Desalination: Status and Federal Issues Page: 4 of 12
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Desalination: Status and Federal Issues
Desalination: The Federal Policy Context
Interest in desalination of seawater, brackish water, and contaminated freshwater has increased in
the United States as the technology's costs have fallen and pressure to develop new water
supplies has grown. Adoption of desalination, however, remains constrained by financial,
environmental, and regulatory and social factors. At issue is what role Congress establishes for
the federal government in desalination research and development, and in construction and
operational costs of desalination demonstration projects and full-scale plants.
Desalination processes generally treat seawater or brackish water to produce a stream of
freshwater, and a separate, saltier stream of wastewater, often called waste concentrate or brine.
There are a number of desalination methods. Two processes, thermal (e.g., distillation) and
membrane processes (e.g., reverse osmosis), are the most commonly used, with reverse osmosis
dominating in the United States. For more information on desalination technologies, see the
Although desalination costs dropped steadily in recent decades, making it more competitive with
other water supply augmentation options, a rise in energy costs could reverse the trend. Electricity
expenses vary from one-third to one-half of the cost of operating desalination facilities.'
Substantial uncertainty also remains about the technology's environmental impacts. Social
acceptance and regulatory processes also affect its adoption and perceived risks. Research may
help to resolve uncertainties and develop methods to mitigate impacts as well as reduce the costs
Questions that may confront the 111th Congress in its consideration of the federal role in
" What is the appropriate level and nature of federal investment in desalination
research and development? For example, will Congress fund research aimed at
reducing the environmental impacts of desalination, or reducing the energy
requirements for desalination, or both?
" Should the federal government participate in and provide incentives for the
construction and/or operation of desalination facilities to address local water
supply needs? If so, should federal involvement be decided on a case-by-case
basis, or should Congress authorize a program to define the level and type of
To date, the federal government has been involved primarily in research and development, some
demonstration projects, and select full-scale facilities. For the most part, local governments,
sometimes with state-level involvement, have been responsible for planning, testing, building,
and operating desalination facilities, similar to their responsibility for freshwater treatment for
municipal drinking water supply.
1 S. Chaudry, "Unit cost of desalination," California Desalination Task Force, California Energy Commission, 2003.
Congressional Research Service
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Desalination: Status and Federal Issues, report, March 31, 2009; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc807841/m1/4/: accessed November 14, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.