Can Innovative Water Technologies Save California’s Drought?

Innovative water technologies that have been on the margins for many years could become standard practice because of California’s epic drought. From renewable energy-driven desalination to wastewater recycling, entrepreneurs are working overtime to meet the challenge.

Besides the monumental feat of keeping the water flowing to a multitude of users, California has another goal: to continue bringing greenhouse gas emissions down. Turning to energy-intensive desalination is therefore problematic as a primary solution (the water produced is also quite costly, and the waste harms marine life). That’s where renewable energy comes in.

After piloting its solar desalination process for two years, California-based WaterFX will soon build its first commercial plant to serve farmers in the Central Valley. Rather than tapping the ocean for water, the company uses concentrating solar power to purify wastewater leftover from farming salt-tolerant crops. Otherwise unusable irrigation drainage water is desalinated, providing fresh water for local water districts.

Amazingly, this turns farmers into water producers rather than consumers. Aqua4™ is an “engineered aquifer” for reliably producing freshwater when and where it’s needed. It can treat any kind of wastewater, drainage water, runoff, saline groundwater and industrial process water all onsite through movable, module units. At a cost of about 75% less than conventionally desalinated water, hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water could be freed up through small, distributed units across the state, says the company1.

"Eventually, if this all goes where I think it can, California could wind up with so much water it's able to export it instead of having to deal with shortages," co-founder Aaron Mandell told the San Francisco Chronicle2. "What we are doing here is sustainable, scalable and affordable."

Water Solution September 2015

This form of concentrating solar power uses a “solar trough.” Photo courtesy of WaterFX.

The process also saves energy because water doesn’t have to be transported over long distances. “The cost to pump it to southern California is increasing at a point that it’s now requiring as much, or almost as much energy — in some cases even more energy — than desalinating water in southern California,” Tom Pankratz, editor of the Water Desalination Report told Yale Climate Connections3.

BrightSource, which builds some of the world’s largest solar concentrating projects, is also marketing the technology to power desalination.

In Australia, the world’s first commercial wave energy project is sending electricity to the grid and to a desalination plant, supplying both energy and water.

Another novel, environmentally sound desalination technology is being developed by Voltea, which uses electric fields to remove salts and dissolved solids from water. Its modular devices can be miniaturized to the size of a coffee cup, the company says. And Wind4Water is another start-up company that uses wind to power desalination.

Protecting Water Resources Through Recycling and Conservation

Another cost-effective way to bring water directly to users is to make use of nearby wastewater treatment plants.

About a third of California’s wastewater treatment plants supply recycled water to municipalities, industry and farms, and that will soon double based on projects in the pipeline, according to Bluefield Research4. Potential water sources are huge — only 160 of 470 wastewater treatment plants currently have recycling equipment in the state.

Other technologies that are advancing because of increasing drought are efficient drip irrigation systems; sensors that track the need for water and fertilizer; incentives for homeowners and businesses to xeriscape with desert-loving plants; and meters that give feedback on water use. And deploying more solar and wind energy takes significant pressure off water supplies. While hydropower, coal, natural gas and nuclear all rely on (and often pollute) enormous amounts of water, little is needed to produce electricity from renewable sources.

In the Plains states, unsustainable water withdrawals are depleting the Ogallala Aquifer, the sole water source. These technologies and restoring grasslands are recharging groundwater and conserving billions of gallons of water, according to the Department of Agriculture5.

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Rona Fried

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