World Water Day and the Solutions for California’s Water Crisis

By Thomas S. Rooney, Jr., president and CEO of Energy Recovery Inc

If you are like most readers of this website, there is a great chance that you did not mark World Water Day on your 2011 calendars.

In 1993, the United Nations established March 22nd as World Water Day and has since encouraged us to celebrate water as a precious resource and to reflect on the global water issues, such as a billion people being without access to safe drinking water. Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, very few of us actually understand the severity of the global water situation, even here in California, where the seriousness of the water crisis is converging in our own backyard.

Over the course of California’s history, water has been at the center of both the fictional dramas of Hollywood—think Roman Polanski’s Chinatown—as well as the very real dramas of the California Water Wars, which pitted Los Angeles against the Owens Valley, and the establishment of the Hetch Hetchy Dam in Yosemite National Park, which saw Sierra Club founder, John Muir, on the losing side of a battle against the San Francisco municipal government.

While this publicity has helped advance efforts and attract more support, recently published research illustrates that the water crisis has only intensified in California and in our neighboring states in the Southwest, setting the stage for a scenario far more tragic than even Polanski’s best Film Noir.

A report published by the US Center of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) last month is the latest critique of California and Southwest water policy by scientific and environmental organizations that warns that climate change and continued inaction to reduce water consumption could cost the region as much as $5 trillion, which would devastate already fragile local economies and adversely affect agriculture, homes and businesses.

While the researchers are on the mark when they list the variety of measures that need to be taken to help avert a major environmental and human disaster, which include implementing substantial conservation and efficiency measures as well as instituting price increases for both urban and agricultural users, they rule out utilizing existing desalination technology for water production.

Water desalination has often been vilified as too energy intensive, or disruptive to the environment—outdated notions the authors of the SEI report revisit in their work. It’s important, and timely to point out that water generation through advanced desalination techniques should be part of a multi-faceted solution and that existing desalination technology with significantly reduced environmental and economic impact is a viable option, ready today.

Technological advances in energy recovery devices, membranes and plant designs have addressed many of the energy, cost and environmental issues, making desalination a more affordable and environmentally sound process. Specifically, existing best-in-class energy recovery devices operate at 98 percent efficiency and reduce energy consumption in salt water reverse osmosis desalination by up to 60 percent, making desalination a cost-effective solution to help eliminate clean water shortages.

With March 22nd here, it is a great time to pay tribute to the values of World Water Day and focus our attention on the necessity of freshwater and advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. Recycling, reclaiming and reducing consumption are integral components to a multifaceted solution, but must be looked at as part of a package that includes energy-efficient desalination. If water issues and their solutions are not part of our daily discourse, then the most tragic chapter in California’s water drama is coming sooner than we think.

Learn more about World Water Day here and become part of the solution by learning about ways that you can reduce water use at home and at work as well as the options available to your community for water generation.

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