CoLab Award

The certificate below was given to Saïd Majdi and Thomas Manaugh for their award-winning proposal in a contest sponsored by MIT. The proposal — dealing with adaptation to climate change — can be viewed at the page titled Stop Groundwater Plan — Save $8 Billion The proposal involves using a concentrating solar power plant to power desalination of seawater from the Pacific Ocean. Desalinated water will help solve the water scarcity problem in southern Nevada if California will agree to swap some of its allotment of Colorado River water in exchange for desalinated water that is paid for by Nevada.

 

award

 

A brief version of the winning proposal is shown below.

 

Desalination Plan to Solve Water Scarcity in Southern Nevada

By Saïd Majdi and Thomas Manaugh

 

Because of anticipated population growth and unrelenting drought, southern Nevada faces a problem of severe water scarcity. Unfortunately, as a solution, southern Nevada has adopted a narrowly conceived, costly, and destructive Groundwater Plan. That plan involves first pumping and then transporting groundwater through a 263 mile-long pipeline originating in eastern Nevada. If completed, the Groundwater Plan would:

  • Be the biggest groundwater pumping project ever built in the United States.
  • Pump and transport up to 176,655 acre-feet of groundwater a year to southern Nevada from five valleys in eastern Nevada.
  • Require construction of more than 4,000 acres of power lines, well pads and access roads.

The Groundwater Plan is currently on hold because of a lawsuit filed by a number of concerned civic and environmental groups. Among the concerns expressed are:

  1. Very high cost to rate-payers and taxpayers.
  2. Violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
  3. Devastating hydrological, biological, agricultural, and socioeconomic impacts.
  4. Indirect harm to 130,000 acres of wildlife habitat.
  5. Eventual exhaustion of groundwater resources.
  6. Large amounts of greenhouse gases emissions from pumping and transporting groundwater.

 

Replacing the Groundwater Plan with a Desalination Plan

Instead of using a go-it-alone, Nevada-only approach as is the case with the Groundwater Plan, a Desalination Plan will benefit from a systems approach. Southern Nevada will benefit by making use of significant resources in the present system whereby southern Nevada already gets 90% of its water from nearby Lake Mead. The Bureau of Reclamation directs withdrawals of water that go to southern Nevada and to southern California.

The Groundwater Plan could be replaced by the Desalination Plan if California would accept a water exchange.  Specifically, we propose California should accept locally produced desalinated water in exchange for foregoing some of its allotment of water from the Colorado River system.  That water from California’s allotment would be directed to southern Nevada. We also propose desalination in California should be powered by a concentrated solar power plant (CSP).

Cost for the alternative Desalination Plan, including construction of a concentrated solar power plant, is estimated to be less than half of the cost for the Groundwater Plan.

It makes basic sense for Californians accept desalinated water from a plant on its Pacific Ocean coast in exchange for Colorado River water that must be transported hundreds of miles from a location on the border between Arizona and California. Additional factors in favor of agreeing to an exchange include the following:

  1. Desalination is already being implemented successfully in California as well as thousands of locations around the world.
  2. Pairing construction of a new desalination plant(s) with a new CSP plant would be an environmentally responsible way to augment the system of water allotment from the Colorado River.
  3. California will benefit economically from the construction and operation of the proposed desalination and CSP plants.

For California to forego a portion of its allotment of Colorado River water in exchange for supplies of local desalinated water, it will be important for several stakeholder groups in California to understand that the Desalination Plan will provide a more reliable source of water to Los Angeles than it would otherwise have in an era of unrelenting drought. Those stakeholder groups include:

  1. Public citizens who are consumers of water, rate-payers, and taxpayers. They have strong interests in seeing that water supplies are clean, reliable, and affordable.
  2. Municipal water officials who will need to be assured supplies of desalinated water will enter their local water system so as not to disrupt ongoing service.
  3. Agricultural business interests who will need to understand that delivery of some desalinated water to municipal Los Angeles will not disrupt their ongoing access to Colorado River water.
  4. Industrial water users will need to understand that their access to water supplies will not be made less reliable or more costly.

 

Participation in a Bureau of Reclamation Pilot Project

The Bureau of Reclamation has recently announced that $11 million has been secured to carry out a number of pilot projects to identify ways that water can be conserved in the Colorado River system. A step to facilitate acceptance of the Desalination Plan concept could be taken by means of a relatively small-scale pilot project. The pilot project would provide some desalinated water from the ocean to California in lieu of and equal volume of water that California would not withdraw as part of its allotment from the Colorado River system.  The part of California’s allotment not withdrawn would conserve water in the system.

Costs for the pilot projects will be paid from funds contributed by California, Nevada, Arizona, and the Bureau of Reclamation. All those states would benefit from a pilot conservation project that would help maintain higher water levels in Lake Mead. Maintaining higher levels reduces risk that low water levels would trigger a process to assign lower allotments of water to the states.

Special incentives for California to participate in a pilot project would include (a) greater security of  water supply because of greater diversity of water sources; (b) reduction in waste of water transported from the Colorado River system due to evaporation, leakage, and seepage; (c) reduction in energy needed to transport water from the Colorado River system to southern California; and (d) reduction in greenhouse gas emission from burning fossil fuels to power transport and treatment of water from the Colorado River system.

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