Downsides to Desalination

Throwing salt over your shoulder after you spill some, is a ritual that originated in ancient Rome. Back then, salt was a very precious and expensive commodity. To carelessly lose any was considered a bad omen. To rectify this terrible error, you needed to lose some of what you valued most. Times have changed and now we have an overabundance of salt.  Instead of throwing it over our shoulder to make up for misdeeds, we may be looking over our shoulder to make sure were are not caught dumping it.

SaltAs water quality continues to diminish around the world, advocates are promoting desalination as a technological solution. They point to the earth’s abundant water supplies, such as the ocean or brackish aquifers, which desalination can treat to provide another source of drinking water. Yet, these advocates tend to gloss over the environmental impacts of the concentrated salt waste that is produced.

Desalination works by removing salts and minerals from water supplies, generally using sophisticated membrane technology which is very energy intensive and quite costly. This technique not only results in producing freshwater, it also generates a concentrated brine which needs to be disposed of. In some ways, you could say desalination is just another version of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” In the end, you still have the problem of too much salt.

Unfortunately, there is no sound way to handle the concentrated brine waste produced. Currently, many countries with coastal desalination facilities release the brine waste back into the ocean. A practice which marine biologists warn is taking a heavy toll on the ocean’s health.

In a Scientific American online article, Jeffrey Graham of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine, noted that the highly concentrated salt waste from desalination processes “can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems.” He expressed concern that “the disappearance of some organisms from discharge areas may be related to the salty outflow.”

The same article discusses how the seawater intake process can also be detrimental to biodiversity. Desalination plants essentially vacuum up sea water through intake pipes and “inadvertently kill millions of plankton, fish eggs, fish larvae and other microbial organisms that constitute the base layer of the marine food chain.” This reduces the amount of food available for larger ocean creatures.

Some desalination supporters suggest injecting the concentrated brine deep into the ground, where it, presumably, will do no harm. However, Menachem Elimelech, a Professor at the Yale University School of Engineering and Applied Science, doesn’t believe that solution would be sustainable. In a Deutsche Wells online article, Elimelech states “If you have many many desalination plants injecting this salt into the groundwater, it may affect the groundwater 50, 100 or 500 years from now.”

Being a water resources junkie, I couldn’t agree more. Water doesn’t stay in one place and it’s impossible for us to know the exact nature of any formation that the liquid waste is pumped into. Fractures, fissures, and faults might be unseen pathways for this solution to eventually move into and contaminate productive aquifers.  Why take the chance?

Also, consider the intake material from the ocean is not just water and salt but also organic matter, bacteria, and other materials.  All these substances must be treated and removed before the sea water is run through the reverse osmosis membranes. William Phillip from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, points out in the Deutsche Wells article that “In order to keep the membranes from clogging up with particles, the sea water has to be treated with chemicals before it is desalinated. These chemicals are then poured back into the sea.”

As the membranes do their job of removing minerals and salts, they gradually get clogged up, making them less efficient. This is where desalination starts to get expensive. It takes a lot of energy to keep pushing water molecules through the reverse osmosis membranes especially when they are blocked by other elements.

Desalination also produces three times the CO2 emissions of conventional water treatment systems. In a world struggling to come to its senses over climate change, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere may not be the best solution. In a way, it may be like rubbing salt into our collective wounds.

Aquifer Exemptions – the Legal Way to Pollute Groundwater

There is a little known provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA) called an “Aquifer Exemption” that allows oil, gas and mining industries to legally impact groundwater – including some aquifers set aside for drinking water.  While these industries have purported to install wells and perform activities with no leakage and permanent protection, in truth, nothing is ever permanent. Seals and casings can and will fail over time and begin impacting some of the more pristine aquifers the wells may already penetrate. How did this risky loophole get placed into the SDWA?? A quick look at history may be our guide.

In 1974 America was going through an energy crisis. The OPEC oil nations sanctioned an oil embargo which stopped the US in her tracks. People “frequently faced around-the-block lines” at gas stations when filling-up.1 Gas guzzling V-8’s and V-6’s were the standard American-made cars.

During the same time period, the country was suffering from self-inflicted environmental degradation. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, published in 1962, brought the dangers of prolific pesticide use to light and initiated a grass roots movement to save the environment. By the early 1970’s, several legislative Acts focusing on protecting the environment were created. One of these was the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974.

The goal of the SDWA was to “ensure the purity of the water we consume.”2 However in light of the energy crisis, “Congress added language to the Act mandating the EPA not “interfere with or impede” oil and gas production unless it is “absolutely essential” in order to protect underground sources of drinking water.”3

To accommodate the Congressional mandate, the EPA developed a set of regulations for Underground Injection Control (UIC) in 1980. The UIC regulations included provisions for an “Aquifer Exemption” program which “allows water that would otherwise be defined as a source of drinking water to be exempted from the prohibition on injection.”4 Aquifer Exemptions were deemed necessary for the oil and gas industry to continue exploration.5 For every barrel of oil produced, 15 barrels of oil wastewater is generated and the easiest way to dispose of it is by underground injection.6

The original goal of the Aquifer Exemption program was to identify aquifers or portions of aquifers that are exempt from the definition of an Underground Source of Drinking Water (USDW); develop rules for EPA review and approval and describe delineation procedures for exempted aquifers.7 However, what has resulted over the last 36 years is a mish-mash of state Aquifer Exemption programs with limited Federal oversight allowing the oil and gas industry as well as the uranium mining industry to freely pollute drinking water aquifers.

A 2012 ProPublica investigation found “Federal officials have given energy and mining companies’ permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation’s drinking water.”8 Their investigation cited worrisome examples in Wyoming, California, Texas and Denver.

The travesty behind some of these examples is that Aquifer Exemptions are being allowed in areas where underground aquifers are at a premium. For example, some drought-stricken communities in Texas are so desperate for water they are looking to treat brackish water to make it potable and the cities of San Antonio and El Paso are considering building desalinization plants to supply drinking water. At the same time, environmental officials have “have granted more than 50 exemptions for waste disposal and uranium mining” in Texas.9 A similar situation has played out in California. Areas with the greatest need for groundwater are the same ones where underground injections of oil wastewater have been allowed.10

The misuse of the Aquifer Exemption program has been repeatedly brought to light in recent years.  The issue became so controversial that the General Accounting Office (GAO) was tasked to do a report for Congress. The GAO report found 1) EPA “safeguards do not address emerging underground injection risks, such as seismic activity and overly high pressure in geologic formations leading to surface outbreaks of fluids” and therefore may not “fully protect underground drinking water”11; 2) “EPA is not consistently conducting two key oversight and enforcement activities”12; 3) “EPA does not consistently conduct annual on-site state program evaluations”; 4) the data EPA collects is “not reliable”, meaning complete or comparable on a national basis13 and probably most frightening  5) the EPA has not incorporated state requirements and changes into federal regulations and “may not be able to enforce all state program requirements”14 In other words the EPA would have a hard time preventing individual states from doing what they are currently doing.

Even more telling are the sheer numbers of class II underground injection wells in some states. As of 2012, Texas had 52,977 class II wells, California had 49,783, Kansas had 16,965, Oklahoma had 11,134 and there are thousands in many other states. While only a small number of these wells have Aquifer Exemptions, the primary concern for any injection well over the long term is leakage and cross contamination of aquifers. In spite of what well-drillers might say, no well cap, casing or seal is permanent. Time always gets its way and when it does, we better be ready.



  1. Myre, Greg. “Gas Lines Evoke Memories of Oil Crises In The 1970s”, NPR 10 November 2012, Web. 13 December 2016.
  2. Agee, James L. “Protecting America’s Drinking Water: Our Responsibilities Under the Safe Drinking Water Act”, EPA Journal, March 1975, EPA Archives. Web. 12 December 2016.
  3. Thorp, Lynn W. and Noël, John. “Aquifer Exemptions: Program Overview and Emerging Concerns”, Journal American Water Works Association, 107:9, September 2015, p. 53.
  4. Ibid, p. 53.
  5. “Aquifer Exemptions in the Underground Injection Control Program”, USEPA, No date. Web. 13 December 2016.
  6. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx Media. No date. Web. 14 November 2016.
  7. “Aquifer Exemptions in the Underground Injection Control Program”, USEPA, No date. Web. 13 December 2016.
  8. Lustgarten, Abrahm. “Poisoning the Well: How the Feds Let Industry Pollute the Nation’s Underground Water Supply”, ProPublica Inc. 12 December 2012. Web 12 December 2016.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. General Accounting Office. “Drinking Water – EPA Program to Protect Underground Sources from Injection of Fluids Associated With Oil and Gas Production Needs Improvement” GAO-14-555. July 2014.
  12. Ibid, GAO Highlights.
  13. Ibid, GAO Highlights.
  14. Ibid, GAO Highlights.

What to do with Fracking Wastewater?

Wastewater from hydraulic fracking has been in the news quite a bit lately and not for good reason.  Concerns over wastewater injections creating or inducing earthquakes and contamination from chemicals in fracking wastewater are a growing concern.

In mid-November, released a story about wastewater from oil production being sold to drought-stricken California farmers in Kern County at a discount for use on food crops.1 The main concern is the chemicals in the wastewater are considered “proprietary.” Therefore no one really knows what chemicals are being applied to our foods and whether or not they are making their way into the food chain.  Since California grows 40% of our nation’s food should we be concerned?

Andrew Grinberg, Special Project Manager at Clean Water Action, considers the application of oil wastewater on Kern County crops a “chemical experiment on our food supply.”2 Adam Scow, California Director of Food and Water Watch, believes “it’s a bad idea to use water contaminated with chemicals, such as benzene, on crops and to recharge groundwater.”3 This practice has apparently been going on for 20 years.

This isn’t the first time the oil and gas industry has been under scrutiny in California.  In 2015, the California’s Department of Conservation, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources came under fire because they “inadvertently allowed oil companies to inject wastewater — from fracking and other production operations — with high levels of benzene, a carcinogen, into hundreds of wells in protected aquifers, a violation of federal law.”4 The EPA found this oversight of the Safe Drinking Water Act “shocking”.5

In Oklahoma and southern Kansas underground wastewater injections from hydraulic fracking processes have been linked to earthquakes.  A article noted “some areas in north-central Oklahoma and southern Kansas now have hazards from fracking-related induced earthquakes that are similar to parts of California where earthquakes are caused by natural tectonic forces like plate collisions and volcanism.”6

Residents of those two states have responded to the tremors by purchasing earthquake insurance. Insurance purchases in Oklahoma are “up 500% from just five years ago in 2011.”7 Unfortunately coverage of man-made earthquakes is a grey-area for many insurance companies. So it’s best to do some digging and confirm any policy or endorsement covers earthquakes resulting from fracking activities.8

The oil and gas industry is the Titan of the American economy. For every barrel of oil produced, 15 barrels of wastewater are created.9 Given the immense volumes of oil, gas and the resulting wastewater produced, it is imperative we find better solutions for disposal. We can’t continue to pretend that current techniques aren’t impacting the environment. Clearly they are and its time for a change.



  1. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016. Web. 6 December 2016.
  2. Uproxx Reports. “Oil Wastewater”- video. Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016. Web. 6 December 2016.
  3. Uproxx, Ibid.
  4. Cart, Julie. “Lawmakers grill state oil regulators on oversight failures.” Los Angeles Times. 10 March 2015. Web. 6 December 2016.
  5. Cart, Ibid.
  6. Conca, James. “Thanks To Fracking, Earthquake Hazards in Parts of Oklahoma Now Comparable To California.” Forbes Media LLC. 7 September 2016, Web. 6 December 2016
  7. Conca, Ibid.
  8. Hickman, Bobby. “Fracked! Are you covered for man-made earthquakes?” com. Quinnstreet Inc. 10 May 2012. Web. 6 December 2016
  9. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016.

Sushi, Seaweed and Sewage

Ah, the delectable taste of sushi. Depending upon on the type of sushi you choose, those tidbits of tastiness embraced in a dark green “nori” wrap are actually encased in seaweed. “Seaweed?” you say. Yes. Seaweed.

Nori is the Japanese name for edible seaweed species of the algae genus Porphyra. While this algae has been a delightful addition to cuisine for centuries, other forms of algae are being put to use in industrial applications ranging from biofuels to wastewater.

Algaewheel image used with permission.

Arizona can pride itself on being on the cutting edge of algae biofuel research. In the Fall 2014 issue of Arizona Water Resource, The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Water Resources Research Center (say that three times, fast), reported on two algae testbed projects being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. The goal of this research is to promote advances in algal technology while being sensitive to the emerging technology’s water footprint.

Essentially what researchers are trying to do is figure out the best conditions to produce a large quantity of algae-based biofuel with minimal water usage. Algae’s high lipid content and the fact it is a renewable resource are two reasons it is suitable as a biofuel.  Currently “estimates for water use range from 3 gallons of water per gallon of algal biofuel to a thousand times that quantity.” With such a disparity, clearly more research needs to be done to minimize water use while maximizing biofuel production. Still, as oil supplies continue to dwindle, we can remain hopeful that algae may become a potential alternative renewable source of fuel.

Another promising algal innovation is from an Indianapolis based company called OneWater. They have developed a small scale waste water treatment system called the “Algaewheel” which was awarded the 2015 Water Environment Federation (WEF) Innovative Technology Award.

Typical waste water treatment systems use a mixture of microorganisms called “activated sludge” to breakdown waste products using a series of aeration tanks, clarifiers, filters and digesters. Most treatment plants are large scale and serve an entire community. They are expensive to build and operate and are usually located on the outskirts of town to reduce the nuisance conditions of odor and noise,

The Algaewheel system is remarkably simple. True to its name, it is essentially a series of rotating wheels coated with a biofilm of algae. OneW
ater’s company website describes the process saying “Algae grow on rotating wheels, using light, CO2 and nutrients. Algae produce oxygen, consume carbon-dioxide, and generate polysaccharides (sugars). Bacteria consume the oxygen and sugars and produce carbon dioxide – completing the cycle.”

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) retrofitted their seasonal waste treatment plant at Summit Lake State Park with an Algaewheel system with very good results. Commonwealth Engineers, the consulting engineers for the IDNR Summit Lake project, noted seasonal waste treatment systems have special challenges because the variability in flow rate and load can make it difficult for small treatment systems to meet permitted effluent levels.

Commonwealth Engineers has been pleased with the results at Summit Lake State Park. Their website mentions several benefits the Algaewheel waste water system offers.  Specifically, “it is modest in cost, easy to operate and maintain, readily meets effluent standards even with high variability in flows / loadings, and is operated at a fraction of the electrical costs required by competing “activated sludge” package plant facilities.”

So next time you’re out for sushi, remember that algae isn’t just for lunch anymore.

– Sandra Hurlbut

*I wrote this article in the Fall of 2015 for the Southern Arizona Contractors Association.

“Eco-chic” Brewing

“Eco-chic”, which the Urban Dictionary defines as “anything new and trendy that causes a ‘green frenzy’”, is certainly a new phrase for brewers from Bisbee to Oregon as they opt to find ways to reuse water in both processes and products. Some of these water saving techniques are quite practical while others are certainly turning heads and maybe even a few stomachs. Intrigued? Read on.

On the practical side of things is the Beast Brewing Company of Bisbee. They were recently featured as a commercial site on Water Wise’s annual Bisbee Water Harvesting Tour. Beast is a green minded company which strives to reduce their carbon footprint in a number of ways, including water conservation.

The Beast owners hbeerlabel2ave re-purposed an old 300 barrel (about 1,000 gallon) fermentation tank to collect harvested rainwater and wastewater.  The collected water is used to help cool the “wort” at a later stage of the brewing process in a heat exch

The collected water is pumped through tubing placed next to the hot wort in a heat exchanger. The recycled water continuously cycles and absorbs the heat from the wort, allowing it to cool to a safe temperature. The cooled brew is then ready for consumption. Beast estimates that it is saving approximately 3,000 gallons of water every month using this technique and hopes to double the water savings with some new innovative process changes.

On the fringe side of water conservation are some home brewers of Oregon who have accepted a challenge to create great tasting beer using highly purified wastewater. Yep, folks, that’s the politically correct term for sewer water!

According to, roughly 20 home brewers from the “Oregon Brew Crew”, now dubbed “sewer brewers”, are expected to take part in this year’s “Pure Water Brew Challenge.” The contest, envisioned by Clean Water Services of Portland Oregon, which runs four wastewater treatment plants in the Portland suburbs, aims to “promote water quality over water history”. Contestants will be given wastewater for their brew purified using ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation.

Mark Jockers, a spokesman for Clean Water Services was quoted on saying, “The water we’re producing is significantly cleaner than what the safe drinking standards are for water that comes out of taps across the United States.”  While that may be true, its likely most Americans would still prefer their beer’s water to originate in cool, crisp mountain streams like they see in beer commercials.

Surprisingly, drinking treated wastewater is really nothing new.  Some drought stricken states and municipalities have resorted to this sort of recycling approach to supply water to their constituents. In July 2014 reported on “toilet to tap” wastewater recycling in the two Texas towns of Big Springs and Wichita Falls which have been severely impacted by the ongoing drought.

Given the extremes some communities have resorted to in providing potable water for their residents, we should all be grateful we are working together to protect our water resources. As dire circumstances related to drought continue to unfold around us, we need to be ever vigilant. We often forget water is a resource we are all totally dependent upon but ultimately have limited control over.

Then again, maybe we could spur a new form of “eco-tourism” here in Sierra Vista by adding a “sewer brewer” pub at the Environmental Operations Plant? Maybe we could slightly modify the new slogan city planners have worked so hard to develop to include this new pub idea? How about ”Extraordinary skies. Uncommon Ground. Exceptional brew.”?!

-Sandra Hurlbut