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Officials pitch desalination as a partial solution to Western drought

A desalination plant in California.
James Grellier/ Wikimedia Commons
A desalination plant in California.

News brief:

As parts of our region face the worst drought in 1,200 years, some states are looking for new ways to create fresh water. One idea that’s gaining interest in the Mountain West is desalination, which involves removing minerals from salty water.

Peter Fiske studies desalination opportunities with the National Water Innovation Hub, which is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. He said many people think the technology is only useful in coastal states, but that inland areas have a use for it, too.

“There is a lot of salty water around to desalinate that is not at the coast,” Fiske said. “In fact, desalination will be a critical tool in our water reuse toolkits.”

Fiske said there is abundant brackish groundwater in the Mountain West that’s too mineral-dense for humans to drink, but could eventually be treated. Oil, gas and agriculture production also create potentially usable refuse, as does wastewater.

“It's not a silver bullet, however. It's about diversifying our Western portfolio of water supplies,” Fiske said.

California and Arizona are already investing in desalination, and researchers in Colorado have been looking for ways to improve the technology for years.

Some scientists have cautioned against using desalination on a large scale, in part because it’s expensive and energy-intensive. The process of removing minerals also produces a toxic byproduct that can harm the environment.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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