Photo collage of JFK

Making the Deserts Bloom

Harnessing nature to deliver us from drought.

In the late 1950s a Texas town on the Gulf of Mexico was suffering from a devastating, decade-long drought. But while the wells ran dry, the ocean lapped at the town’s shore, taunting the thirsty residents with its endless supply of undrinkable water. Undrinkable, that is, until President John F. Kennedy stepped in to save the day with the promise of science. The evolving technology of desalination wouldn’t just end droughts: it would give us as much water as we wanted. It would allow us to inhabit otherwise uninhabitable places. It would let us make the deserts bloom. But at what cost?


Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producers: Rigoberto HernandezAlexis Pedrick
Reporter: Rigoberto Hernandez
Photo illustration by Jay Muhlin


Music courtesy of the Audio Network.

Research Notes

Barringer, Felicity. “As ‘Yuck Factor’ Subsides, Treated Wastewater Flows from Taps.” New York Times, February 9, 2012. 

Burnett, John. “When the Sky Ran Dry.” Texas Monthly, July 2012. 

Countries Who Rely on Desalination.” World Atlas. 

Gies, Erica. “Desalination Breakthrough: Saving the Sea from Salt.” Scientific American, June 6, 2016.

Is Desalination the Future of Drought Relief in California?PBS NewsHour, October 30, 2015.

Jaehnig, Kenton, and Jacob Roberts. “Nor Any Drop to Drink.” Distillations, November 2018.

Leahy, Stephen, and Katherine Purvis. “Peak Salt: Is the Desalination Dream over for the Gulf States?Guardian, September 29, 2016.

Madrigal, Alexis. “The Many Failures and Few Successes of Zany Iceberg Towing Schemes.” Atlantic, August 10, 2011.

Miller, Joanna M. “Desalting Plant Opens Amid Surplus.” Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1992.

President Hails Desalting Plant; He Flips Switch to Dedicate Water Project in Texas.” New York Times, June 22, 1961. 

Pulwarty, Roger, John Wiener, and David Ware. “Bite without Bark: How the Socioeconomic Context of the 1950s U.S. Drought Minimized Responses to a Multiyear Extreme Climate Event.” Weather and Climate Extremes 11 (2016): 80–94.

Rivard, Ry. “The Desalination Plant Is Finished but the Debate over It Isn’t.” Voice of San Diego, August 30, 2016. 

San Diego’s Oversupply of Water Reaches a New, Absurd Level.” Voice of San Diego, February 2, 2016. 

With the Drought Waning, the Future of Desalination Is Murkier.” Voice of San Diego, June 5, 2017.

The Year in San Diego Water Wars.” Voice of San Diego, December 29, 2015.

Simon, Matt. “Desalination Is Booming. But What about All That Toxic Brine.” Wired, January, 14, 2019.

The 1976–1977 California Drought: A Review.” California Department of Water Resources, May 1978.

Voutchkov, Nikolay. “Desalination—Past, Present and Future.” International Water Association, August 17, 2016. 

Video Archive

The California Drought 1976–77: A Two Year History” (video). California Department of Water Resources.

The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Drought in the West.” Broadcast on February 11, 1977. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA, and Washington, DC, accessed March 19, 2019.

White House Today (1961).” Lake Jackson Historical Museum, 1961. Texas Archive of the Moving Image.

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