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By Lois Henry
The state will likely pass some kind of groundwater regulation this year. How could it not?
As surface supplies have dried up, water users are sucking down the state's aquifers faster than a kindergartner on a banana milkshake.
Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.
In Kern County, the subbasin is being overdrafted by an average 780,000 acre-feet per year, according to conservative estimates. That means users are taking out 780,000 acre feet more than is being replaced. That can't last.
In response, legislators have spit out at least two groundwater bills, so far, and the Department of Water Resources recently issued a report painting a grim picture of groundwater supplies.
Too bad there isn't another aquifer we could tap to help out.
Oh wait, there is.
One problem. Salt.
But wait. Don't answer yet. Technology appears to be coming to the rescue on a number of fronts.
A shallow aquifer that runs along the west side of the valley from Kern to north of Los Banos holds anywhere from 35 million to 150 million acre feet of water, according to Jose Faria, chief of DWR's special investigations branch.
But it's brackish. Too salty even for irrigation.
The water is partly the remnants of the inland sea that used to be the San Joaquin Valley. But it's also made up of irrigation drainage water.
In good and even average water years, it's not a very tempting source. Cleaning it up would be way too expensive compared to other, cheaper, sources of water.
With growers willing to pay $1,300-plus per acre foot, however, the west side ground water is looking a whole lot more affordable.
Water meisters have long known about the west side aquifer and have been mulling ways to get at it for decades.
In fact, the first ever desalination plant using reverse osmosis membrane technology (basically pressurized filtration) was built over that aquifer.
It started operation in 1965 in Coalinga, according to UCLA professor Yoram Cohen, who recently unveiled his own, much smaller, sleeker and more mobile water treatment unit.
Cohen's mobile desalination unit was taken north to the Panoche Water and Drainage District Friday, where it will start a three-month gig showing what it can do on that area's salty water.
Panoche is ground zero for desal projects these days.
The Bureau of Reclamation is building a plant there, UC Merced is negotiating to start a project, and an experimental solar distillation project by a private company called WaterFX has been underway in Panoche for some months.
Panoche, along Interstate 5 south of Los Banos and west of Firebaugh, sits atop the west side aquifer and has major drainage issues that it must clean up by 2016 or face hefty fines by DWR.
For years, the district has taken its growers' irrigation drainage water to grow salt tolerant crops such as pistachios and grasses that soak up heavy metals such as selenium. But it is still left with an abundance of salty water, according to Panoche manager Dennis Falaschi.
That's what WaterFX and Cohen's mobile unit are focused on.
So far, the WaterFX project appears fairly successful.
It uses an array of curved mirrors to heat mineral oil in a pipeline that condenses the drainage water and leaves behind a sludgy residue, Falaschi said. The condensation is collected as pure water and the sludge is separated out and processed as sodium sulphate and selenium, both marketable products.
Falaschi said the process creates useable water at a cost of about $450 an acre foot.
The next step is for WaterFX to build a 75-acre project, get investors and market the water, which could add up to about 3,000 acre feet a year. Falaschi said he doesn't know what the market price for the water would ultimately be and stressed they are still in the pilot phase. WaterFX did not respond to an email.
"It's not meant as a replacement for our water supplies," Falaschi said. "But it could be a system to create supplemental water."
Panoche is part of the federal Central Valley Project, which is delivering zero water to the majority of its contractors this year.
UCLA's mobile unit uses more conventional membrane filtration technology, but with a twist. The problem with most filtering systems is they require very high pressure, which takes a lot of energy, and the membranes clog or break down as water quality fluctuates, Cohen said.
His team has created the first "smart" desal plant that can adapt to water quality by increasing or reducing pressure and flow and even instigate membrane "cleaning" through back washing. And it can all be operated remotely, from UCLA.
So, you could plop one of these moble units almost anywhere and start chugging out clean water.
In fact, UCLA already has one in Port Hueneme that produces 12,000 gallons of drinkable water every day, Cohen said.
The unit it sent to Panoche has a capacity of 27,000 gallons per day.
"This is one of a slew of projects we've been developing for remote communities," he said. The units can also filter out nitrates and bacteria.
The cost to produce clean water through the mobile unit would depend on a number of factors, Cohen said, but a range of $400 to $800 an acre foot was likely.
"Tons," Panoche's Falaschi said when I asked how much interest all these projects are generating. "It's the drought. Not so many people are interested in our drainage issues; they think 'That's your problem.'
"But with this drought, (when) people hear you have a project that makes new water available, yeah, it's piqued a lot of interest."
If we ever do unlock the west side aquifer, though, I wonder how long it would be before it, too, would be in overdraft.
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org