By E. Lynn Grayson
While much progress has been made in the U.S. to address water quality since the first Earth Day in 1970, increasingly the critical issue of the day is water quantity and specifically sufficient availability of safe water for everyone. According to the World Water Council, 1 in 9 people in the world, or approximately 750 million individuals, lacks access to safe water. In January 2015, the World Economic Forum identified water scarcity as the #1 global risk based upon possible impact to society. These issues exist worldwide, including throughout the U.S.
This month, California Governor Jerry Brown announced the state's first-ever mandatory effort to cope with four years of the worst drought in California's history including a 25% use reduction on cities and towns. There are 5 things you need to know about California's water situation, according to National Geographic's ongoing research and study of water scarcity issues in the Western U.S.:
- The state (and much of the West) relies heavily on snowpack each winter to resupply surface water streams and lakes. Because of a lack of winter storms and record high temperatures this past winter, snowpack in California is at an all-time low. This is the fourth consecutive year that the snowpack has been below normal. The state's hydropower supply is also threatened when snowpack is scarce.
- When surface water supplies are low, hidden water supplies beneath the surface in aquifers, or groundwater, are drilled to make up the shortfall. A large aquifer under the Central Valley is being rapidly depleted to make up for shortfalls in surface water supply. A 2011 study indicated that the Central Valley Aquifer is losing an amount of water each year equivalent to the nearly 29 million acre-feet of water found in Lake Mead, the nation's largest surface reservoir on the Colorado River. (An acre-foot is one acre of ground covered one foot deep in water.) California for the first time last year passed legislation regulating groundwater use, but those restrictions will not come into effect for years.
- While the 25 percent water use restrictions announced last week are intended to help reduce demand, most of the water in California is used for farming, which was largely not included in Brown's announcement on restrictions. California's farms produce and export fruits and vegetables, hay for livestock, and meat and dairy products. Surface water for farms is allocated from state and federal water projects. Water supply restrictions for farmers may be announced soon by the state, but farmers have been drilling groundwater to compensate for surface supply shortages. Last week's rules require only that agricultural operations improve their reporting of water use to the state.
- California is not the only state in the West facing water supply issues. Winter snowpack in Oregon and parts of Washington was far below normal. The Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego, has also been in a drought for more than a decade, and the river basin's aquifers have been declining, too.
- When California faced a major drought in the late 1970s, fewer than 20 million people lived in the state. Now nearly 40 million live there. While Californians have drastically improved the efficiency of their water use in recent years, if rain and snow do not arrive later this year, the supply of groundwater—much of which is non-renewable—will continue to decline as it is used to make up for surface shortages.
The good news is there are two technical advancements that are currently available to mitigate water scarcity issues—one more mainstream and the other yet to be a "politically correct" option given public perceptions:
- Desalination—this age old process of converting seawater to drinking water is gaining in popularity despite costs and energy demands. A $1B plant is near completion by Poseidon Resources in Carlsbad, CA and will be the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. 13-15 plants are proposed for California between Los Angeles and San Francisco. There are 300 plants in the U.S. today and over 12,500 plants worldwide, particularly in the Middle East.
- Janicki Bioenergy's Omni Processor—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in this low cost, hyper-efficient sewage treatment plant which produces clean drinking water that meets both FDA and World Health Organization standards AND generates the very energy it requires to run. Janicki Bioenergy, based in Seattle, WA, has a prototype operating in Washington State and this year enters the developing world with a plant in Dekar, Senegal. Here's how it works:
- The sewage sludge is fed into the plant by conveyor belt and dried in a tube that separates solid waste from water. The Omni Processor's intensely hot incinerator reaches 1,000 degrees Celsius, scorching enough to kill all pathogens and, perhaps more important for those living downwind, to operate without the expected offensive smell.
- Converted into vapor, the water is spun in a centrifuge to remove remaining particles and then fed through two layers of filters. Next, it is cooled and condensed, at which point it is filtered one more time. The latest model can yield 86,000 liters of pure drinking water each day.
- The remaining solids are then fed into an incinerator, yielding a high-powered steam that drives a generator, which in turn produces the very electricity that runs the plant (the Dakar unit produces 150 kW per day), plus excess energy that can be diverted back to the surrounding community. Another byproduct is a phosphorus-rich, disease-free ash that can be used as fertilizer. And the circle of life continues.
While some solutions exist, water remains a precious natural resource and there is no alternative. Every sector of society needs to do their part to conserve, protect and restore water resources in conjunction with governmental action to regulate quality concerns, improve infrastructure and water distribution systems, and address use limitations when appropriate.
For more information about water security, recent developments, and ongoing efforts to ensure the availability of access to safe water for everyone, visit Water.org at http://water.org or World Water Council at http://worldwatercouncil.org/.