By Paige Donner
“Rain is a blessing when it falls gently on parched fields, turning the earth green, causing the birds to sing.”
— Donald Worster
This was the subject of the conference held March 8th, at Caltech’s campus in Pasadena, as part of the ongoing Caltech/MIT Enterprise Forum. Convened to discuss this juicy premise was Timothy F. Brick, Chair of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) Board of Directors, who gave the Keynote Address and several other learned academics and entrepreneurs, as well as event sponsor Christie Parker Hale, LLP, and moderator Lynn Foster, Emerging Technologies Director, Greenberg Traurig, LLP.
The wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water.
— Ismail Serageldin, World Bank Vice President for Environmental Affairs
We used to think that energy and water would be the critical issues for the next century. Now we think water will be the critical issue.
— Mostafa Tolba, former head of the United Nations Environment Program
Mr. Brick began by stating that, “water is life.” The quality of life on the planet, its ecosystem, and human health, depend on water. It is widely accepted that water will be the “oil” of the 21st century. But, unlike oil, the planet cannot survive without water.
The Metropolitan Water District, which Brick chairs, is the biggest water enterprise in the country. It serves over 18 million people which is a hefty 6% of the nation’s population and half the population of the State of California.
So, what’s the connection between Southern California and the Global state of water? California is a world center for water technology. The MWD of SoCal is used as a global measuring stick in terms of water purification and distribution, and in 2007 they were ranked #1 in water tasting in a global competition.
“Maybe we don’t need bottled water as much as we thought,” commented Brick. But more to the point, Southern California’s scarce indigenous water resources make for a great problem/solution laboratory because if there’s an issue concerning water – conservation, scarcity, recycling, purification, distribution, desalination, sustainability, invasive species – Californians have it and are trying to fix it.
“Let me assure you, California has plenty of water. . . albeit offshore.” – A New Yorker cartoon.
“The water crisis is in need of creative thinking,” stated Brick. “Developing sustainable water supplies for the future is a watershed science. We must change everything we do to make sure our water supplies are sustainable.” The world has seen its global water supply drop 33% since 1970. The MWD encourages a collaborative for development and commercialization of water technology and is interested to hear ideas to this end. It even offers grants to students who pursue this field of research. “There is tremendous commercialization potential in this field,” said Brick, noting that water is still a heavily subsidized commodity and costs roughly $1 for 1,000 gallons.
“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”
— Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Hungarian biochemist and Nobel Prize Winner for Medicine.
“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” W.H. Auden
Charles “Chubb” Michaud, CEO and Technical Director of Systematix Company, pointed out that “water is the ultimate consumer product. Everyone needs it.” He also added that it is underpriced. He agreed that “water is the next energy” and also emphasized that water is taken for granted. For example, in 2007, Southern California had 3 ½ inches of rain, compared with a few years ago when we had 57 inches. And yet residents of Southern California still have green lawns. “Our very success,” interjected Brick, “has led to taking it [water] for granted.”
“When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water.” Benjamin Franklin
According to Michaud, there are two central issues with water:
* Getting it here
* Making it clean enough
Both require a lot of energy. For example, he said, “We can’t build a $100M desalination plant and plug it in to a 110 v. outlet.” He says a step towards sustainability would be for residential consumers to find a safe, easy way to recycle their own gray water.
This past weekend’s buzzed about news item, coincidentally, was the AP story on trace amounts of drugs found in drinking water.
There are 55 billion gallons of water per person on the planet. Michaud pointed out (PDF) that “all water is used water. We’ve had the same amount of water on the planet for millions of years. Sewage is 99% water. We must overcome the ‘Yuck!’ factor of recycled water. Maybe call it ‘previously experienced water.'”
Kidding aside, panelist Dr. Yoram Cohen, Director of UCLA’s Water Technology Research Center pointed out that in Singapore, they have successfully done just that, calling it “new water.” Cohen pointed out that they educate kids starting in kindergarten to prefer “new water” over bottled water. He also cited Israel’s success at recycling 70% of their water as opposed to California’s stats of 1-2%. Israel has also successfully implemented desalination plants and provides 35% of their drinking supply from seawater.
The Water-Energy Nexus
“If we could ever competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from saltwater, ..(this) would be in the long-range interests of humanity which could really dwarf any other scientific accomplishments.”
— John F. Kennedy
It is important to note that while the energy industry is largely privatized, most water (80%) in the U.S. is delivered through public agencies. Water delivery is a major energy user: 19 % of our total consumption of energy in California is used for this purpose.
It is estimated that within 25 years, two-thirds of the world’s inhabitants will live in countries with serious water problems. Increased water demand means higher energy demand. In the U.S., thermo-electric power production is about the same as is used for agriculture production. Advanced desalination processes are yielding high recovery rates – 95%, as claimed by UCLA’s Yoram Cohen – but the energy requirements for the processing are still such that the price of the water yielded is currently much higher than what we currently pay. In Southern California, we import 71% of our water. Yes, our water costs are heavily subsidized.
“Over 1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water, and more than 2.9 billion have no access to sanitation services. The reality is that a child dies every eight seconds from drinking contaminated water, and the sanitation trend is getting sharply worse, mostly because of the worldwide drift of the rural peasantry to urban slums.”
— Marq de Villiers
“Water is fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity. It is a pre-requisite to the realization of all other human rights.”
— The United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights
In the U.S. we use double the amount of water per capita that the world uses and 8 times what someone in India uses.
If you haven’t yet read the AP article cited above, when you do you will pleased to know about these companies who were also presenters at the Caltech/MIT Forum on water.
According to James Harris of Crystal Clear Technologies, based in Oregon, they have developed the NMX™ Technology which extracts metals from water in a water purification system. This is for the removal of targeted contaminants with a focus on heavy metals ex: arsenic, cadmium, mercury, selenium. He calls this “distributed purification” and says his company has developed a “strategy to supply an in-home purification system that will provide consumers EPA standards superior quality water.” He added, “That is, you absolutely DO NOT need to drink bottled water.”
Another company is Sylvan Source which is based in Sunnyvale, California. According to Jim Simmons, Investor and Board Member, they are “redefining clean water.”
Simmons cited a November 2004 article about “Male Fish Producing Eggs in Potomac River,” from National Geographic News to drive home the point we “can’t just rely on EPA standards. We are going after broad, very broad, contaminant reduction.” He pointed out that there are 2,000 new chemicals created every year, in addition to the chemical compounds currently at risk to contaminate our water systems and supply. Their Sylvan Source M-600 “ultra-clean distillation water systems” product is shipping for residential use for broad contaminant removal – things such as solids, germs, viruses, gases/odors, salts and hydro-carbons.
He asked the audience: would we drink water that was once sewage? Several other panelists answered, saying “You likely already have, whether you know it or not.”
The Urban Water Research Center, UC Irvine “Women in Water” April 24th, 2008
UNESCO, USGS and UC Irvine International Conference on Water Scarcity, Global Changes and Groundwater December 1-5, 2008
Follow Paige Donner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/greeninghollywd