The Human Condition:

Getting Real About Water – June 21, 2015

Water drop

So California—where I live—is in its fourth year of drought. Snowpack in the Sierra has been meager to naught this past winter, with the high meadows where the official hydrologists take their readings showing fields of brown grass. The system of dams and reservoirs that provide both storage of the annual runoff and hydroelectric power to our utilities is depleted, with water levels down to about 43 percent of available capacity.1 The aquifers from which farmers and communities draw their water locally are also being depleted.2

We’ve been here before, of course. We had severe droughts in 1929-34, 1976-77, and 1987-92. Weather is cyclical and California has always had a Mediterranean, semi-arid climate. It’s just that, since the Great Depression and World War II, and with the boom time/dream time of the 1960s, we’ve been packing in many more people and expanding our agriculture and industry. More people, more farmers, and more businesses are now sucking at straws that occasionally run dry.

The state government’s solution boils down to encouraging and enforcing cutbacks in water use, perhaps leading to outright rationing. This is the simplest and least costly—for the government—approach to a solution. Frame the people and their choices as the source of the problem, require them to make sacrifices, tell them to figure out for themselves how to do with less, and then use your enforcement power to back this approach.

Cutbacks and rationing are, in my opinion, a temporary fix. They will hold us until the rains come again, as they always do. Then we can all forget about the problem and water our lawns and wash our cars again. Cutbacks and rationing will get us past this—forgive the pun—dry spell until things can even out again, as they always do.

But the trouble is, California is still growing. We keep adding people and businesses. We keep expanding agriculture into dry, sandy areas of the southern San Joaquin Valley which, without that artificial irrigation, most strongly resemble desert. The next cyclical drought will be worse than this one, and the one to come after that will be biblical—all without one bit of change in our historic weather patterns. Of course, in the long run, this is a self-solving problem: when living conditions resemble those in war-torn Beirut, where you take your five-gallon jerry can down to the water truck on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays to get your family’s allotment, people will start to leave the state for wetter places. Farmers who can’t make the desert bloom will give up and sell out. Businesses that can’t get a basic resource they need to operate will relocate out of state. When the opportunists and drifters have left, the state’s water will easily serve the very rich and the very poor who remain.3

In the long run, we Californians have some hard choices to make. Sitting here and hoping for rain is not a solution. Relaxing and enjoying the bounty when the rain does come, then being surprised, shocked, and aggrieved when the next drought arrives is a form or either madness or stupidity—a bit like being surprised by your taxes being due on April 15, or having Christmas suddenly come up and you’ve still not done your shopping.

Personally, I believe in providing people with abundance, not scarcity and rationing. I want them to have more living space, more and varied foodstuffs, more water, more transportation options, more health and fitness options, more entertainments and connectivity, more of everything that makes life good. I’m not in favor of waste or excess, but when someone puts out his or her hand to obtain something, then that something should be made available, in variety, and with options. If it costs money to do this—and if someone gets to make a profit by providing the service—then so be it. That is one aspect of personal freedom, and one consequence of allowing free markets. As Henry Kaiser used to say, “Find a need and fill it.” And where need exists, entrepreneurs will find a way to serve it at a mutually agreeable price.

So I believe that we in California must stop thinking of water as something that comes from the sky, is freely available for every need, and that the only costs or charges involved should be those associated with the utility that gathers and delivers the stuff. When you start treating water as a commodity like steel or wheat rather than a natural resource, you open up the prospects for long-term solutions.

One such solution is to diversify our water systems. Right now, in most of the United States and certainly in California, we deliver clean, drinkable water to residences, commercial buildings, and industrial sites to be used for all purposes. We drink it, cook with it, wash with it, and flush with it. The same water, or near enough in purity, is used to grow crops, cool power plants, and support other industrial processes. And once we’ve made that one-time use of this drinkably pure water, we pour it into the sewer, where all the water is treated as toxic bio-sludge and cleaned up to a level where we can then dump it into the river or the bay and send it out to sea. So one approach might be to separate these uses.

We can perform this separation on a county, community, site, or household basis. Drinking water that doesn’t make it into the glass or for cooking can be captured and recycled for washing. Wash water can be filtered to remove dirt particles and chemically treated to remove soaps and detergents, then used for irrigation. Or it can be sent straight to flushing. Sewer water can, with the application of much infrastructure and energy, be brought back up to drinkable levels, or certainly to the level needed for washing, irrigating, and flushing.

The upside of this approach is that the water we have would cycle two or three times through our homes, plants, and communities before going out to sea—if we didn’t capture it at the sewage plant and close the loop entirely. The downside is that we would have to install double piping, traps, surge tanks, and processing units on both the supply side and sewer side in our homes, office buildings, and plants. We would also need to educate all users in drinking only from certain taps and being responsible for what they put into the kitchen sink, bathtub, washing machine, and toilet. For example, in the kitchen, we’ll have to stop disposing of food wastes by macerating them to puree with the InSinkErator®; in the bathroom, we’ll stop using the drain pipe to dispose of excess medicines, toiletries, and hairballs. The plumbing work—both at the site level and throughout the community’s infrastructure—is going to be expensive, but not as costly in terms of economic health and the tax base as seeing our property values dive and our towns fold up for lack of water. The personal retraining is going to be annoying and tiresome, but less work than hauling your jerry can to the water truck three times a week.

Another solution is desalination to increase the basic water supply. After all, we live right next to the Pacific Ocean, a huge amount of water that is only rendered non-drinkable because it contains 3.5 percent salt content. We know how to remove that salt relatively easily and in large volumes, either through various forms of osmosis to manipulate the chemical concentration or through distillation to directly remove the water from the salt and other impurities.4 Such plants require a large capital cost to build and significant operating costs in terms of energy to run.

In my mind, it’s purely a question of engineering and cost whether we process sewage or desalinate seawater in order to obtain our drinking and all-purpose water. In the end, I suppose, we will do some of both, along with the inter-stage recycling steps described above.

The biggest obstacle to these approaches right now—after questions of planning, lead time, and cost—is personal delicacy. We have a mindset in this country that whatever comes out of any tap should be good to drink. That’s been the case for most of the developed world, but not so much in certain parts of Asia and Africa. We in the West wouldn’t mind drinking desalinated seawater, as long as it was served in a crystal goblet so that we could forget it once was a place where fish poop. We recoil at the notion of drinking our own processed sewage, even if it could be rendered chemically pure and shown to contain only H2 and O.

We have to get over that. We must trust chemistry to clean up the water we have on hand. And then we must get over the idea that water is a free resource, like clean air. When I lived in central Pennsylvania, the groundwater was “hard” with chemicals like lime and other natural deposits. You could drink it, but it had a taste. You could wash with it, but it didn’t support much of a lather. Families in town had a water softener unit attached to their domestic water pipes, and we paid the “Culligan Man” to come in regularly to change out the filter cartridge for a monthly fee. So our water, though it came from the ground, wasn’t exactly free.

Clean water, whether by desalination of seawater or chemical processing of sewage, ends up being an energy issue. Both approaches require large amounts of energy to operate. That’s one of the reasons the Saudis are the world leaders in desalination: they have the energy for it. However, even with all their oil, they are rapidly turning to solar energy for this purpose.

My own long-term solution, for countries with their own seashore and lots of sunshine, is solar photovoltaic fields that would drive electrolytic cells to separate hydrogen and oxygen from seawater. You could then choose to capture and compress the two gases—using more solar energy to drive the pumps and compressors—as fuel and oxidizer for sale to fuel transportation or generation needs. Or you could recombine the gases on site in a turbine or fuel cell to make readily available electricity, with the only waste product being huge amounts of pure, drinkable water.5 The plant would have almost no moving parts, other than pumps to handle and compress the gases and move the water, the turbine shaft itself—if you go that route—and the little robots who would go out to clean the surface of the solar cells and collect salt residue from the electrodes. The plant would only run during the daytime, of course, but it would run for free on the sun’s energy. It’s a solution that requires only money and land to plan and build the plant.

Water in California is not a resource problem. It’s an engineering problem. And it’s high time we stopped wishing and hoping and got down to the business of solving it.

1. See, for example, The California Drought, a research project of the Pacific Institute in Oakland California; and Water Conditions from the California Department of Water Resources.

2. See the ground water elevation (GWE) maps from Groundwater Data and Monitoring by the California Department of Water Resources.

3. And no, I’m not going to get into the argument about diverting water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers for ecological purposes under the code name “Delta Smelt.” That’s always going to be a debate about more or less water, rather than absolute amounts. It will never be practical to draw off the entire river flow for communities, agriculture, and businesses and then let California’s interior waterways go brackish up to Sacramento and down to Stockton. For one thing, it would really mess up San Francisco Bay, which would become stagnant without that flow from the interior.

4. See, for example, the International Desalination Association, which encourages and disseminates information on research, development, and appropriate use of desalination technology.

5. As a scientific colleague of mine once observed, burning hydrogen in an environment of pure oxygen creates “a remarkably energetic exothermic reaction.” If you doubt this, ask NASA how they got the Apollo missions to the Moon or the Space Shuttle into orbit.