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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Desalination and Membrane Technologies: Federal Research and Adoption Issues



Nicole T. Carter
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

In the United States, desalination and membrane technologies are increasingly used to augment municipal water supply, to produce high quality industrial water supplies, and to reclaim contaminated supplies (including from oil and gas development). As of 2005, approximately 2,000 desalination facilities larger than 0.3 million gallons per day (MGD) were operating in the United States, with a total capacity of 1,600 MGD which represents more than 2.4% of total U.S. municipal and industrial freshwater use. At issue for Congress is what should be the federal role in supporting desalination and membrane technology research and facilities. Desalination issues before the 113th Congress include how to focus federal research, at what level to support desalination research and projects, and how to provide a regulatory context that protects the environment and public health without disadvantaging the technology.

Desalination processes generally treat seawater or brackish water to produce a stream of freshwater, and a separate, saltier stream of water that requires disposal (often called waste concentrate). In the last decade, many states (e.g., Florida, California, and Texas) and cities have actively investigated the feasibility of large-scale municipal desalination. Coastal communities look to seawater or estuarine water, while interior communities look to brackish aquifers. The most common desalination technology in the United States is reverse osmosis, which uses permeable membranes to separate the freshwater from the saline water supply. Membrane technologies are also effective for other water treatment applications. Many communities and industries use membranes to remove contaminants from drinking water, treat contaminated water for disposal, and reuse industrial wastewater (e.g., saline waters co-produced from oil and gas development). For some applications, there are few competitive technological substitutes.

Wider adoption of desalination is constrained by financial, environmental, and regulatory issues. Although desalination costs dropped steadily in recent decades, significant further decline may not happen with existing technologies. Electricity expenses represent from one-third to one-half of the operating cost of desalination. Its energy intensity also raises concerns about associated greenhouse gas emissions and its usefulness as a climate change adaptation measure. Substantial uncertainty also remains about the technology’s environmental impacts, in particular management of the saline waste concentrate and the effect of surface water intake facilities on aquatic organisms. Desalination facilities require a significant number of local, state, and federal approvals and permits.

Emerging technologies (e.g., forward osmosis, nanocomposite and chlorine resistant membranes) show promise for reducing desalination costs. Research to support developfull-scale facilities. For the most part, local governments, sometimes with state-level involvement, are responsible for planning, testing, building, and operating desalination facilities. Some states, universities, and private entities also undertake and support desalination research. While interest in desalination persists among some Members, especially with drought concerns high, efforts
ment of emerging technologies and to reduce desalination’s environmental and social impacts is particularly relevant to the debate on the future level and nature of federal desalination assistance. The federal government generally has been involved primarily in desalination research and development (including for military applications), some demonstration projects, and select to maintain or expand federal activities and investment are challenged by the domestic fiscal climate and differing views on federal roles and priorities.


Date of Report: January 8, 2013
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: R40477
Price: $29.95


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