The future of water availability and desalination in Florida

03/23/10 Seán Kinane
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Yesterday was World Water Day. We brought you the first half of an interview with Sandra Postel, an international water expert and the National Geographic Freshwater Fellow in 2010.

Today, in part two, Postel speaks about how Florida is affected by water issues.

The April 2010 special issue of National Geographic is called “Water: Our Thirsty World.”

Well, it’s interesting. The whole Southeast, you know, we’ve been accustomed to thinking of it as a pretty water-wealthy part of the country. But it is, you know, been having serious problems of water supply, as you know, there in Florida the last few years, with serious droughts happening in 2007, 2008, 2009, in some parts of the Southeast. And of course competition for water, as you just brought up the competition issue. Serious competition for water, between Georgia, Alabama and Florida around the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. And Florida is last in line for that water.

So, again, reaching an agreement that meets the needs of the entire basin, and supplies water not only to the residents of Florida, but to Apalachicola Bay, where there is an important fishery that depends on that freshwater flow coming down through those other states, out through Florida, and supporting the fisheries in the coastal areas of Apalachicola Bay. So that’s a really important issue for Florida to pay attention to.

And of course, conservation is the key thing. You know, there’s just not a lot of new water to tap. And so conserving water in and around the home, reducing use of water inside the home as well as outside the home. A lot of water going to irrigate lawns and golf courses; that can be used more efficiently, and reduced. So there’s an awful lot that can be done to make the situation better.

  1. And finally, the Tampa Bay area has one of the largest desalination plants in the country. What do you see as the future for desal?

Well, you know, desalination has been a growth industry, for sure, in the last decade. It’s a very expensive technology, you know; it takes a lot of energy to remove salt from water. The Tampa Bay plant, as well as the other plants that have been built in this country, rely on reverse osmosis, where you push water, salt water, through a membrane, to get the fresh water out and leave the salt behind. It takes a lot of energy to do that. So desalination is an expensive technology. The one there in Tampa is a bit less expensive than the average, because you’ve got a way to get heat from a nearby plant to help run it. But in general, it’s an expensive technology. And typically, conservation measures and efficiency improvement are much cheaper—both economically and environmentally—as an alternative to that desalination option.

So I think looking more seriously at conservation and efficiency first makes a lot of sense. Because typically, we’re desalinating water with fossil fuels, that are contributing to the warming that’s leading to more droughts, and so on. So in a sense, we’re solving one problem by increasing another one. And that’s not necessarily the best solution. So again, I think conservation and efficiency measures are the place to look first.

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