Desalination Needed Only if Valid State Water Policy is Neglected

David Kyler, Executive Director
Center for a Sustainable Coast
Summer/Fall 2006 Newsletter

This article on desalination was written for the Center's newsletter in the fall of 2006, based on comments made by the Center's executive director to a session of a state legislative study committee on desalination held on Saint Simons Island in August. Anyone who would like to be added to the Center's mailing list to receive our newsletters by mail should send their address to the Center or call the Center staff to provide us with mailing information (phone 912-638-3612).

A Georgia legislative study committee recently met on Saint Simons Island to investigate the feasibility of providing future water supplies from processing ocean water using a modern filtration process that is among the best known methods for desalination.

Formation of the study committee occurred as a result of an initial proposal to create an official ≥authority≤ to use public funds to help develop and implement desalination in Georgia. Rather than simply moving ahead on the assumption that such a proposal would prove practical, our legislators formed a 10-member committee to look into the feasibility of using desalination to supplement natural fresh-water supplies.

No one doubts that water supply and good water quality are needed to meet the needs of our rapidly growing state, but there seems to be general misunderstanding about just how to achieve these goals. To be most responsible in meeting future water needs will take sustained political support vital to developing and implementing a state water plan, now being prepared by the Department of Natural Resources.

Interim water management and permitting plans for areas in Georgia having more immediate water management problems have been developed for the Atlanta metropolitan area, the Flint River area, and the coast. If the requirements set forth in these plans by DNR's Environmental Protection Division are any indication, it seems likely that the state plan, expected by 2008, will put priority on protecting and making more efficient use of water supplies that are already available.

Both the EPD draft plan and supporting comments from the conservation-minded Georgia Water Coalition suggest that efficiency improvements could yield enormous benefits, greatly extending the population and economic activity that could be supported by existing supplies.

Among recommended improvements are:
  • Wastewater recovery, distributing partially treated water for non-drinking uses such as irrigation and industrial cooling.
  • Restructuring water-use rates to reward higher efficiency and to make wasting water more costly.
  • Repair leaks and replace inefficient equipment.
  • Install accurate meters for measuring all water uses.
  • Adopt controls on outdoor uses (lawn & garden watering, golf-course irrigation, etc.).
  • When appropriate, replace septic systems with sewage treatment plants, improving water quality & recovery. Based on the success of water management efforts such as these being done in other states, it is likely that Georgia can save at least 20% of what is now being used, and probably 30% or more. Savings on this scale would be equivalent to ten or fifteen years of growth at current per-capita rates of water use. But with better water-using efficiencies, each new Georgian would require less water than in the past.

All told, the Center for a Sustainable Coast estimates that water management improvements such as those listed would support Georgia's growth without any new sources of water supply for several decades.

But unless other state policies are linked to water management, Georgia will be working against itself and would likely fall far short of that impressive potential.

Take energy policy, for example. Currently proposed Georgia energy policy supports development and use of conventional fossil fuel (oil, natural gas, coal) and nuclear-powered plants for generating electricity. Many power plants are among the most wasteful of all water users, while alternatives like wind and solar power are weakly supported. Therefore, state energy policy now being advanced squanders water that, simultaneously, is being carefully managed to reduce waste and improve efficiency under EPD's water resources plan. (See p. 6)

The Center's executive director, David Kyler made these points as an invited speaker in a presentation to the study committee on August 23. After explaining these troubling contradictions, Kyler concluded by telling legislators serving on the committee that Georgia does not have a water supply problem, but rather a profound water management challenge.
    "Desalination is a solution to a problem we don't have and can prevent for many years. With proper steps in water management, supported by adequate public funding, Georgia will not suffer water supply shortages for decades." - David Kyler, Center for a Sustainable Coast

In a follow-up memo to the committee, Kyler warned that he was apprehensive that providing the promise of water supply alternatives such as desalination would distract state leaders from the more practical and environmentally responsible tasks of water management and implementing progressive energy policy.

State Senator Jeff Chapman, who serves on the committee, seemed to agree. He told Kyler that Georgia's water situation was very similar to the energy crisis of the 1970s, when America could have made major advancements in fuel efficiency but lost interest when fuel prices fell as available supplies grew. Unfortunately, we now find ourselves reaching similar conclusions thirty years later, having squandered our first opportunity to become energy independent through alternative technologies that would have saved resources.

To responsibly sustain Georgia's growth, it is essential that elected officials become more sensible in their approach by adopting policies that consistently support our quality of life. Analysis of the feasibility of new proposals for development and technology must be based on long-term public interest, not driven by political expedience and short-term payoffs.
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