Business Acts While Politicians Fail
Clueless California politicians fumble and bumble while a private business looks to solve our water problems.
(Firebaugh, Fresno County) - Quietly whirring away in a dusty field in the Central Valley is a shiny solar energy machine that may someday solve many of California's water problems.
It's called the WaterFX solar thermal desalination plant, and it has been turning salty, contaminated irrigation runoff into ultra-pure liquid for nearly a year for the Panoche Water and Drainage District. It's the only solar-driven desalination plant of its kind in the country.
Right now its efforts produce just 14,000 gallons a day. But within a year, WaterFX intends to begin expanding that one small startup plant into a sprawling collection of 36 machines that together can pump out 2 million gallons of purified water daily.
Within about five years, WaterFX company co-founder Aaron Mandell hopes to be processing 10 times that amount throughout the San Joaquin Valley. And here's the part that gets the farmers who buy his water most excited: His solar desalination plant produces water that costs about a quarter of what more conventionally desalinated water costs: $450 an acre-foot versus $2,000 an acre-foot.
An acre-foot is equivalent to an acre covered by water 1 foot deep, enough to supply two families of four for a year.
|Consultant Bruce Marlow demonstrates a feature at the solar-powered |
WaterFX desalination plant in Fresno County.
Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle
Competitive PriceThat brings Mandell's water cost close to what farmers are paying, in wet years, for water from the Panoche and other valley districts - about $300 an acre-foot. And that makes it a more economically attractive option than any of the 17 conventional desalination plants planned throughout California.
If Mandell can pull it off, the tiny farming town where he is starting his enterprise could be known as ground zero for one of the most revolutionary water innovations in the state's history.
"Eventually, if this all goes where I think it can, California could wind up with so much water it's able to export it instead of having to deal with shortages," Mandell said, standing alongside the 525-foot-long solar reflector that is the heart of his machine. "What we are doing here is sustainable, scalable and affordable."
Dennis Falaschi, manager of the Panoche district, and many of the 60 farmers that constitute his customer base say the sooner WaterFX expands, the better.
Panoche expects to deliver about 45,000 acre-feet of water this year to its growers. That total is half of what the growers get in wetter years - but because drought and environmentally driven water mandates are not unique to 2014, the district's farmers are already ahead of the curve on water preservation techniques.
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