Salt and Rain
As the possibility of another drought looms, Georgia searches for long-term water solutions
Three years ago Georgia was wilting in the arid throes of a record drought, the worst in more than a century. Scorching heat, record-low rainfalls in historically wet regions and shrinking water supplies pushed most of the Southeast to the brink of dehydration while Georgia was engaged in a pitched battle with Florida and Alabama over water rights to Lake Lanier.
As lake levels kept shrinking and Gov. Sonny Perdue publicly prayed for rain, participants from government, business, agriculture and (to a lesser degree) environmental advocacy groups came together to complete the state’s first water management plan, an effort that began in 2004, following a five-year drought.
The General Assembly adopted the plan during the 2008 session. In 2009 it started raining again, and lake levels returned to near normal. For the shortsighted and absentminded, the water problem was solved.
“The biggest enemy of conservation is rain,” quips William J. Koros, chemical and biomolecular engineering professor at Georgia Tech. “Because when you have a drought, people are wringing their hands, saying to themselves, ‘This is serious.’ Then all of a sudden it rains.”
When it rains, there is ample water supply for a thirsty state. But the state is growing faster than water can accumulate, so environmental advocates, entrepreneurs and leaders from business and government are seeking solutions and considering different and varied options, including one that relies totally on rain and its storage, to meet Georgia’s water supply challenge.
We haven’t figured out yet how to increase the rainfall, nor have we figured out how to increase the attention span of the tap-turning populace.
“Rain is a cyclical thing, and after it rains people stop recognizing the fact that the water situation isn’t getting any better,” Koros says. “You know, it’s like ‘As long as we’re not in a crisis, everything must be OK.’”
Everything is not OK.
Georgia experienced record-high average temperatures over the summer and much of the state experienced drought conditions, and the probability for another drought is high for 2011. This would be terrible timing because unless Georgia can strike a deal with Alabama and Florida by July 2012, Lake Lanier will be off limits as a source of drinking water, meaning four million area residents will be facing a 280-million-gallon-a-day deficit – all of this because in July 2009 U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Atlanta’s withdrawals from Lanier were illegal since the lake was built to generate electricity, not supply drinking water.
With the judge’s deadline in mind, Perdue created the Water Contingency Task Force, whose members scrambled to make water supply recommendations, which became the basis for the Georgia Water Stewardship Act of 2010, passed during the last legislative session.
“The 2012 deadline is looming, and it’s real. You hope that the judge will give us more time, but this bill gives us measures that will help us in the future,” says State Rep. Lynn Smith (R-Newnan), who chairs the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
Conservation and efficiency measures are given their cursory due – encouraged, not mandated – in the law, which also creates something called the Joint Committee on Water Supply, whose primary duty seems to be analyzing the state’s reservoir system and concocting ways to finance additional reservoirs.
Two supply options that have been discussed under the Gold Dome in recent years are not addressed in a significant way – desalination (which is considered in the state water management plan), and rainwater harvesting (although the use of rainwater and gray water in lieu of potable water is encouraged).
“I guess we were kind of disappointed, because nobody seemed willing to look outside of the box,” says Mark Brown, founder of Rain Catchers, a McDonough-based firm that designs and builds rainwater harvesting systems. Brown and other advocates of rainwater harvesting added their two cents’ worth to the task force.
So, capturing the freest source of water known – rain – was barely mentioned in the stewardship act, but the legislature also passed House Bill 1069, a complicated piece of omnibus legislation that includes, among other things, up to $2,500 in state income tax credits for people who install rainwater harvesting (or catchment) systems. The credits, however, are dependent entirely on federal stimulus money – which may or may not be available to fund state tax credits. At this writing, even authors of the bill seemed unsure of how or if the credits could be used without revisiting the issue legislatively.
“Right now there are some big ‘ifs’ regarding that program, but it passed easily and it’s a positive direction,” says Brown, who produces a rain harvesting blog (www.thecistern.com). “Rainwater collection went from barely being mentioned to written legislation for tax rebates. That means legislators are beginning to realize this is a viable part of the solution.”
Then again, some legislators also think desalination will be a viable part of the solution.
It seemed like a great idea at the time. Georgia was parched and in the early stages of what would be a devastating three-year drought. A five-year drought had ended in 2003. Howard Browning could see the pattern and the opportunity it presented.
Aquasis Inc., a Jonesboro-based company, announced in the summer of 2006 that it was planning to build Georgia’s first desalination plant that would produce about 30 million gallons of potable water a day from saltwater. The long-range plan was to pipe water from the coast uphill to Atlanta, about 250 miles. But first they were going to build a $1-million demonstration plant capable of producing more than 25,000 gallons a day. They never even got that far.
“I guess that project is pretty much defunct now,” says Browning, a St. Simons resident who retired after 30 years in the seafood processing industry. Today he goes by Captain Howard Browning, guiding visitors to the Georgia coast on boat tours on the Altamaha River.
Browning invested in the desalination project, which was being directed by Aquasis partners, CEO Jonathan Psalmonds and COO Aaron Crosby. Georgia Trend contacted Psalmonds, who declined to be interviewed for this story.
“Me and several others invested with them. The timing definitely seemed right, with the drought and the water wars between Georgia, Florida and Alabama,” Browning says. “GE was interested. They were going to supply the technology. AGL Resources was in on the deal, they were gonna give right of way for pipes from down here up to Atlanta.”
Crosby, who could not be reached for this story, told Georgia Trend in spring 2007 that the company was mainly focused on serving coastal communities, but a pipeline to Atlanta wasn’t out of the question. “But you’re talking billions and billions of dollars,” he said at the time.
“When I heard they wanted to run a pipeline from the coast to Atlanta I thought, ‘What am I doing? That’s a little big for me,’” Browning says. “But I thought some bigger players were putting a lot of money into it, and I wanted to be a small part of it, even though it was a big chunk of money for me.”
Browning declined to say just how much he gave to Aquasis, which shelved the project in early 2008. He hasn’t gotten any of it back, though.
“I’m hopeful that the plant is still a possibility,” he says.
That may be a long way off, though, says Stuart Jeffcoat, regional technology manager for CH2M Hill. The engineering firm, which has done desalination projects all over the world, was working with Aquasis.
“This was not an engineering issue or a technology issue, it was a funding issue,” Jeffcoat says.
Rep. Smith supported the project at the time and remains certain of desalination’s place in Georgia.
“I absolutely think we have desalination in our future,” she says. “When it’ll happen, who can say, but I believe it will have a future here in Georgia, in the coastal region. That makes the most sense.”
Desalination is used in 150 countries, where 15,000 plants produce water from the sea, or brackish water, for more than 300 million people. And according to a recent report in National Geographic magazine, new desalination plants may add about 13 billion gallons a day to the global potable water supply within the next six years.
In arid regions like the Middle East (which uses about 70 percent of the current worldwide capacity), desalination is widely employed because it is the most viable source of fresh water. But it also provides fresh water to people in the U.S., especially in California and Florida. And while it is expensive (when compared to drawing water from lakes, rivers and aquifers), the cost – in terms of dollars and energy – is coming down somewhat.
“There’s a lot of active interest in improving the efficiency of reverse osmosis, a lot of talk about high-efficiency membranes that are aimed at reducing energy use by as much as 30 to 40 percent,” says Georgia Tech’s Koros, whose focus has been on high-tech membranes that can be used to filter impurities from water and air – he currently is working on membrane technology designed to remove carbon dioxide from the flue gases of coal-burning power plants.
In reverse osmosis, the current state-of-the-art in desalination, water is pumped through a membrane that catches the salt. It’s expensive, but the cost of desalination has fallen by about 80 percent over the last decade, according to Jeff Fulgham, chief sustainability officer of GE Power and Water.
But is it right for Georgia?
“You can increase supply by reducing demand – that’s the low-hanging fruit, and I’m not convinced Georgia has done everything it can to reduce demand,” Fulgham says. “For example, before you build your next coal-fired power plant, ask yourself what else you can do to reduce demand.”
Georgia Power is the No. 1 industrial user of water in Georgia. About half of the water used by industry in the U.S. is used by power plants. It takes about five million gallons of water a day for a 1,000-megawatt power plant.
For environmental advocates, desalination, with its energy cost (and the use of fresh water to generate the electricity), just doesn’t make sense.
“Using a technically complex and expensive system to address a common sense problem just seems like putting the cart ahead of the horse,” says Deborah Sheppard, executive director of the Altamaha River-keeper.
There’s also the question of what happens to the salt filtered out of the seawater. In an efficient system, about 50 percent of the water taken in is purified.
“You have to do something with the highly concentrated salt water left over, and one way to do that is putting it back in the ocean,” says Koros. “If you do it carefully, it’s OK. You can’t distribute all of that water, now with a higher concentration of salt, in one spot or you run the risk of killing aquatic life.”
Resource from Above
General Electric is in the water technology business – building and selling systems that provide clean water to communities and companies, through desalination and other means – and Fulgham wants to stay in business. But there are more efficient ways of spending money with GE, he intimates.
“Clean up the water you take out and reuse it – there are some real advantages to that,” he says. “It takes a lot less energy to clean up water for reuse than it does for desalination. Taking salt water and making it drinkable is an expensive, energy-intensive process. There are cheaper, more efficient ways to generate new sources of water.
“Some places in the world, desalination is the best or only option, because they don’t have a choice, they don’t have that renewable rainfall like Georgia.”
Eddie Van Giesen is well aware of that, and he’s tried to spread the message to state lawmakers as a registered lobbyist and policy director for BRAE Rainwater Technologies that rainwater harvesting could close the water gap in Metro Atlanta.
“Rainwater harvesting can’t solve all of our water supply problems, but it can solve a lot of them,” says Van Giesen, who lives in Watkinsville and comes into the conversation armed with factoids:
• If all the rooftops in 13 Metro Atlanta counties were used to collect rainwater, more than 300 million gallons of water per day could be harvested.
• If every one of the estimated 85 big-box retailers (Home Depot, Walmart, etc.) in a 10-county Metro Atlanta region collected rainwater, it would yield about 700,000 gallons of water a day.
• In Germany, where rainwater harvesting systems are required in new construction, the industry generates more than $350 million per year in revenue; Van Giesen estimates that the rainwater harvesting industry could contribute up to $40 million to Georgia’s economy.
• Tuscon, Ariz., now requires new commercial construction to include a plan in which at least 50 percent of landscape irrigation uses rainwater harvesting.
“It’s a proven, ancient technology,” he says. “In Australia, 20 percent of the population has rainwater harvesting systems. It isn’t green for the sake of being green. It’s one of the easiest ways to get LEED points, and businesses should step up to the plate,” he says.
“Desalination, interbasin transfers, new reservoirs all require a lot of infrastructure, pumps, the acquisition of land, and it takes years for those things to become productive. Using rainwater from the roof is simple. We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just retooling the wheel.”
The combination of using an untapped resource while controlling stormwater runoff can buy the state time to locate other surface water supplies, Van Giesen says, while providing a bargaining chip in negotiations over water rights with Alabama and Florida.
Rainwater harvesting advocates like Van Giesen and Brown (who both have an obvious vested interest in the process) point out that this isn’t merely a matter of rain barrels at the end of your gutter downspout. These are typically underground cisterns, and often quite large, like the 16,000-gallon system Brown’s firm installed at the Goddard School in Buford, or the 35,000-gallon system he designed for a hospital in Brunswick.
Already, institutions like the University of Georgia, Emory and Georgia Tech are saving millions of gallons of municipal drinking water through the use of rainwater harvesting systems for non-potable uses. Georgia law only permits non-potable use for rainwater catchment systems (irrigation, flushing toilets, laundry, building and vehicle washing, fire suppression, etc.), though advanced filtration systems can clean and purify water to levels that exceed the quality of municipal systems.
“I have yet to meet anyone who says this is a bad idea,” Van Giesen says. “But there is a lack of education for policymakers as to the potential of this, and if the need is not perceived, it’s hard to get support.”
The need for water is automatic, not something traditionally perceived consciously as we blissfully let the tap run while brushing our teeth, unaware that all the water that ever was is all there is, that less than one percent of it is available to meet our needs, that the global population will reach nine billion before very long and it will take creative and concerted measures to supply a wet and thirsty planet.
But Koros, who tries to remain optimistic in the face of it all, says we have the technology and the ingenuity to do better. He believes perception is growing, and that might be our species’ saving grace.
“I think people in the U.S. are starting to realize that this is not some great environmentalist conspiracy – there’s a limited amount of resources in the world, and the whole world wants those resources,” he says.
“If we could just take this seriously long enough, we can get far ahead of everybody and start getting more efficient right now, and the rest of the world can catch on. There’s still time to maneuver around this problem.”