FIREBAUGH People in pickups cruise through the quiet flatlands around here almost oblivious to a $22 million roadside experiment that turns dirty water into a chance for survival for west San Joaquin Valley farming.
Inside a buzzing complex, Jeff Moore talks of membranes and clarifiers as he explains the process of scavenging salt, boron and the infamous natural trace element called selenium.
"Once the water gets squeezed out, this stuff ends up here," says Moore, the plant operations manager, pointing at a bin filled with what looks like mashed, clay-colored dirt.
This is a desalination plant -- a pilot project, started up this summer and doing what no similar plant has been able to do yet on the Valley's west side. It's filtering crop drainage water laden with enough contamination to sterilize the ground or foul a river.
Underwritten by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the system could end a decades-old contamination problem, create a precious new stream of water and save a 97,000-acre piece of farming worth nearly $500 million a year.