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.