Santa Cruz tests water plant

3/21/2008 SANTA CRUZ, CA

The ocean is being viewed as the best bet for two water agencies in Santa Cruz County to avoid a potential water disaster.

"So we really need to find in the City of Santa Cruz, a solution to our water shortage in drought years. Our neighboring district, Soquel Creek, has a salt water intrusion problem, so we're hoping to address both of those problems in a collaborative way," said Mark Rotkin, a Santa Cruz City Council member.

This wrench twisting took the place of a traditional ribbon cutting for a desalination pilot plant. The $4 million dollar facility is located at Long Marine Laboratory. The technology has been tested elsewhere, but not in Santa Cruz.

"They need to test the water they are actually going to be desalinating. They just can't take the results of someone else or the results would not be tailored to their specific needs," said Paul Meyerhofer, the project manager.

The concept is simple, turn saltwater into drinking water. The process is complicated involving a number of treatments, filtration systems and reverse osmosis; in which high pressure pumps force the water through membranes, to squeeze out salt and other minerals.

Even though the water generated from the pilot project is pure enough to drink, it will only be used for testing and research.

There are a number of environmental concerns from how to best dispose of the salty bi-product, to how to reduce the energy use it takes to run a desal plant. No one wants to solve a water crisis by adding to global warming.

"The bottom line is that if we can't find a way to address them, we're going to be in big trouble because I don't know where we'll go next, but we won't be building a plant that is going to destroy the local environment," said Councilmember Rotkin.

The test plant treats up to 50 gallons of seawater a minute. A fully operational site would produce 2 1/2 million gallons of water a day, a reality that's still at least seven years away.

"We won't see a drop of water out of this plant until 2015, so it's going to be a long process with a lot of steps, but it's exciting because it's the first big step down that road," said Bruce Daniels from the Soquel Creek Water District.

The pilot project lasts for one year.

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