Smart City

West Coast & Water Innovation: A Raindrop in the Drought?

As Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US, sank to its lowest water level over the past 14 years last month, California seems to reach a critical point of concern toward water scarcity. Is Tech Innovation able to deal with California’s water issue?

Built in 1936, Lake Mead now contains less than 2 trillions gallons of water, less than half it contained back in 2000. Las Vegas relies mainly on this lake through two tunnels ironically nicknamed “straws” which supply about 90% of the demand, but those two will soon be sucking air instead of water if “Sin City” doesn’t solve out its water dependence. According to the Climate scientist Tim Barnett, the lake could be empty by 2036 if Vegas keeps on this pace.

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 What about California that has been facing a major drought for years now? For one, the decline of State and Federal financial support for major water saving plans over the past decade has stressed the situation. Today, most Californian cities rely mainly on imported water: according to San Diego Water Authority, the city imports about 80% of its water.

 Still, the global water market is estimated at about $600 billion, and this leads Scott Bryan, the chief operating officer at the non profit Imagine H20, to ask : “Why don’t we have more entrepreneurs and investors looking into this issue?”

 The truth is that more and more companies are trying to solve the water scarcity issue, reinventing desalination, treating waste to (re)use grey water , focusing on efficient ways to produce more water with less energy, and even state organizations encouraging innovation by releasing funds. An interesting example is the Carlsbad desalination plant that received approvals from San Diego County Water Authority for a $1 billion project to create a desalination plant that will provide 50 Million gallons of fresh water per day by 2015 using half the energy usually needed for such plants. But more broadly this is an opportunity for innovative startups to apply breakthrough technology  reducing water use, creating devices detecting leaks in the water distribution systems, improving wastewater treatment and even using drones to help growers optimize their water usage. Innovation also come from countries that face similar problems; California has a partnership with Israel on innovative solutions to face the Water Crisis..

 But a larger gain can be obtained by changing consumption habits. Innovation can pave the way towards water consumption reduction, but a far more rewarding and sustainable solution is only attainable with water conservation. The Lake Mead’s situation speaks for itself: instead of questioning its habits in water use, Las Vegas want to bypass Water scarcity in Lake Mead by building a $15 billion new pipeline from an aquifer in inner Nevada. According to Barnett, even if this project comes to light, the city will eventually have to reduce the population of Vegas.

Here are some numbers: even if we can commend Las Vegas on cutting by  40% its water use over the past 25 years, each person still uses 219 gallons a year on average and the city’s population has tripled; the water demand is still growing. In comparison, San Franciscans use only 49 gallons a year. The Study of Cahill and Lund comparing California and Australia shows that the latter managed to create a consciousness toward water scarcity, enforcing a smarter use of water.

 Still, the American government recently began to implement more rules aiming at reducing water consumption. July 15th the State Water Resources Control Board imposed the first-ever rule to penalize water wasters, charging a $500 fine in order to prevent people from watering driveways and sidewalks or using drinking water for decorative fountains. This rule could promote recycled water use.

 Combining water saving practices, water reuse, and the development of innovative wastewater recycling could save up to 14 million acre-feet which would be enough to supply all California’s cities for a year according to the National Resources Defense Council.

 The State has so far based its efforts on making people aware of the water scarcity using fines and increased prices as a threat but that won’t have a sustainable impact.  What is the right incentive? According to Dean Amhaus, head of the Water Council, “saving money on water bills isn’t going to be a big motivator” as “water has been cheap and it will continue to be cheap”. But people have to realize that the threat “is not the price, it’s whether its even going to be available”.

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