Desalination Will Not Solve Our Water Problems

Poseidon Desalination PlantAs many of you know, I live here in the Bay Area of California — you know: the good part. And we are in the middle of the worst drought since well before the rise of the Aztec Empire. So we are looking very seriously at building a greywater system. For those of you who don’t know, greywater is wastewater that comes from pretty much everywhere but your toilet. For example, your dishwater is greywater. You wouldn’t drink it, but it is fine for other uses like watering your plants or for your toilet. It’s all about efficiency: using the water that you have the best way you can.

But whenever the subject of drought comes up, there is always someone who brings up desalination. We’ve got great big oceans. Why not just pull the salt out of it and give it to our cows? People like this idea because we have a long tradition of fixing problems via technology. But there is a general problem with this outlook on life: we have a statistically skewed sample to draw from. We are, after all, the people who survived. Human history is filled with climate changes that wiped out whole regions. And now that we humans are everywhere, we have the potential to wipe ourselves out on a global scale. Will there be “one weird trick” that will save us?

The best solution to our water problems was for us to take global warming seriously starting back about thirty years ago. But given that we can’t even take it seriously today, that is a fanciful thought. And most likely, the solution to the problems associated with global warming will be to combine a lot of different approaches. And desalination will probably be part of that mix. But it certainly isn’t a cure-all. There are many problems with it — and just as many limitations.

As Michael Hiltzik noted “desalination plants can’t be plunked down just anywhere…” The new billion dollar Poseidon plant rejected three other locations before deciding on Carlsbad where it is close to the Encina Power Station. This made it easier to get the energy that it needs and also reduced the environmental impact, since the power station is already doing that. Poseidon’s continued usefulness will depend upon Encina continuing to run (although it is a good bet at least for the foreseeable future).

The biggest problem with desalination plants is that they use a lot of energy. Of course, so does transporting water large distances. The most efficient desalination can actually use less energy. And one would hope over time that this will be more generally true. So sorry Captain Kirk, the pipeline ain’t the way to go. But still, desalination is expensive. According to Hiltzik, one acre-foot (325,851 gallons) of water from Poseidon will cost about $2,200. “San Diego currently pays $923 per acre-foot for treated water from the Metropolitan Water District. The Pacific Institute reported in 2012 that San Diego could obtain recycled water for as little as $1,200 per acre-foot, and that the marginal cost of water obtained through conservation and efficiency measures was as little as $150.”

A direct example will help. Desalination can be as cheap as (pdf) 3 kW·hr/m3. But it is more normally 4-5 kW·hr/m3. Compare this to pumping it out of the ground which costs less (pdf) than 0.2 kW·hr/m3. That makes groundwater at least 16 times cheaper. And this doesn’t take into account the fact that, for example, the Carlsbad facility will be using all hydrocarbon power, which adds to global warming.

Another problem with desalination is that it has other environmental problems. At the start of the process, “Ocean inflows suck up and kill larval marine organisms.” What’s more, all the salt that is taken out of the water must be put back into the ocean — creating areas that are super-salty. This has large environmental effects, at least on a local scale.

I’m not suggesting that desalination should not be pursued as a tool to fight against the many problems that global warming in causing us to face. But it isn’t the cure-all that many people think it is.

Journalists’ Reticence to Talk Money in Politics

Eric AltermanAmerican political life revolves around two mutually reinforcing truths. The first is that our democracy has been severely corrupted by money; the second is that the conservative movement, and hence the Republican Party, is dominated by ideological extremists who demonstrate zero interest in the problems of actual governance. Taken together, these truths not only define our political debate; they ensure that virtually nothing is decided on its merits — up to and including our national elections.

Catch a bigfoot journalist or pundit at a social event or private gathering, and he or she will likely admit these truths. Scan the editorials and opinion pages of most major newspapers, and you’ll see the power of money decried on a fairly regular basis. But in the news stories, where it matters most, even our best reporters feel the need to put forth a fairy-tale narrative in which the United States enjoys a fully functioning democracy and our elections and laws accurately represent the genuine will of the people.

—Eric Alterman
Why Do Political Reporters Refuse to Show Us the Money?

I Don’t Trust Obama’s Word on TPP

Barack ObamaThe Devil went down to Beaverton. Or to put more clearly, President Obama went over to Nike to snipe at those of us who don’t agree with him about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I was especially interested in this quote that seemed to appear everywhere that his speech was covered, “There have been a bunch of critics about trade deals generally and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And what’s interesting is typically they’re my friends coming from my party. And they’re my fellow travelers on minimum wage and on job training and on clean energy and on every progressive issue, they’re right there with me. And then on this, they’re like whupping on me.” Let me take a moment to say something personal to Obama.

Mr President, based upon my experience of watching you from a distance these last eleven years, you seem to be an okay guy. But I don’t just follow along with everything you are in favor of. In terms of the TPP, I think you are just another neoliberal idiot who is so blinded by the ways that it is going to help out all of your rich friends, that you can’t see clearly that this is not a progressive deal. I’m not going to be for this trade deal just because we both agree that the minimum wage ought to be increased.

Sherrod Brown is one of those pesky non-authoritarians who doesn’t just get in line because he happens to be in the same political party as the president. He has actual facts that counter Obama’s argument that consists entirely of, “Trust me! I wouldn’t do anything to hurt the American worker!” Brown noted that we’ve been conned before. And we don’t have to go all the way back to NAFTA:

The Obama Administration predicted that the South Korea Free Trade Agreement would create 70,000 jobs and deliver up to $11 billion in exports. Instead, it only increased US exports to Korea by $1 billion, while Korean imports have skyrocketed to more than $12 billion. The growing good trade deficit with Korea has eliminated over 75,000 jobs in the last three years.

But that’s not all, “Mr Obama insisted that ‘this is the most progressive trade deal in history’ and he scorned critics who say it would undermine American laws and regulations on food safety, worker rights, and even financial regulations…” Well, Dean Baker had a problem with that claim, President Obama Is Badly Confused About the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He noted:

President Obama apparently doesn’t realize that the TPP will create an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism which will allow tribunals to impose huge penalties on the federal government, as well as state and local governments, whose laws are found to be in violation of the TPP. These fines could effectively bankrupt a government unless they change the law.

It is also worth noting that rulings by these tribunals are not subject to appeal, nor are they bound by precedent. Given the structure of the tribunal (the investor appoints one member of the panel, the government appoints a second, and the third is appointed jointly), a future Bush or Walker administration could appoint panelists who would side with foreign investors to overturn environmental, safety, and labor regulations at all levels of government.

So Obama is not just asking us to trust him (because he thinks a modest increase in the minimum wage is in order), he’s asking us to trust every president who comes after us. Let me just end with another personal note to Obama.

Mr President, I am a liberal. As a result, I’m not an authoritarian. I know that conservatives are mostly a bunch of authoritarians who fall in line whenever the command is given. But I don’t accept arguments based upon someone telling me that they know best. That’s especially true when they’ve shown that they do not know best. So make your case and if I think it’s a good idea, I’ll go along with it. A good start would be to make the text of the TPP publicly available. But I don’t see that happening. Because I don’t think it’s a good deal. And the more scrutiny it gets the less I’m going to like it. And the more you try to ram it through, the less I like you.

See also: The Bad Side of Obama’s SOTU Address.

“Right” Kind of People Sleep Outside Apple Store

People Sleeping Outside Apple StoreTribalism is so important to humans that we almost never think in terms of it. I, of course, am obsessed with the idea. During my lifetime, I’ve seen tribalism get so diced up to the point where opportunity is just not a thing anymore. There was a time — barring a Great Depression — when anyone could have a job if they wanted it. Now, that’s just not true. The rich take care of their own. The middle class is just struggling to survive. And the poor are in the same state that they’ve always been, with the exception that the voices denouncing them are louder and more respected than ever.

The way that I usually frame the issue is as “the right kind of people” versus of “the wrong kind of people.” I wrote about this recently with regard to national security, Petraeus and Sterling: Different Kinds of Leakers. David Petraeus, of course, is the right kind of leaker who released top secret information for the purpose of bedding a younger woman and his own self-aggrandizement. As a result, he gets no jail time. Jeffrey Sterling, on the other hand, is the wrong kind of leaker. He leaked information about wrongdoing in the Bush administration. He’s looking at decades in prison.

Homeless People SleepingOver at The Daily Dot, SE Smith brought my attention to a similar tribal divide, If Homeless People Can’t Sleep Outside, Apple Customers Shouldn’t Either. I’ve never actually given much thought to this because I don’t know any people silly enough to think they have to be the first to get a new phone — or anything else. But I am aware that this sort of thing goes on. I believe people do the same thing for concert tickets and new video games. Smith noted that there is nothing fundamentally different between these people and the people who simply have nowhere else to go.

But from a cultural standpoint, there is a difference. The local business establishments wants those idiots who have $650 in their pockets to blow on a phone. They are nicely dressed. They are shaved and they don’t stink. Of course, if we cared about the homeless people, we could provide them with rooms and clothes and showers — and the mental healthcare that so many of them need. But we decided long ago that don’t care. They are not our tribe. They might as well be a different species — but not one of the cute species that we care about.

It reminds me of the way banks work: if you need a loan, you can’t have one; if you don’t need a loan, they’ve come to your door pleading with you to take one. Of course, banks are private businesses. We don’t expect them to work for the public good. But the Apple Store is too. And all the businesses that don’t want homeless people sleeping out in front of them are too. But they get the government to do their dirty work. They get cities to pass ordinances that make it illegal to sleep on the street — as long as you aren’t one of the right kind of people who are just resting until you can buy an overpriced phone.

If you are the wrong kind of person, there is no job for you. There is no room for you to sleep in. There are no showers or clothes or regular meals. There are just laws criminalizing your very existence. And if you are the right kind of person, well, set up a tent in front of the Apple Store, have a pizza delivered, maybe get a manicure while you wait. If you’re the right kind of person, it’s all good.

Morning Music: Boomtown Rats

The Fine Art Of SurfacingOn 29 January 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer shot at children waiting to get inside the Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego. She killed two adults and injured nine others. She did all this from her house that was located right across the street from the school. When a reporter asked her why she did it, she said, “I don’t like Mondays — this livens up the day.” She claims she has no memory of saying that, but doesn’t question that she did. She was sentenced to 25 years to life. She’s been in prison 36 years now, and will not be up for parole again for another four years. I’m very much in favor of forgiveness. But I’m afraid that Spencer is insane. I question whether she should ever be released.

The shooting took place when The Boomtown Rats were touring the United States. So Bob Geldof wrote the international hit, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” which was on their album, The Fine Art Of Surfacing. I think the song could be a whole lot better written. But it works really well because of Geldof’s emotional vocals and Johnnie Fingers’ amazing piano part.

Anniversary Post: State of Minnesota

Minnesota SealOn this day in 1858, Minnesota became the 32nd state in the Union — squeezed right between two of my favorite states: California and Oregon. The Dakotas would not become states until much later — largely owing to the fact that no one wanted them. Even today, the official motto of North Dakota is, “Keep the hydrocarbons, leave the land.” But we don’t feel this way about Minnesota. Minnesota is an official Good State™ right up there with the good parts of California (northern) and Oregon (Portland). So rather than provide a history of the state and explain why it is surrounded by the wackos in the Dakotas on the west and Scott Walker on the east and yet doesn’t stink, I will just provide a random list of good things about Minnesota.

  • Unemployment Rate: 3.7%
  • World’s largest zombie walk
  • Al Franken
  • Scotch Tape / Post-It Notes
  • F Scott Fitzgerald
  • Hamm’s Brewery
  • Hubert Humphrey
  • Bob Dylan
  • Garrison Keillor
  • Anne Tyler
  • Walker Art Center
  • Izzy’s Ice Cream
  • Lipps Inc. I think this song is about Saint Paul:
  • Robert Bly
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000
  • Alec Soth
  • Mall of America as ultimate terrorist target
  • Prince
  • Walter Mondale
  • Coen Brothers
  • Mayo Clinic
  • Old Log Theater
  • Judy Garland

Happy birthday Minnesota!