We are a thirsty nation. We consume nearly 1,500 gallons of water each day, with three-quarters of it going to supply industry and to create energy, as well as for food and fiber to feed the masses. The rest goes to homes and businesses.
These practices are unsustainable in the long term, but in water-short California they’re already coming to a head. After several years of drought with little relief, the state and its electricity providers want to make sure there is enough water to keep industry humming, and to serve the agricultural industry. Possible?
Well, it has to be. But the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is working on a solution that tries to understand the balance between energy and water. With the twin challenges of population growth and climate change adding to the resource pressures, Berkeley Lab’s Water Resilience Initiative aims to use science and technology to optimize coupled water-energy systems and guide investments in such systems.
The goal here is to multifold — to store water that is delivered by snowmelt or extreme participation as well as desalinate water to use it to generate more water.
Groundwater issues have become more important with the drought of the last four years. “California has been ‘over-drafting’ water for a long time, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, where we’re pulling more water out than is naturally infiltrating back in,” said Peter Nico, head of Berkeley Lab’s Geochemistry Department. “With the drought the use of groundwater has gone up even more. That’s causing a lot of problems, like land subsidence.
“We still can’t confidently store and retrieve clean water in the subsurface when and where we need it,” he added. “We think there’s a place to contribute a more scientific chemistry- and physics-based understanding to efficient groundwater storage in California.”
The lab, for example, is working on geophysical imaging. That allows scientists to see underground without drilling a well. What that will allow them to do is to see where water will go and how its chemistry changes through storage and retrieval.
Meanwhile, the lab is also working on desalination. It is a logical place to look, given the state’s access to the Pacific Ocean. But in the past, that has proven to be an expensive and highly-polluting option.
Advocates of the method tout its obvious ability to create usable water out of seawater and to avoid diverting fresh water supplies from rivers and streams. Opponents of it, however, note that the conversion process uses great amounts of fossil fuels and that it harms marine life through its vast duct system whereby it pipes water into the desalination facilities. Those plants then dispense other toxins back into the ocean.
To some, climate change is the reason for the drought conditions. For others, the two are mutually exclusive. Either way, California needs to resolve this issue.
At risk, according to the California Farm Water Coalition: $2.8 billion in lost jobs and income, all forgone by the drought. Agriculture takes the biggest hit, it adds, noting that it makes up 6 percent of the state’s economic activity. But the state’s energy production is also profoundly affected. According to the California Energy Commission, California has 400 hydro plants that can generate about 14,000 megawatts. That’s 14.5 percent of the total generated in the state.
Conservation and energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit. The reach, though, is with the type of research that the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is doing. The sooner the break though, the sooner the relief, hopefully.