[env-trinity] Fresno Bee 4 3 10
bwl3 at comcast.net
Mon Apr 5 10:36:46 PDT 2010
I will keep my thoughts to myself.
Water-cleaning project may aid Valley farms
By Mark Grossi
A surprising marriage of molecular chemistry and business might soon end
the slow poisoning of lucrative farmland in the nation's largest irrigation
The science will be blended with business later this year in a $3.2 million
project to pump trapped farm drainage from beneath crop fields in Westlands
Water District, purify the bad water and harvest contaminants as valuable
One big plus for taxpayers: It might eliminate most of the $2.7 billion
price tag federal officials have estimated to clean up the salty water
beneath 200,000 acres.
As bonuses, the project would remove the global-warming gas carbon dioxide
from the air and eventually run on a renewable fuel, such as biogas from
manure or cogeneration with crop wastes.
It's possibly a high-tech Holy Grail for the west San Joaquin Valley, where
billions of gallons of used irrigation water are perched on shallow layers
of clay beneath crops. The briny water slowly rises as irrigation takes
place. It already has made thousands of acres unusable, putting some farmers
out of business.
The contamination has lingered for decades, mostly because no one knows how
to economically filter the bad water beneath this big swath of land -- which
has a footprint two-thirds the size of Los Angeles.
The pilot project, spearheaded by westside farmer John Diener and a
joint-venture company, is supposed to clean up about 200 gallons per minute
through desalination, a well-known filtering process used on ships to
provide drinking water right out of the ocean. Officials with the company
say they can clean out such troublesome contaminants as boron, selenium and
The newest part of the approach will be the removal and chemical alteration
of several tons of salt from each acre-foot of water. The salt will be
converted to marketable chemicals commonly used in plastics, glass and
Officials said the cost to clean up the water this way might be as high as
$2,500 per acre-foot -- an acre-foot is equal to 326,000 gallons or a year's
supply for an average family of four. But by selling products created in the
process, the resulting clean water might cost farmers about $300 per
"I can't say if it's the whole answer to our problem," said Diener, a former
Westlands board member. "But I think we're quite a bit further down the road
For decades, the cleanup has been Diener's passion. He has worked on
committees and invested in attempts to recycle the dirty water on his own
He says the pilot project will clean up dirty water beneath a 640-acre field
of his and produce enough water to irrigate the field. The next hurdle would
be expanding the process to clean up more of the billions of gallons of
It was Diener who connected with water-treatment specialist Ron Smith, based
in San Francisco, to talk about Westlands' drainage water. Realizing the
problem was more than water treatment, Smith found Deane Little, a molecular
biophysicist who runs New Sky Energy in Colorado.
New Sky uses carbon dioxide in converting salt to products that are
well-established manufacturing staples, such as polymers and carbonates.
Other products include baking soda, lime or carbon fibers for manufacturing.
Smith and Little started a joint-venture company called Ag Water-New Sky to
work on the Westlands problem.
Little said the concept worked for his company because he needed a big
supply of sodium sulfate or salt -- which is abundant in the trapped water
"We weren't really thinking of the Central Valley and its salt problems,"
Little said. "We were wondering where we would get all our sodium sulfate."
There are other challenges in which Little's expertise helps. The brew of
chemicals in the farm drain water includes calcium and magnesium, which have
clogged expensive desalination filters in the past.
Little said one of the products his company makes from salt and carbon
dioxide is sodium carbonate, a chemical water softener. When mixed with the
raw water before desalination, it converts the calcium and magnesium into
useful chemicals and prevents their fouling the desalination membranes.
Converting the salt to a marketable product is basic chemistry common all
over the world. Little's twist on the process is trapping carbon dioxide
from the air and combining it with the salt. But the process uses a lot of
electricity to get the needed chemical reactions.
"The cost for electricity is about $400 daily and represents about five
months usage for an average residence," Little said. "However, that is small
demand for an industrial manufacturer."
Water-treatment expert Smith said the new company will try to create
electricity using biomass, such as manure, crops or even human waste solids
This melding of science and business differs from the federal government's
multibillion-dollar plan, which involves buying and retiring a lot of
farmland on the west side.
In the past several years, a federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation and taxpayers are on the hook for the cleanup.
Westlands officials say the federal government has agreed to pay for the
pilot project, though Bureau of Reclamation officials could not confirm it
because the drainage-water case is still in court.
Smith said he hopes the pilot project will jump start a broad cleanup and
save a big part of west-side agriculture.
"There's a lot of work that still needs to go into this," he said. "But this
could be a very efficient project that makes good business sense and is good
for the environment."
Byron Leydecker, JcT
Chair, Friends of Trinity River
PO Box 2327
Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327
415 383 4810 land/fax (call first to fax)
415 519 4810 mobile
<mailto:bwl3 at comcast.net> bwl3 at comcast.net
<mailto:bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org> bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org
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