NASA is now predicting a “megadrought” as early as 2050 that might last 30 or more years and transform a broad swath of the United States into an arid Dust Bowl. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase along current trajectories, say NASA researchers, there is a staggering 80 percent likelihood of the Southwest and Central Plains experiencing a decades-long megadrought worse than any that has occurred in the past 1,000 years.
Such radical climate change would require radical innovation. With that in mind, here are some of the radical water technology innovations – many of them far too expensive and speculative now – that may become more cost-effective and attractive by the time Dust Bowl II hits.
1. The Internet of things
The low-hanging fruit when it comes to water innovation is simply making the entire system of bringing water from source to market more efficient and effective. One way to manage and conserve water better is to hook up America’s water infrastructure to the Internet and enable real-time monitoring via sensors. Pipes, wells, treatment plants, just about anything can become smarter once it’s hooked up to the Internet. Loss management and loss detection then becomes much easier.
For that reason, there has been a noticeable focus on companies and start-ups that use sensors and data tools to manage water infrastructure. For example, WellIntel makes the process of managing well water and aquifers more efficient by providing sensors that monitor water levels in wells. Another company – WatrHub – wants to become the “Bloomberg terminal for water” by providing a dashboard of data analytics for water industry professionals.
2. Agricultural drones
You’ve heard the statistics – 80 percent of all water in the United States is consumed by the agricultural sector. No wonder, then, there’s been a focus on new ways of ensuring that all water within the agricultural sector gets used more efficiently. For example, Tal-Ya manufactures a polypropelyne tray that covers a plant’s root system, directing water and fertilizer directly to the root, while protecting the earth around the root from weeds and extreme temperature. Another company – CSS (California Safe Soil) – has developed a new process that helps to recover nutrients and water from discarded food and transform them into fertilizer for farms.
One emerging trend is the use of unmanned drones to provide aerial imagery for farms, ranches and vineyards. With this imagery, farmers and growers get more data on their crops and can allocate their water resources more efficiently. Two companies – Precision Hawk and TerrAvion – may benefit if the FAA relaxes its rules on drones. Francis Ford Coppola Winery, for example, has already partnered with TerrAvion as an early beta tester to monitor irrigation and fertilization at some of its estate vineyards.
3. Massive seawater desalination projects
Transforming salty seawater into drinkable water is an idea that makes intuitive sense, but it’s always been just so cost-prohibitive and energy-intensive to make it work. You might burn so many hydrocarbons doing this that you mess up the climate even more. As a result, only a handful of nations — including Saudi Arabia, China and Israel – have seriously explored massive seawater desalination projects.
Its easy to see how California — now experiencing a major drought despite being located next door to the Pacific Ocean – would be a prime candidate to embrace a massive seawater desalination project. In 2016, San Diego will become a national leader with the scheduled launch of its brand-new Carlsbad Desalination Project, which will become the largest desalination project in the Western Hemisphere. If this works, there could be plans for more of these desalination plants along the California coastline.
4. Recycled wastewater
The idea of drinking “recycled” water may strike many as being repulsive – and even watching a YouTube clip of Bill Gates taking a swig of water from the Janicki Omniprocessor probably won’t make it any more attractive. Singapore was an early pioneer of the whole “toilet to tap” movement, and the technology appears to be becoming more and more mainstream – Singapore even markets its own recycled water the same way you might market a bottle of Evian. In Australia, BioGill’s “bioreactors” that use bacteria to recycle wastewater are now deployed in tourist parks and resorts.
California is a leader in getting behind this trend. The Delta Diablo Recycled Water Technology Pilot, currently being tested now in a partnership with Stanford researchers, is one example of how it might work in practice. In the United States, the technology use case for “bioreactors” is still speculative, although the Pentagon has explored the options for using bacteria to transform sludge into drinkable water for its soldiers in Afghanistan and relief workers in Haiti.
5. Citizens as water micro-entrepreneurs
At a time when “paying the water bill” is something that doesn’t seem ripe for innovation, there are actually a handful of U.S. companies that are working on designing new data-driven software solutions for urban water users. California has already experimented with “behavioral water efficiency” techniques. In one scenario, water utility customers receive an individualized report on their water usage that compares how much they are using compared to their neighbors, and then gives recommendations on how to use less water. That reduces water demand, since nobody wants to be the neighborhood water hog.
Push on this “behavioral modification” concept a bit, and you could imagine more extensive programs that fundamentally change the way people think about water. For example, America’s water utilities could rip a page from the playbook of the emerging world, where notions such as micro-loans for micro-entrepreneurs first took off. Using a similar approach, Drinkwell has pioneered a “micro-franchise” model for turning the rural poor in nations such as India, Laos and Cambodia into water micro-entrepreneurs. Water is no longer a “utility,” but simply a business model that can be franchised out to entrepreneurs.
6. Extreme weather modification
Ever since Beijing used cloud seeding techniques to prevent rainfall over the city during the 2008 Summer Olympics, people have been fascinated by the idea of “weather modification.” China, in fact, was the first nation to create a Weather Modification Bureau. Currently, 24 countries practice some form of weather modification, including the United States, which has looked into ways to minimize the impact of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.
Based on that initial work, Bill Gates and Richard Branson have championed new geoengineering techniques that go well beyond changes to the local weather and start to impact the earth’s climate. Researchers from Harvard and Stanford have already proposed geoengineering concepts for the earth’s atmosphere. Some of the ideas for dealing with droughts, admittedly, sound like something out of a science fiction movie – flooding Death Valley with seawater via a canal from the Pacific Ocean or wrapping Greenland with blankets to capture freshwater ice. Yet, there are some examples, such as China’s massive “grand canals,” that hint at how massive changes to the Earth may be the ultimate Hail Mary pass to bring water to parched regions.
Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.