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Federal government spending $100 million to study desalination

The Trump administration is hoping to reinvigorate a technology long dismissed as too expensive or energy-intensive to help solve a water crisis that has seen drought grip swaths of the American West, sparking deadly wildfires and legal battles over supply.

The Energy Department last month declared that it's spending $100 million over the next five years to create a research and development hub on desalination, a process that converts seawater and brackish inland water into freshwater.

Announced roughly five years after Congress appropriated the funds under the Obama administration, the planned hub comes as once-periodic water shortages have become perennial, if not ever-present, in American communities, forcing policymakers to rethink how residents get freshwater – and reconsider technologies they'd once shelved.

The investment is widely seen in the research field as a moonshot effort, the best attempt yet to jump-start the kind of advancements that would make the elusive process energy-efficient and cost-effective and make a resource out of vast unusable deposits like the saltwater that covers two-thirds of the earth's surface.

"The significance can't be understated. Something like this has been a long time coming," says Jonathan Brant, associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Wyoming.

"We're faced with a real water crisis, and the main solution to that is going to be able to tap – in an environmentally sustainable and economically sustainable way – saline water sources."

Desalination is costly and enormously energy intensive: Israel and Australia – two of the driest nations on Earth – are by far the world leaders in desalination, largely by necessity. While Israel draws more than half of its water from desalination plants – and more than 85 percent of its municipal water overall is reused – desalination plants in the U.S. provide less than 0.002 percent of the water consum