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Desalination and Membrane Technologies: Federal Research and Adoption Issues

Congressional Research Service (CRS) | January 2nd, 2015

In the United States, desalination and membrane technologies are used to augment municipal water supply, produce high-quality industrial water supplies, and reclaim contaminated supplies (including from oil and gas development). Approximately 2,000 desalination facilities larger than 0.3 million gallons per day (MGD) operate in the United States; this represents more than 2% of U.S. municipal and industrial freshwater use.

At issue for Congress is what should be the federal role in supporting desalination and membrane technology research and facilities. Desalination issues before the 114th Congress may include how to focus federal research, at what level to support desalination research and projects, and how to provide a regulatory context that protects the environment and public health without disadvantaging desalination’s adoption.

Construction of desalination facilities, like many other types of projects, often requires a significant number of local, state, and federal approvals and permits.  Emerging technologies (e.g., forward osmosis, capacitive deionization, and chlorine resistant membranes) show promise for reducing desalination costs. Research to support emerging technologies and to reduce desalination’s environmental and human health impacts is particularly relevant to future adoptions of desalination and membrane technologies.

The federal government generally has been involved primarily in desalination research and development (including for military applications), some demonstration projects, and select full-scale facilities. For the most part, local governments, sometimes with state-level involvement, are responsible for planning, testing, building, and operating desalination facilities. Some states, universities, and private entities also undertake and support desalination research.

While interest in desalination persists among some Members, especially in response to drought concerns, efforts to maintain or expand federal activities and investment are challenged by the domestic fiscal climate and differing views on federal roles and priorities.


desalination, science management

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