San Diego How it works is an industrial secret, say the founders of Aqua Genesis LLC, a San Diego company that intends to clean up the Salton Sea and in the process make thousands of acre-feet (one acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons) of potable water available for use in Southern California. The secret they are speaking of is the device on which the hopes of their company will rise or fall. "But we can describe the process," says the company's chief executive officer Ronald Newcomb. "It is an atmospheric pressure, closed air loop condensation system."
Newcomb's partner Douglas Firestone invented the apparatus, which is housed by a box 20 feet long, 12 feet high, and 6 feet wide. It has no moving parts, but since salt water flows through its interior structures, the entire unit is made of stainless steel. Entering salt water is heated to temperatures near -- though still under -- boiling. Cold water also runs through the system, cooling the hot water. The process causes condensation of the salt water, removes its salt, and sends the resulting distilled water away as its product. This water, according to Newcomb, is purer than the bottled water you buy in a supermarket.
Aqua Genesis's founders both grew up in Mission Hills in the 1950s and '60s. They are entrepreneurs and inventors with several patents each. In order to start the new firm, Newcomb has dissolved his company Autek LLC, which designed aviation applications for the military. He has operated a number of other businesses, including an FM radio station. Firestone is the great- grandson of tire magnate Harvey Firestone. He has acquired several patents in solar technology and, in the early 1980s ran the first company selling electricity online to SDG&E.
In the first phase of the Aqua Genesis plan to remedy the Salton Sea, a complex of Firestone's units would be assembled at the Sea's Bombay Beach near Niland, California. (Eventually the company plans to produce over 5000 of the units at a factory in Nevada.) The plant would siphon Salton Sea water, which has a percentage point higher salinity level than ocean water's 3.5 percent. The water would then be heated with geothermal energy drawn from 4700 feet below ground. Geologists, according to Firestone, know water in the area at that depth to be 656 degrees F. Once its heat has been taken and its pressure used to move Salton Sea water through the plant, the operation would return the groundwater to its source.
But desalinating the Salton Sea would also lower the lake's water level; it is already losing much of the runoff it received from Imperial Valley farms, established prior to agreements that send Colorado River water to parts of California. So new water must be brought to the Salton Sea to protect its geographical size, water level, and environmental integrity. The second phase of the Aqua Genesis plan addresses this problem.
Newcomb and Firestone think the best solution is to bring in ocean water from the Gulf of California. They know of only one other plan that intends to replace lost Salton Sea water with ocean water. That plan proposes pumping the ocean water from and to either the Gulf of California or the Pacific Ocean near Oceanside. Pumping over such a distance would require great expenditures of energy.
Aqua Genesis proposes instead to build a canal from the Gulf of California to Mexicali and then a 13-mile complex of pipes and a tunnel to bring the water over the California border and into the All American canal near Calexico. From there it would flush out the New River, which eventually flows into the Salton Sea. The New River, according to Newcomb, is now the most polluted river in America.
On the border, Aqua Genesis would use its condensation technology in another desalination plant for treating the ocean water flowing into the U.S. It would send some of the resulting distilled water to American farmers near Calexico and enough back to Mexico to fill up the now dry Laguna Salada and make it the beautiful, fish-rich lake it once was. The operation there would produce enough salt, according to Newcomb, to send nine million tons a year to Mexico to establish a thriving salt industry south of the border.
In that way, argues Newcomb, Aqua Genesis is not merely taking a valuable resource from Mexico. He couldn't believe one plan, he says, that called for dumping the brine by-product back into Mexico.
Newcomb and Firestone have submitted their plan as an "unsolicited proposal" to the Salton Sea Authority headquartered in the small Imperial County town of La Quinta. The authority is a joint-powers organization of Riverside and Imperial Counties, the Imperial Irrigation District, and the Coachella Valley Water District.
The current "built-out cost estimate" for the project, according to the Aqua Genesis analysis, is $4.5 billion. The company is proposing that government funding, private funding, or various combinations of the two pay these expenses. Government funding would require bonds to be issued, while private plans would result in backers taking profits. But all costs of the project, say Newcomb and Firestone, can be mitigated through the sale of the water and salt it will produce for decades to come.
Four and a half billion dollars is a daunting figure, but California is desperate for water, and now the Salton Sea, says Newcomb, "is the greatest looming environmental disaster in American history." The Salton Sea Authority's own webpage names one of its sections "Countdown to Disaster." On a recent check, the number of days posted was 5073, or close to 15 years. After that time, like the Dead Sea in Israel, the Salton Sea will no longer support a biotic community. The reason is that, although it is California's largest lake with 367 square miles of water, the Salton Sea's salinity level is rising at an alarming rate. Newcomb estimates that when its salinity level rises from its current 4.5 percent level to about 10 percent, it will no longer be viable.
Death of the Salton Sea would destroy a major north-south migratory bird flyway and what was once among the most productive sport fisheries in California. It would also wreak havoc on the tourist industry and property values in the area. The lake already gives off the pungent stench of dinoflagellate algae that blooms uncontrollably due to phosphates and fertilizers entering the lake from surrounding farms. In recent years, algae have killed tons of tilapia, a fish that normally adapts to high salinity and temperatures. But the excess algae in the lake clings to the fish's gills, depriving them of oxygen. According to the September/October 2000 issue of the Endangered Species Bulletin, when brown pelicans ate the dead fish, hundreds of them died from type C botulism.
The major current problem for the Salton Sea is that it is losing more water through evaporation than it receives from incoming sources. Until now the Salton Sea Authority's proposed solution has been to build a dike across the middle of the lake. Then all inflows would be pumped to its northern half, and the southern half would eventually dry up. That would reduce the lake's surface area by 50 percent. A smaller lake would keep a better balance between evaporation and inflow, thereby maintaining high enough water levels.
But recent studies have shown that a 50-foot layer of mushy sediment lies at the Salton Sea's bottom. That makes construction of a dike on the lake impossible. Besides, says Newcomb, the Salton Sea is situated at the southernmost end of the San Andreas Fault. And the Sand Hill Fault and several other fault lines fan out from that point south.
In the event of a substantial earthquake in the area, the dike, says Doug Firestone, "would bend like a Hershey bar in the hot sun."
Newcomb claims that the Salton Sea Authority has "tentatively approved" his company's plan after rejecting a hundred others. But Dan Cain, a senior administrative analyst with the authority and the project manager assigned to the proposal, says he knows little about the plan because, so far, the company has yet to demonstrate that its technology will work. "If they demonstrate in San Diego that it works," he says, "or come down to the Salton Sea, set up, and show us that it works here, then we can look more seriously at it."
Aqua Genesis would like to test its plan in San Diego if the company can find a producer of waste heat, like a power plant. "That would be better than sending hot water into the ocean," says Newcomb. But if the company can't find anyone to work with in San Diego, they will do a test run at the Salton Sea, though they plan to save money by not digging yet for geothermal energy.
"Doug tested the system a year ago in Nevada," says Newcomb, "but tore it down without third-party verification. If we were further along at the time with our business plan, we would have had someone come in, verify the data, and 'kick the tires,' if you will. So now we have to redo that."
San Diego State University geology professor Eric Frost, who has worked at the Salton Sea and already uses it as "a teaching laboratory," is upbeat about the Aqua Genesis plan. "[Newcomb and Firestone] are doing out-of-the-box thinking," he says. "At the Salton Sea, I've seen people in the box who would rather argue forever about old solutions."
Frost goes on to say that if Aqua Genesis is successful, the implications for other water-starved regions in the Middle East, Pakistan, China, and elsewhere "would be extraordinary, and the Salton Sea people could end up becoming worldwide leaders."