As California enters the fourth year of the worst drought in the state’s history, NASA estimates that 11 trillion gallons of water will be needed to recover from this arid rut. While Governor Jerry Brown has implemented a series of wide-ranging measures aimed at curbing water usage, there are efforts underway to engineer the state out of its drought. Some are fairly well-tested—desalination, for example—while others, such as William Shatner’s proposed $30 billion Seattle-Lake Mead pipeline, seem straight-up wacky. Read on to learn more about the good, the bad and the weird big-picture ideas for addressing California’s drought.
Large-scale desalination is a process through which ocean water is pumped to a treatment facility where the salt is extracted through a process of reverse osmosis to make the water fit for domestic use. San Diego County is currently constructing the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere, at a cost of $1 billion. That plant, located in Carlsbad, will provide enough safe water for approximately 300,000 people, and will serve as a major test of the feasibility and expense of utility-scale desalination technology when it begins operation in November.
One of the major downsides of desalination is that it is massively energy-hungry and expensive at the tune of $2,000 an acre foot, and there’s something undoubtedly difficult about generating substantial carbon emissions to address a problem caused by climate change. The United Arab Emirates, however, began testing a solar-powered desalination system in 2011 that would not only be greener, but also cheaper. And now, California-based start-up WaterFX has developed their own homegrown solar-powered desalination system.
All over the planet there are vast pockets of water underground in aquifers – surface water from rain, streams and lakes that has gradually trickled down through all of the dirt, sediments and rocks to form underground reservoirs – and you can drill for these pockets of water the same way as you would drill for oil. California already gets one third of its water supply from underground aquifers, from precipation that fell in CA more than 10,000 years ago! The problem is that there is almost no regulation in California when it comes to groundwater drilling, and it’s basically the Wild West (literally). Some businesses just pump as much as they want, with no regulation and the aquifers are becoming depleted. California’s Central Valley is already showing signs of groundwater depletion where various areas are sinking due to the diminishing groundwater. It’s like sucking the air out of a tire – you see the same affect on the ground when all of the water is sucked out of it.
Joshua Haggmark, a water resources manager in Santa Barbara recently interviewed by Ryot.org, hopes that the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) put forward by the state of CA will help solve the problem of sustainably managing underground water reservoirs. With no rain in sight, the solution to much of California’s water woes will be underground.
Harvesting water from fog sounds a bit crazy, right? Well, it turns out that a beetle found in the Namib Desert, the stenocara, has been happily hydrating from fog for eons. Its bumpy shell features a hydrofilic butt, which it raises in the air to create a layer of condensation when fog rolls in—that condensation rolls down onto a hydrophobic portion of the shell and the beetle is able to drink freshly-harvested water in the middle of the desert.
Which brings us to man-made fog catchers. Fog catchers are basically massive nets that mimic the behavior of the Namib Desert Beetle’s shell, and they’ve been used in the Andes for decades—providing water for sizable towns where rainfall is minimal, but a dense fog rolls in on a regular basis. They’ve even been used successfully in the driest place on earth; Chile’s Atacama Desert.
The technology has improved in recent years, and Canadian non-profit FogQuest has been working to provide catchers in dry, foggy areas around the globe. According to Columbia University their “[f]og collection projects have used from 2 to 100 fog collectors, and depending on the location, each panel can produce 150 to 750 liters of fresh water a day during the foggy season.” And this water meets the World Health Organization’s standards for safe drinking water.
With San Francisco recently recording its first January without rain in 165 years, but still maintaining its signature fog, it’s not inconceivable that the technology could be deployed in Northern California.
Atmospheric Water Generation
In addition to the Chilean-style systems, there are techniques that have been developed for atmospheric water generation which work in areas where the climate is less conducive to fog. Many of these systems rely on harvesting water from dew or humidity, but one of the largest players in the field, Aqua Sciences, have a proven ability to harvest rain in almost any climate.
Aqua Sciences are remarkably vague as to how their technology works, explaining only that their “systems collect and dispense hundreds to thousands of gallons of water daily by capturing and processing naturally occurring water molecules from the air.” They have a contract with the US military and have deployed their 20 foot-long machine in areas such as Haiti and Saudi Arabia, where it has produced 600 gallons of clean water a day.
Make it rain—literally
There are companies now that will promise to ensure you have a clear, sunny sky above your wedding party, so it makes a certain amount of sense there there are also folks out there who believe we can address California’s drought by engineering rain. Rain on Request is one such group. By using ionization technology and a network of towers located around one central, 100-foot tower, they claim to be able to induce rain within a 15-mile radius in the “same way as it naturally occurs,” boosting “precipitation levels from 50 percent to 400 percent.”
Their idea is that this targeted rainfall could be used to sustain agricultural projects or provide fresh drinking water, without requiring the use of chemicals and existing clouds—as is the case with cloud-seeding techniques.
Cloud seeding is a weather modification technology that was developed in the 1940s by a team that included Bernard Vonnegut—brother of Kurt. It’s been widely utilized, including in California in the early 00’s and in other dry states such as Nevada and Idaho.
This geoengineering technique sees silver iodide crystals dispersed across the top layer of clouds where they mimic ice crystals, giving water droplets more to ‘cling on’ to, and in turn boosting precipitation levels—it can be used to either stimulate rain or snowfall. In the latter case it can help ensure healthy snow pack levels to feed rivers in the spring.
There are a few problems with the technology: it has faced wide criticism for altering weather patterns, while at the same time—until recently—it’s been fairly hard to determine whether a cloud was going to produce rain without intervention anyway.
It also may not be all that helpful in the case of extreme drought. As Arlen Huggins, associate research scientist in the division of atmospheric sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., told Scientific American, if an area is “in a drought, they wouldn’t be able to draw enough from cloud seeding, just for the lack of clouds. You treat the storms you have, so cloud seeding certainly isn’t going to bring you out of a drought. The best time to do cloud seeding is when you have normal levels, or higher-than-normal levels, of precipitation. Then you could save the extra water in a reservoir for when you are in a drought.”
According to the Sacramento Bee, over a billion gallons of treated wastewater are pumped out into the Pacific Ocean each year, and this treated wastewater can be perfectly safely recycled for irrigation, toilet flushing, groundwater replenishment, and an array of other uses. There was some opposition to the notion of wastewater recycling in California, largely due to “ick” factor, but as the drought worsens, opposition has largely dried up.
The Association of California Water Agencies reports that there are well over 250 water recycling facilities currently in operation in the state, and in the past year California has done much to incentivize the process. In an effort to meet aggressive goals to recycle 2.5 million acre feet of recycled water by 2030, the legislature has allocated “$200 million in grants to jump-start those efforts and slashed interest rates on $800 million more in loans.” But much more is still needed if California is to reach its 2030 target; according to Circle of Blue an additional investment of between $13 billion and $81 billion will be required.
As we recently reported, William Shatner has announced a slightly harebrained scheme to raise $30 billion on Kickstarter to fund a massive pipeline to pump water from Seattle down to the nation’s largest reservoir at Lake Mead, NV. Setting aside the likelihood that Kickstarter would want no part of this, and the oddity of crowd-sourcing funding for infrastructure rather than raising taxes, building pipelines to move water around the country remains a fairly awful idea.
In the late 1980s, Alaskan governor Wally Hickel proposed the construction of a 1,400-mile-long, 14-foot diameter pipeline to sell California 1.3 trillion gallons of water each year, and studies found that even if this were logistically possible, once the water reached California each gallon would cost 10 times the amount of a gallon of desalinated water.
Rethinking what we eat, what we grow, and making smarter choices
California’s Central Valley produces a large percentage of the food that U.S. consumers eat. And some crops consume a lot more water than others. Take almonds for example. Sure, they’re delicious, nutritious and have become sort of a health-food fad in the past few years (as every artisanal coffee shop worth its chia pudding seems to serve almond milk these days). But these tiny nuts inside the pits of peach-like fruit consume an insane amount of water per almond. It takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce A SINGLE ALMOND. Think about that. Then multiply that 1.1 gallons by bag of almonds and then the 6000 almond farmers in California’s Central Valley who grow an estimate 600 millions pounds of almonds per year. It’s mind-blowing.
It might be time to focus on less water intensive crops – perhaps we need to start promoting “Prickly Pears” (the fruits of cactuses) as the next superfood?
“We have to come to terms with how much water it takes to produce the food that we want and decide what we want as a society, as a community or as a state, how much food we want to grow and then try to do that with the least amount of water,” says Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist and senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The future of agriculture in California depends on smarter crop choices.
Above all, preserve the water we have
California Governor Jerry Brown recently announced a huge number of measures aimed towards reducing the state’s water usage. And while every drop saved counts, and it is, of course, important that we all do what we can on an individual level, some of the measures seem a tad extreme. Restaurants, for instance, can now be fined $500 for serving a customer a glass of water if they haven’t asked for that—in context, drinking water for all of California’s 38 million people reportedly accounts for one-tenth of one percent of the state’s water usage.
In contrast, farmers face no such restrictions, and use 10 percent of all the state’s water to grow almonds—such practices simply aren’t sustainable.
But by far the most egregious offenders are the companies draining California dry to produce bottled water. Nestle was already under fire for bottling groundwater from the Morongo reservation when it was revealed that they had been stealing water from the state’s national forests for over 25 years without a permit. Moveover, Nestle has five bottling plants in California, and the state’s water board doesn’t track how much water any of them use.
While Jerry Brown is absolutely right to step in with water-saving measures, it’s long since time to place strict regulation on industry—starting with bottled water.