Guest essay by Eric Worrall-Back in the early 2000s, much of Australia was in the grip of a severe drought – so severe, that the climate community was making well publicised claims that the drought would never end. As a result of these scaremongering predictions, from people who claimed to have predictive skill, and the devastating prospect of millions of voters going thirsty, Australia’s state and federal governments panicked, and commissioned the urgent construction of a series of desalination plants.
Here is the story of what happened to those plants.
The Gold Coast desalination plant: $1.2 billion / unknown
The Perth desalination plant: $387 million / 180GWh / year
The Sydney desalination plant: $1.8 billion / 257 GWh / year
The Victorian desalination plant: $5.7 billion / unknown
The Southern seawater plant: $955 million / unknown
The Adelaide desalination plant: $1.8 billion / unknown
Naturally, like any government programme, especially *hasty* government programmes, the result has been a public financial disaster. The Gold Coast plant was mothballed a year after construction, and has never worked properly – the initial opening was delayed because fittings rusted up, before the plant was even switched on. The Perth plant is still operating, though in 2008 it was shut down twice because it was causing ocean die off – deoxygenation of Cockburn Sound. The Sydney plant has been criticised over water quality concerns, regarding the proximity of the seawater inlet to the desalination plant to the nearby sewage ocean outfall. Although it is still operating at low capacity, economists have described the project as a billion dollar bungle.
The Victorian plant, the most expensive at $5.7 billion, has been an unmitigated disaster – it finally went fully operational in 2012, and was immediately shut down, because it wasn’t needed. Due to the deal struck with the private operator of the plant, Victorian residential water bills have risen by 64%.
The Southern Seawater plant according to Wikipedia is operational – details on it appear to be a bit sparse, which who knows, might be good news.
The Adelaide desalination plant – OK, maybe that one was a good idea. There is an old saying in Australia, that there are 2 places in the world that ships won’t take on water, Adelaide and Azerbaijan. Before the desalination plant, Adelaide’s only source of potable water was 1500 miles of farm irrigation runoff extracted from the Murray River (I accidentally tried to drink a glass of Adelaide water once – horrible).
So what should California do, if the current drought turns into a megadrought? Frankly I would consider building a pipeline, and importing the water. I doubt you would get enough water to keep current farming practices going, but that applies to desalination as well, at least with current technology. At least pipes are well known technology, they work, and they are already used on a large scale to shift petroleum. Shifting a bit of water should surely be a lot cheaper than trying to desalinate it.
If the pipeline isn’t enough, then you could look at dusting off the old plans for using icebergs as a source of fresh water – we’ve got plenty of Antarctic sea ice to spare. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/science-warms-to-iceberg-harvesting-idea/story-e6frg6so-1226110420439
If you really want to avoid seeing your water bills go up by 64%, while the dams fill with rain, as the poor Victorians in Australia did, or see the plant fittings go rusty before it is even switched on, as the Queenslanders did, at least make sure there is some proper oversight and accountability. And try to avoid building the seawater inlet pipe next to a sewage outlet, as they did in Sydney.