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Can We Engineer Ourselves Out of the California Drought?

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When you hear Dr. Matthew Stuber describe the inner-workings of the HydroRevolution plant being constructed by his company in Firebaugh, California, in the heart of the Central Valley, it sounds like magic, not a much-needed solution to the dire problem of water usage and prolonged drought. When finished sometime next year, this solar-powered desalination plant will treat up to two million gallons a day, boiling out natural minerals and salts "like a kettle on the stove." As Dr. Stuber puts it, the system is "replicating the natural life cycle of water," the same ways clouds that form in the ocean from evaporated salt water release clean rain over dry land. Nature finds a way, and perhaps engineers find a better one.

Stuber would be the first to tell you that a long-term solution to the water crisis—which has led to rationing, sinking water tables and acres of brittle, dried trees primed for massive forest fires—requires changing behaviors and lifestyles.
But his company, WaterFX, offers the tantalizing suggestion that technology may be the solution. As an engineer, despite the reality that reservoir systems, agricultural innovations and tech have contributed to a water supply stretched beyond its limits, Stuber sees a bigger role for technology, one that other engineers, planners and municipalities are also trying to expand. From restarting or building desalinization plants to promoting new designs that alleviate shortages, there are numerous methods being tried and tested to help cope with a historic dry spell. As Stuber sees it, a problem with numerous roots requires an array of solutions.

The drought may be relatively recent news, but water issues aren't anything new for California. Much of the new technology being discussed as potential ways to alleviate the issue was already in development due to the state's penchant for water-use issues. San Diego's massive Carlsbad desalination plant, a 50 million-gallon-per-day facility that's been under construction since 2012, falls under that description, with origins in the state's last big drought. Like Stuber's description of the water cycle, desalination goes straight to the source, so to speak; whether it's a good investment, considering the associated energy costs and potential habitat damage is another question entirely.

When San Diego, which used to get its water from LA, had its supplies cut during the 1992 drought, it became imperative to find alternative sources and diversify the city's water portfolio. A few decades later, the answer became the soon-to-open, $1 billion plant, built by a private company called Poseidon and set to be the biggest in the Western hemisphere. The Poseidon project will provide freshwater for roughly 300,000 people at twice the cost of traditional sources. Supporters see the steep markup as the price necessary to have a locally controlled source of water available.

Poseidon also has a similarly sized project up the coast in Huntington Beach in late-stage development, suggesting that others have seen the need to find new sources. Seeing as how a previously constructed desalination plant in Santa Barbara—which promptly shut down after opening and was once an object lesson in the perils of large-scale desalination—is about to be turned back on, it seems the extreme situation in the state has changed the calculus on technological options. It's certainly made the prospect of recycling wastewater much more palatable. The North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program, built upon a six-mile, $100 million pipeline, would send water from the drains of Modesto to farmer's fields (after proper treatment and disinfection).

While rising demand has made some older, speculative technology more cost-efficient, still others are looking beyond previously considered solutions to what's next. The recently launched Dry Futures competition by Archinect is offering prizes for pragmatic and speculative technological solutions to the drought. Many have wondered why there aren't more Silicon Valley startups offering solutions to the problem (though some have been working on efficiency in the agricultural space). According to the tech press, it's partially a matter of matching skill sets; the long-term investment and sporadic nature of such crises isn't the quickest return for venture capital investment.

The HydroRevolution technology Stuber's company has developed will solve a longstanding issue for California's agricultural industry, all without pumping groundwater that drains vital aquifers. Can we engineer ourselves out of this drought? In the end, we have massive population booms, good economic growth is good, and that means more consumption, which puts more stress on the current infrastructure, according to Stuber. While a combination of solutions may be required, it appears that a serious crisis may spur on more imaginative problem solving.

"California is a very large dragon to slay in terms of water," he says.

The Whole Story Behind That Surreal California Drought Photo From the New York Times [Curbed LA]
The Terrifying Stats on Just How Dry Los Angeles Has Been the Past Few Years [Curbed LA]
How The Drought Will Reshape California Landscape Architecture [Curbed]