Water Innovation for the 21st Century

This week’s blog describes three examples of water innovations.  In the first case an entrepreneur fights city hall to provide a source of clean water for residents of Mexico City. In the second case, a state government entity agrees to pay a publicly traded commercial entity to store water on private land in Florida. In the third case, an engineer calls for a water revolution. 

Retrofitting homes for rain water catchment in Mexico City

Mexico City faces a severe water crisis. The Valley of Mexico aquifer is being overexploited to provide water to its 21 million residents.  As a result, the city is sinking about 1 meter every 10 years.  And yet, citizens of Mexico City still lack sufficient drinking water. Mexico City’s water pipes are old and cracked, springing thousands of leaks that the city government cannot keep repaired. It is estimated that 40% of the available water is lost through these leaks. Some 36% of households are without access to a constant daily flow from their faucets. This lack of drinking water is posing a major health risk, and Mexicans try to compensate by having the highest consumption per capita of bottled water in the world. Without investing billions of dollars in infrastructure to replace the entire system, the government will continue to fail to deliver safe drinking water to its citizens. In crisis mode, and in large part to reduce the probability of political unrest, city officials are delivering water by truck at great cost (PBS Newshour, PBS NOVA).

RainWater_Harvesting_Isla_Urbana_System_ComponentsEnrique Lomnitz, an engineer from MIT with an industrial design degree, has developed a low cost rain water harvesting system and established Isla Urbana to build such systems and educate local residents on harvesting and using rain water. His system, at a cost of $1000, when applied to a typical roof and under average annual rainfall, can provide enough water for two families per year. Mr. Lomnitz estimates that widespread installation of such systems could provide for 30% of Mexico City’s water needs. To date only 1500 rain harvest systems have been installed. The challenge that Mr. Lomnitz and Isla Urbana face in building widespread adoption for this innovative solution is political, governmental inertia, rather than technical. (PBS News Hour).

Water storage and release on private land in Florida

In Florida, water districts are challenged by the unequal and intermittent flow of fresh water into lakes, estuaries, and ultimately the Everglades following heavy rainfall. This challenge impacts agriculture, the environment, the economy of Florida, and the quality of life for its residents.

Under a recent agreement between Florida’s oldest and largest water alico logomanagement district (the South Florida Water Management District), and a major agribusiness with the largest citrus production in the US (Alico, Inc.), more than 34 billion gallons of water will be stored on approximately 35,000 acres of ranch land. This agreement is a first under a Dispersed Water Management program and makes use of private properties to store water and manage its release to avoid overwhelming Lake Okeechobee and coastal estuaries during heavy rain seasons. Property owners gain financially in return for providing a critical water management option.

Water 4.0 for Californiawater 4.0 yale books

“We require a fundamental change in our relationship with water”, says David Sedlak, UC Berkeley professor of civil engineering, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center and author of the recent book Water 4.0: the Past, Present, and future of the World’s Most Vital Resource (Yale University Press, 2014). Over the centuries there was Water 1.0, when Rome built aqueducts and disposed of waste. Water 2.0 saw 19th century Europeans chlorinate and filter drinking water; followed by our present system, Water 3.0, that treats sewage as well. But according to Sedlak, now it’s time to update to Water 4.0.

“If the system remains hidden underground and people just turn on the faucet and don’t think about all the effort that goes into getting the water to them, we can’t have an intelligent discussion about water supply”, Sedlak says (PRI). However, according to Sedlak’s optimistic view, the very crises we face, such as the severe drought that California faces, may just result in sufficient collective will to accomplish a major shift in our relationship with water.  In a recent interview (NPR) Sedlak expressed his optimism that rapid advances in electronics, materials science, and biotechnology will help us solve current challenges.

The first principal of Water 4.0 involves continuing to adopt new technologies for indoor plumbing and elsewhere in the entire water system, technologies that allow greater water conservation. Technology solutions include switching to top-loading washing machines instead of front-loading washing machines and installing more efficient toilets. The modern flush toilet uses 1.5 gallons per flush, whereas vacuum toilets (think airplane toilets) can reduce that flush to 10% of that amount.

The second principal of Water 4.0 refocuses urban residents on local solutions that capture and recycle water. Capturing urban storm water run-off (USG), using seawater desalination plants, and sustaining urban aquifers are all ways to move water management to a local level. While building a reservoir in the middle of a city is nearly impossible, many cities already have urban aquifers underneath them that can store water (NPR). Other local solutions include recycling more water either by returning grey water (water from bathroom sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines) for use in flushing toilets (greywateactionr.org) or by recycling sewage after it’s been treated and returning the clean water back into the water supply.

According to a 2014 report by the Pacific Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), if Californians adopt aggressive conservation, water reuse, and rainwater capture practices, the state could save up to 17.3 million cubic meters of water, more than the amount of water used in all of California’s cities in a single year.

Lessons from Australia’s response to millennial drought

Sedlak and others point to Australia’s response to their millennial drought that ended in 2009 as an experience from which Californians can draw important insights. A summary of Australian responses can be found in a presentation at the Public Policy Institute of California on January 12, 2015 by Jane Doolan, fellow of natural resources governance and member of Australia’s National Water Commission.

In brief, the Australian government responded to their country’s extreme drought conditions with policy initiatives that changed their water entitlement system, supported water markets, and provided water for the environment to head off catastrophic impacts to sensitive species and ecosystems. Economic, social, environmental outcomes were considered together. The new paradigm became ‘This is the future”, as opposed to “We need to get through this”.   Australia succeeded in changing its water system in a way that different stakeholders saw as fair and as spreading the pain all around equitably and thus the changes had broad public support.  Specifically they:

  • Improved the water grid at the highest level to enable the movement of water.
  • Adopted efficiency in all sectors:urban households, industry, and rural irrigation systems.
  • Improved infrastructure and adopted smart river management to enable water movement.
  • Gave tools to entitlement-holders to allow them to manage their own risk.
  • Made the water market able to operate under extreme circumstances.
  • Augmented supplies when required.
  • Shifted to an environmental paradigm that was practical, pragmatic, and easily understood.

 

The innovations described above are examples of how countries, states, cities, water management districts and individuals are going beyond incremental improvements to their water management to solve critical water problems.

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