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FLOBECK: With water, necessity is mother of invention

By: Jack Flobeck
January 12, 2014 Updated: January 12, 2014 at 10:19 am
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Necessity's the true mother of invention.

Nowhere is that more appropriate and true than in the sunbaked, arid and waterless desert that we refer to as the Middle East. "Middle East" was first coined by a diplomat at a post-World War I peace conference to describe a most irksome collection of lands on a color-coded map designed to denote a large area of desert inhabited by intransigent people where it seemed impossible to achieve any treaty agreement, much less harmony on any topic.

Sadly, several of these water-starved nations, once troubled colors on a dusty map, are now awash in oil and petroleum dollars. Today, these once-starving countries build the world's highest skyscrapers and have spawned an Arabian night's dream culture of excessive luxury, entertainment, and Rolls Royce cars.

Along the way, they have also learned exceedingly well how to manufacture their own water from the seas surrounding their lands. One can simply boil or distill salt water, at astronomical costs, or take advantage of a simple physical and chemical process where salt water is pressed through a membrane to trap the salt. Most modern designs are now christened, salt water reverse osmosis, or SWRO plants.

The Winter 2013 edition of Water Reuse & Desalination magazine highlights these developments in "Global Desalinization Capacity Rising Fast." We quickly learn that Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Spain, and Kuwait led the list of top de-salters. However, the nation that saved the world twice in the last century; the food basket of the world; the most generous nation to others with foreign aid; and the nation that put a man on the moon doesn't make the top ten.

Many could say we don't need to bother with de-sal, since we have the Great Lakes; the Mississippi, Colorado and Columbia rivers; along with the Ogallala aquifer. But those scoffers must realize that in the true light of day, those awesome resources continue to dwindle before our eyes as we hold committee meetings and construct three-year grand plans.

Growth of this industry is phenomenal as the new de-sal capacity expected to have come on line in 2013 is 50 percent more than in the previous year. Global Water Intelligence publisher Christopher Gasson said "You can see this as the water-energy nexus in action. The energy industry needs water, both in refining and power generation as well as upstream. The water industry also needs energy, and the two seem to be coming together in increased demand for desalination." With de-sal costs decreasing 30 percent over the past decade, the future looks bright for this essential recovery technology.

Here in the west, we have several significant opportunities to employ de-sal. First we have significant underground deposits of brackish water, and this untapped resource is only now being utilized. The Kay Bailey Hutchinson plant in El Paso, Texas, is the world's largest inland de-sal operation. I have toured the facility and it is a masterpiece of collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico governments, the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss and the cities and utilities of El Paso and Juarez, where tainted water in over a dozen deep wells is piped to and treated at the plant, which is leased long-term from the army.

In Colorado, we could take advantage of brackish water de-sal as well as the treatment of water used in fracking and oil exploration. We could seize a world technological lead by engineering off-shore de-sal in tidal states where conservation-minded groups with the noblest of intentions delay and divert any efforts to investigate de-sal.

The Space Water Group in Colorado Springs (of which I am a member) can foresee the day when decommissioned off-shore oil platforms will be employed to operate de-sal, thus mitigating the conservationists' complaints of killing shoreline fish and harming shoreline mammals.

With world class universities, Colorado might become the catalyst to develop technologies to take the pressures off our headwaters rivers by reducing our imminent water shortages, while at the same time benefiting our neighbors.


Jack Flobeck is the founder of Aqua Prima Center, a nonprofit think tank for water research. Readers can contact him at

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