A bold vision for plentiful water in Southern California

Drinking water from the Salton Sea- are you kidding?

By George Miller

Thinking outside of the box to supply California with water into the next century.

With record-breaking droughts and burgeoning populations in the Southwestern states, the already inadequate water infrastructure won’t meet future needs of residential, agricultural and commercial users. Not only does California have about 40,000,000 thirsty people, but it also provides the largest agricultural bounty in the nation, by far, which requires vast quantities of water.


Salton Sea satellite map

The state’s water infrastructure was designed for a population about half of its current numbers and has only been somewhat augmented beyond that. Water reserves were down close to a third of capacity before recent rains. The $7+ billion dollar water California ballot initiative recently approved by voters will only contribute about $2 billion to building actual major water supply increases, barely a down payment on our future.

Mohammed A. Hasan

Mohammed Hasan


Mark Capron

Enter Mohammed Hasan, M.S., P.E., R.E.A., F.ASCE, PWLF, Principal of Hasan Consultants of Ventura, CA, a big picture thinker who has been in the water business a very long time. Hasan is a former Utilities Superintendent. He teamed up with the firm’s Environmental Manager, Mark Capron, M.S., P.E and former Senior Engineer for Ventura Regional Sanitation District, who has also worked in other capacities and gets things done.  He’s been with Hasan Consultants for four years.





Mad scientists seeking water solutions

They have been trying to develop methods to do aquaculture projects under the auspices of  http://oceanforesters.org.  They found themselves investigating the Salton Sea area. “Picture two mad scientists driving around the Salton Sea looking to change the world,” quipped Hasan.  Sometime after that, they investigated doing a Climate COLAB MIT project related to increasing area water supply.  At that time, Southern Nevada Water Authority was looking into extracting more groundwater from North of Las Vegas and COLAB was pushing for LA to desalt water from the Pacific. Capron started conceptualizing the Salton Sea idea and Hasan joined up to brainstorm how it might unfold.

They will be talking with major water agencies shortly and wanted to get it on public record what their vision is beforehand.


The situation

CA Aqueduct Existing CA Aqueduct system overview. Area discussed is at bottom

CA Aqueduct
Existing CA Aqueduct system overview. Area discussed is at bottom

Over a million acre feet of water are transported from the Colorado River in Arizona to California every year. Without this supply, Southern California would be in a significant supply deficit. But Arizona wants to keep their water, while California’s needs are growing every year.

There is a long history of lake formation ebbs and flows in what is now the Imperial County, CA area. The Salton Sea was most recently formed in 1905 when clogged irrigation canals were relieved by creating a water bypass to the Imperial Valley. It got out control and turned into a torrent, creating a 35 mile long lake before being halted.

The resulting lake underwent major recreational development, which went sour when it started to dry up.  Also it was fed mainly by agricultural runoff and became far more salty, killing off most fish species, creating smelly algae blooms and ending up a far less attractive site in the end.

Salton Sea’s water now comes mostly from fertilizer, salt and mineral-rich agricultural runoff. Imperial Irrigation District adds about another 150,000 acre-feet of water annually to help maintain it, but it’s been a losing battle, especially with the three year drought. The regional water agencies supply about four million acre-feet of water annually to customers.


The Salton Sea now has significant environmental problems


The vision

Where to get all that water?  From a limitless supply- the ocean, like Israel does and more and more coastal areas are looking into. It is expensive, but actually cheaper and far more plentiful than many alternative plans. An ingenious synergy of multiple uses would make it more so.  The bold strokes plan involves rehabilitating the Salton Sea, yielding various benefits, augmenting water supply by desalinating sea water and using an existing aqueduct to redistribute supply. The ideas presented herein are still subject to more rigorous research and feasibility study.

In summary, what Hasan and Capron are proposing is their “International Integrated Water Project”:

–  Transport sea water from the Gulf of California, 150 miles to the south in Mexico, across mostly level land to the Salton Sea, 226 feet below sea level.

– Desalinate ocean water using a fairly low energy absorption distillation process (see http://waterfx.co  ) then pump some of the results into the Salton Sea, restoring water levels, diluting salinity and mineral content to manageable levels and sell even more to Southern California customers. It is not yet determined what quantity would be needed to sustain the Salton Sea once it is restored, in addition to the amount of water supplied to other customers. This process is much different from the reverse osmosis filtration technique used in nearly all coastal desalination facilities, which is energy and maintenance-intensive and discharges brine byproduct into the sea.


WaterFX Aqua4™ CSS Concentrated Solar Still

– Power the operation from geothermal and solar thermal sources on site , to be developed. Credible estimates suggest that “thousands of megawatts” of power could be developed on site.


– Use the cooler ocean water (approx. 20 degrees centigrade at lower levels) for single pass efficient cooling towers.

– Construct a conduit, then transport 1.3 million acre-feet of desalinated water annually to the California Aqueduct 20  miles to the north of the lake and 2000 feet higher (actually about 50 miles from the likely desalination site at the lake’s South end), where it would then flow mostly downhill west to California population centers and farms. Currently, the southern leg of the Aqueduct system transports water from the Colorado River to California.

– The Salton Sea could again be used for high-quality recreation and even aquaculture.

– Local water agencies are said to be feeding approximately 150,000 acre-feet/yr. of Colorado River water into the Salton Sea, nowhere near adequate to replenish and maintain it at levels needed for remediation and use for recreation. The project would provide levels needed to restore the Salton Sea, then a smaller amount needed to maintain it on an ongoing basis.

–  Resulting desalinated water would have approximately 200 ppm (parts per million) of saline content, much purer than Northern California water containing about 500 ppm. Current Colorado River water coming in is about 700-800 ppm salt.  In contrast, the Ocean saline level is approx. 35,000 ppm.  The Salton Sea is even more concentrated than that right now and getting rapidly more so.


Revenue would result from:

– Desalinated water produced at a fully absorbed cost in a range of $500 to $995/acre ft., if all elements of the program are accepted and work out- far less than some other projects in the works.  It is suggested that 1 million acre-feet annually be used to replenish/dilute the Salton Sea and another 1.5 million acre-feet be transported to California customers to replace existing supply from the Colorado River, which would be redirected to regional customers.  This could be scaled up later if initial efforts work out and when demand is there.

– Remediation fees to restore the Salton Sea to usable condition.

– Windfall taxes from enhanced value real estate due to Salton Sea restoration.

– Enhanced sales taxes from real estate/business/ recreational development in region.

-Aquaculture direct revenues or user fees.


“The reservoir is always full”


Greg Nyhoff, Oxnard, CA City Manager

“The reservoir is always full.” Those were the words of new Oxnard, CA City Manager Greg Nyhoff when presented with the concept and then made that observation, according to Hasan. Oxnard is struggling with its own half billion dollar water projects and would love to have some help.







Mexican Cónsul Ana Berenice Díaz Ceballos Parada (below), in Oxnard, CA also had a very positive initial reaction. She said “This is great. It will create a lot of business.”



Some non-technical technical notes:

– It could cost $5-10 billion to build the 150 mile conduit system from The Gulf of California.

– Cost to build a 50 mile conduit system to the CA Aqueduct 20  miles to the North of the Salton Sea and 2000 ft higher, might be estimated in about two months.

– The cost to build distillation facilities, per 1 million acre-feet capacity, might be estimated in about two months, but will likely shrink due to future technology and scale improvements.


San Andreas fault near Salton Sea

– In the spirit of full disclosure, we must mention that the San Andreas fault skirts the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, which would surely affect project design and cost. It can be handled.

–  The cost and mode of electrical generation capacity to be built per 1000 megawatts (geothermal, solar), might be estimated in about two months.

– To transport 1MM acre-feet annually at low velocity, to minimize conduit surface “scour” or erosion, requires an equivalent approximately 35-40 ft cross-section pipe. However much of the transport, except for uphill portions, could be done via open channels, at lower cost of construction and operation.

– Energy requirements for transporting water from Gulf of California, per million  acre-feet per year, – might be estimated in about two months.

– Total fully absorbed operating costs per million acre feet might be estimated in about two months.

– Energy requirements for water desalinating to 200 PPM, per million acre-feet per year, might be estimated in about two months.

– Energy requirements for transporting water from Salton Sea to California Aqueduct, per 1MM acre-feet per year might be estimated in about two months.

– There is a pilot project underway for the proposed distillation method. This demonstration project is to run at 2000 gallons/day.  Scale-up potential is unconfirmed, but individual units with 70 acre feet capacity are advertised on the website as “the Aqua4™ CSS” (Concentrated Solar Still).  The by-product of the process is solid salt instead of brine which makes disposition easier. Thermal storage is used to capture excess heat for operation during times when there is no available solar energy, allowing the system to operate consistently 24/7.  By the time this project would come to fruition, technology and cost effectiveness will have improved significantly.

– Geothermal power sources in the area are said to be shallow access of only 120-200 ft.

– The Salton Sea volume would be about 8 million acre-feet. The surface would be well over 300+ square miles, so evaporation loss in the local climate would be  significant- in the neighborhood of 1 million acre-feet annually.

– Much of the conduit system from the Gulf of California would go through Mexico

– Mexico would want some benefit from the program, but might also be expected to contribute to it.


Where does this all stand now?

The “International Integrated Water Project” is a high level concept by two visionaries. They have done some of the  homework to help establish its possibility and general operational and financial parameters. But it needs a formal concept study and a funding source as the next step. From there, a more intense feasibility study might confirm that work and produce a high level design, so that options could be developed, leading to decisions, commitments, then detailed planning, funding, construction and operation, which the pair estimate would be about 15 years in the future.

Hasan and Capron will be meeting with major water agencies in the next few weeks, then federal agencies and other entities to pitch their idea and test receptivity. It occurs to us that such an out of the box, broad strokes vision may need help from other stakeholders as well, since it transcends just water supply issues.

Seeing how long some of these things actually take, with competing interests, delays, hemming and hawing, fits and starts, it would seem that some extra motivation is required. To paraphrase the now immortal words of former Obama aide and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel- you never want to let a good crisis go to waste. And we may have one now.



Hazard’s toll: The costs of inaction on the Salton Sea



George Miller is Publisher of Citizensjournal.us and a “retired” operations management consultant, active in civic affairs, living in Oxnard.

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