As reality plays out, I continue to read how the drought in the American West is causing levels in Lake’s Mead and Powell to plummet. I also continue to see no action or accountability to take bold action to resolve the issue as uncontrolled development continues in the greater Phoenix and Las Vegas areas.

R.B. Provencher

R.B. Provencher

During this pre-summer season, the level in Lake Mead is decreasing at a faster rate than the past 2 years. What’s worse, the level in Lake Powell never went up in early May which usually happens when snow melts. Nothing is being done other than blaming it on an extended drought, and continuing to believe that a little conservation will resolve the issue. Nothing is being done to implement a bold plan to resolve the issue. The Hoover Hydroplant is within 25 feet of shutting down which is when water levels get so low it can’t turn the turbines. The impacts of this are unthinkable for Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California.

As stated in prior articles, limited action has been taken to provide freshwater in Southern California. There are 17 desalination plants operating in California and the one in Carlsbad — the Claude Bud Lewis Desalination Plant — is the largest in the U.S. It can produce 50 million gallons of freshwater per day with plans to increase to about 300 million gallons per day. It cost about $1 Billion to construct and provides 7% of the freshwater to San Diego County. The facility takes in 100 million gallons of saltwater per day from the Pacific Ocean. Cost to the user is about 0.5 cents per gallon. The facility is powered by the adjacent Encina Natural Gas Power Station, consumes about 38 Megawatts of power per year at a price of about $60 Million per year. Total operating costs are $108M/year so it can be seen that power costs are one of the largest expenses.

I present this as a case study since it is a great example of taking action to resolve issues related to diminishing freshwater supply. One of its biggest negatives is that the wastewater brine is diluted and discharged back into the Pacific. Looking forward, this could be resolved with some of the cutting-edge technology being researched at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to significantly reduce the amount of wastewater produced. The second negative is that its power is supplied by a natural gas plant which continues to discharge carbon into the atmosphere. Although natural gas is better than coal or oil, it is not zero emissions. INL is also heavy into researching new nuclear reactor designs that can provide the kind of power needed to supply facilities like this at zero emissions. These new nuclear plants can also be integrated with renewables better than traditional plants for optimal use of available clean energy resources.

Nuscale Power and UAMPS, a Utah utility company, are planning to build a small modular nuclear reactor facility at INL and demonstrate its capabilities. This facility would have 12 modules capable of generating 77 Megawatts electric (Mwe) for a total of 924 MWe. This kind of power output could supply up to 23 desalination plants of similar capacity as the Carlsbad facility which would produce over a billion gallons of freshwater per day. Installation of multiple nuclear generating plants and desalination facilities like this in the American Southwest would be a bold action that could be taken to survive the continued drought conditions and counter the unbridled development that will likely continue.

The question is if it’s affordable and what is the value of water? Across the country, Americans spend about $100 billion annually on gambling, and about $20 billion annually on marijuana. Not to mention liquor, wine, and beer sales at about $80 Billion/year. The federal government spends about $108 billion of our tax dollars per year on physical science research and about $47 Billion on the national debt (pre-pandemic). What are the impacts on lives, livelihood and health when there is no freshwater, and are we willing to make the hard decisions to invest in new solutions. The time is now, what are we waiting for?

R.B. Provencher is a former manager for the U.S. Department of Energy and retired in Idaho Falls.

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