. You can't bury it, and if you put it back into the ocean it will kill marine life.
toyhouse
Yay. Another rate increase on top of a rate increase. We did what they asked, reduced water consumption by huge amounts. Then they say they're going to raise our rates by huge amounts because they somehow find themselves in huge debt. And now the Monterey bay de-sal plant, which mostly only makes real-estate developers happy because now they can get back to build-build-build yet again and leaves the locals paying through the nose for water. The rich always have money for endless water though. They can't turn the area into another Los Angles or San Francisco fast enough. And water makes it all happen.
HenryFarkas
GWA111 is correct about the brine. It's the thing that damages the fishery. But with the brine, the solution is dilution. But it's a combination of dilution and of sending the diluted brine way further away from shore than the proposed 2000 feet (600m) offshore. A study needs to be done about where offshore the brine would do less damage. The way to find a safe place to discharge diluted brine is to search miles offshore and some place deep enough so that undersea currents will take the brine away from shore.
AnnaSzatańska
Acre-foot is not 2.4 cubic meters, it's 1,233 cubic meters (20.12 m × 201.17 m × 0.3 m).
Cody Blank
The reason that there is a lack of water in the Monterey area is mostly from the long standing agriculture industry. The boom of tech $ building / moving to the area certainly isn't helping either. Having this plant in the Monterey Bay in my opinion is on the same level if not worse of ecological disaster as Hetch Hetchy was to Yosemite.
Eggster
I've always been curious about thermal desalination - especially in areas where there is an abundance of solar and/or waste heat. Does anybody have a handle on the issues involved?
David Noel
AnnaSzatańska's comment is right. For desalinated water costs, it's easiest to think of the cost per tonne (cubic metre). Best water-supply/desalination costs approach $1.00 per tonne; the article's costing works out at about $1.60 per tonne. (Aside: Go Metric! Only 2 countries in the world are now officially based on imperial measures -- the USA and Liberia. )
Pat O'Leary
Today I learned a new unit of volume - an acre-foot! Giggle! At a flowrate of 1 acre-foot per fortnight, how long would it take to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool (the other US measure of big volume)?
Thanks for reading our articles. Please consider subscribing to New Atlas Plus.
By doing so you will be supporting independent journalism, plus you will get the benefits of a faster, ad-free experience.