By Michael Casey
California Gov. Jerry Brown has sounded the alarm over the state’s historic drought, warning that it will take “unprecedented actions” to solve the crisis.
That battle cry has produced a brainstorming session like no other – prompting celebrities, tech gurus, politicians and business leaders to offer a range of innovative and outlandish solutions for easing the dry stretch that is now in its fourth year and shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
Much of the talk has been about conserving water, plugging leaks and capturing runoff, highlighted to some degree in the state’s five-year Water Action Plan.
The first-ever statewide water restrictions, aimed at reducing water usage 25 percent, will see 50 million square feet of lawns replaced with drought-resistant plants, restaurants offering drinking water only on demand, and perhaps even golf courses letting their lush greens go brown.
But water savings alone won’t solve a problem of this size.
An analysis earlier this year from NASA satellite data concluded that the state would need 11 trillion gallons of water to recover from its dry spell. That’s roughly equivalent to filling up Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, one and a half times.
And the drought is only getting worse. With the El Nino weather pattern arriving too late and too weak to help replenish water in the region after record-low snowpack this winter, much of the West is in for another year of wildfires and more dry conditions.
As a result, the talk has turned to diversifying the state’s water resources. To some degree, that has meant dusting off grandiose projects like piping in water from out of state or expanding on technologies that convert wastewater or saltwater into clean water that could be used for industrial, agriculture or even drinking purposes.
Some voices have revived talk that dates back the late 1980s of building a pipeline to deliver water from out of state. Then, it was water from Alaska. Now, it’s William Shatner of Star Trek fame proposing to raise $30 billion for plan to pipe water from Seattle.
Never mind that much of the state of Washington is also in the grips of drought.
“I want $30 billion…to build a pipeline like the Alaska pipeline,” he told Yahoo Tech. “Say, from Seattle — a place where there’s a lot of water. There’s too much water. How bad would it be to get a large, 4-foot pipeline, keep it above ground – because if it leaks, you’re irrigating!”
Nancy Vogel, a spokesperson for the California Department of Water Resources, said neither Shatner’s plan nor anything like it is actually being considered.
“It would be cost prohibitive,” Vogel told CBS News. “Even if you could clear the environmental and legal hurdles, it runs counter to the state’s policy of reducing our reliance on imported water. We are not looking to take water from the Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest or Alaska.”
The state is, however, moving ahead with a $25 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan that includes the construction of two tunnels that would pump water from Northern California to the southern part of the state.
Reuse and desalination technologies seem to be gaining more traction, withdesalination garnering the most headlines of late. Technology that converts seawater into drinking water is standard fare in places like the Middle East where countries have little or no freshwater.
It has been slow to catch on the United States, mostly due to the high cost and huge amounts of energy needed to run the plants. But the drought is making the technology more politically palatable in places like California.
Poseidon Water is one of those companies already taking advantage of the changing attitudes toward unorthodox sources of water. It expects to open the biggest desalination plant in the western hemisphere later this year in Carlsbad, Calif. and is on the verge of winning approval for a smaller plant in Huntington Beach.
“Carlsbad will be a game-changer,” Poseidon’s Vice President Scott Maloni said. The plant is expected to produce 50 million gallons of drinking water each day and supply up to 10 percent of San Diego County’s water needs.
“It will open the door for desalination plants to be considered up and down the coast,” he said.
Another technology that could expand its reach in California is the reuse of everything from storm water to wastewater. Most of the projects so far involve treating the water for use in agriculture fields, cooling industrial process or refilling groundwater aquifers.
“We are only scratching the surface of this incredible resource, which could address scarcity,” Jon Freedman, vice president of government affairs for GE Water & Process Technologies, said of the technology, which he estimates produces up to 10 percent of California’s water.
Among the 35 projects that GE Water has built in the state are one in American Canyon, where 3 million gallons of municipal wastewater each day is treated and used in area vineyards and golf courses. Another system in Redlands treats 6 million gallons of wastewater for use in cooling towers of a local power company, and still another in Oakley treats 4 million gallons, which is then piped into the San Joaquin River to help replenish the delta ecosystem.
The state has not yet gone as far as Singapore, which converts wastewater into drinking water called NEWater. Parched Wichita Falls, Texas, has also given“toilet to tap” recycling a try. And California could be next.
It is drawing up a framework for potable reuse of wastewater, and several municipalities are toying with the idea. San Diego is running a pilot project to test its feasibility, and millions of Orange County residents depend on drinking water that is treated and sent to an aquifer, before being pumped through the taps.
Still, with things so desperate, some are looking even further afield to technologies that might seem more at home in an episode of “The Jetsons.”
One such proposal is something called atmospheric water generation. The technology literally strips moisture from the atmosphere, using a salt solution, and converts it into water.
“We could help dramatically with the California drought,” Abe Sher, the founder and CEO of Florida-based Aqua Sciences, which says it is talks with California and several other drought-stricken states about deploying its technology.
Until now, the company’s technology has been mostly used on a smaller scale to produce water, including at an oil facility in Saudi Arabia and after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. It also is in talks with Chinese officials to deploy its machines and is considering making units for home use.
“We could scale up the technology to produce millions of gallons a day,” Sher told CBS News. “Our source is everywhere on the planet. Even in dry places, there is water in the atmosphere … And it’s actually better than bottled water.”
Another futuristic approach comes courtesy of ionization.
The Florida-based company Rain on Request has developed a system featuring a 100-foot tower and 10 satellite towers 40 feet tall that it claims could induce rainfall within a 15-mile radius. The towers send a charge into the atmosphere, “creating a polarity that is conducive to rainfall,” explains business development manager Larry Gitman. The system requires humidity in the atmosphere or a nearby water source to function.
The company says it could boost precipitation levels between 50 percent and 400 percent. However, while it says the concept has proven effective in testing, it has not yet been put into place by any municipality. An online fundraising campaign on Indiegogo fizzled, raising just a few hundred dollars toward its $1,000,000 goal.
But the company has done the math and says all California needs is 50 of its stations “to solve the drought and restore rainfall levels to the entire state.”
“We think California is perfect for the technology because it’s right along the Pacific,” Gitman told CBS News. “We are in touch with a number of water authorities in California and we are confident that we will have a system in place in the near future.”
Peter H. Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute and a leading expert on water and climate issues, said he has his doubts about some of the more far-fetched proposals.
“There is some controversy on how effective any of these technologies are,” said Gleick, who advocates reuse technologies and cutting waste as the best options for ending the drought.
“There are no shortage of ideas that might work,” he said. “There is a real shortage of ideas that are likely to be economically and politically feasible.”