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Q&A: Desalination remains costly

Desalination remains costly

Millions of people around the world do not have access to fresh drinking water. At the same time, the ocean levels are rising due to the melting of the ice caps. How advanced is the desalination process, how much is it being used and how likely is it to be the answer to the world's freshwater shortage?

Desalination alone cannot be the answer to the world's freshwater shortages. While the technology has advanced, desalination remains a costly process — not only to build the plant, but to produce the energy needed to operate it.

There are more than 1,000 desalination plants in the United States, many in the Sun Belt. The Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Plant produces about 25 million gallons a day of fresh drinking water — about 10 percent of the area's demand — and is the largest such plant in the country.

Desalination plants are also in use around the world, particularly in the Middle East.

Still, questions remain about the environmental impact of brine that must be disposed of once water is desalinated. Seawater desalination plants are generally only an option for coastal communities, since the cost of shipping water far inland could outweigh the benefits. However, some desalination plants operate inland by tapping deep brackish aquifers.

Desalination can only be one component of addressing freshwater shortages, together with water conservation, reuse and stricter controls on development in areas prone to drought.

California, for instance, is pushing conservation as the cheapest alternative, looking to increase its supply of treated wastewater for irrigation and studying desalination, which the state hopes could eventually provide 20 percent of its freshwater.

Newer building codes tougher

With so much hurricane damage incurred along U.S. coastal areas year after year, other than construction costs, are there any reasons why more homes aren't built of stronger materials than traditional wooden frames?

Most hurricane-prone states have updated their hurricane construction codes since 2004.

Florida has long had the strongest building code in the United States. The state approved stringent codes after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, and in 2004, Florida adopted the International Building Code and added provisions for homes in coastal areas to withstand hurricane-force winds.

Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and Mississippi have all adopted the International Building Code in recent years. But much of the hurricane damage along the Gulf Coast from Ivan, Katrina, Rita and Ike was to structures built before states approved the tougher codes.

The bulk of new beachfront construction in the Florida Panhandle uses steel frames and concrete. Also, everything is elevated for storm surge.

Q&A: Desalination remains costly 04/25/10 [Last modified: Sunday, April 25, 2010 4:30am]
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