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FIREBAUGH, Calif. - What began as an attempt to remove salt from farm water in the Central Valley could provide the key to solving California's water woes.

The Panoche Water and Drainage District has commissioned a pilot project using money from a 2002 state clean water bond measure to desalinate agricultural runoff using heat from a solar collector. Naturally-occurring salt and other minerals has forced tens of thousands of acres of Central Valley farm land to be taken out of production.

The Panoche district has partnered with WaterFX, a startup firm that installed the 65,000 square foot solar collector and desalination plant.

The plant currently produces 10 gallons of fresh water per minute, but WaterFX chairman Aaron Mandell said the collector generates enough heat to make four times that amount and can easily be scaled for even higher production.

"Where we originally stepped in here to solve a drainage problem, now the water districts are realizing this can be a new source of fresh water for them," Mandell said.

Until now, the cost of desalination has limited its commercial appeal. But with California's water problems only getting worse, the largest desalination plant in the country is set to begin operating near San Diego in 2016 and promises to provide water at competitive rates.

Mandell said desalination is so energy intensive, solar power could cut the operating costs in half.

"It's not beyond the realm of possibilities to actually export water from the state," he said.

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