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A global heatwave highlights the importance of water conservation amid climate change

In Taiwan last month 4 million of the island nation’s citizens went without power thanks to a heat wave and massive drought. China rationed power in its Southern manufacturing region last week in response to the same hot, hot heat.

Image Credit: Flickr/Wikiphotographer

Meanwhile last week in the Middle East and Southeast Asia temperatures reached a scorching 122 degrees Fahrenheit posting records far earlier into the summer season than normal. And in the U.S. drought and record temperatures are choking the West Coast, threatening the nation’s agricultural industry and leading to the potential of the country’s first water shortage declaration.

“72% of the western US is currently in “severe” drought or worse,” the noted meteorologist, author and climate advocate Eric Holthaus wrote on Twitter. “This is now the most extensive severe drought in recorded history. We are in a climate emergency.”

The dangers unseasonable heat and drought pose for the US were made clear in a recent paper in Nature, which tackled the impact of the latest drought on the Colorado River — the water resource that much of the Southwest and West relies on.

It has been said that climate change is water change. Globally, the effects on rivers vary widely, from increased risk of flooding in some places, to short-run increases in river flows in others as glaciers melt and catastrophes ensue once the glaciers are gone. The only constant is change, and our inability to rely on the way rivers used to flow. Like many snowmelt-fed rivers, for the Colorado this translates into less water for cities, farms, and the environment. Research published over the past 5 years makes the threat clear. Run-off efficiency — the percentage of rain and snow that ends up as river water — is down, with half the decline since 2000 attributed to greenhouse-driven warming. For every 1°C of warming, researchers expect another 9% decline in the Colorado’s flow. This year’s snowpack was 80% of average but is delivering less than 30% of average river flows. Hot, dry summers bake soils, reducing flows the following year. The Colorado is not unusual. Researchers have identified similar patterns in other North American rivers, as well as in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

This phenomenon is known as “aridification” and it’s happening across the U.S.

“The immediate needs on the ground are becoming more complex and more intensified,” Scott Bryan, the president of Imagine H2O, an accelerator focused on developing water technologies, said. “Climate chaos doesn’t create more certainty other than there will be pressure on systems from too much or too little at the wrong place, time, and price.”

In Southern California, where water existing water resources are completely unable to meet the needs of a population of 19 million, a new leader was hired by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California who will focus on water reclamation strategies, the LA Times reported.

The agency handles the distribution of hundreds of billions of gallons of water each year from the Colorado River and Northern California and its new leader is looking to reduce the region’s reliance on those resources through recycling sewage water, capturing rainwater and cleaning up groundwater aquifers.

That decision should be a welcome one for companies like Epic Cleantec, a San Francisco-based company that has developed waste water treatment units for high rises.

Developed in response to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, Epic Cleantec founder Aaron Tartakovsky thought that the water reclamation technologies could have applications beyond the emerging markets that the Gates Foundation was targeting with the challenge.

Founded in 2015 during the last big drought, Tartakovsky launched the company by listening to leaders in the San Francisco community. “We were in the height of the drought, and our elected officials and the leaders of the utility basically said, ‘Why are we using freshwater from our national parks, from Hetch Hetchy [in Yosemite National Park], to flush our toilets when we can be manufacturing water on-site?,” the founder told Fast Company earlier this year.

But water conservation and efficient use can come in many forms. One of the arguments behind investments in companies like Plenty and Bowery Farming is that they use less water — something which can be equally attractive for domestic and international water-stressed markets.

At Imagine H2O, companies are working on a range of solutions.

The latest group of companies included Clearwater Analytica, a company from Corvallis, Ore., that uses big data and machine learning to predict and help prevent algal blooms in the water supply.

Other companies were developing wastewater treatment solutions like Gross-Wen Technologies, which uses algae to clean up agricultural wastewater; or Membrion, which has developed a new membrane allowing wastewater treatment facilities to recover 30% more water at half the cost of competitors; and Rapid Radicals, which has a tech to eliminate sewer overflows and basement backups during large storms — removing pollutants and disinfecting pathogens 16 times faster than conventional systems.

Finally, big data companies like Gybe are giving cities a complete picture of their water tables and alerting them to potential problems that can arise.

And here at FootPrint Coalition we’re trying to do our part. We’ve provided grant funding for the installation of Source water systems, that uses solar energy to pull water out the air. As the drought in California deepens, those Source Hydropanel systems will provide water to the Francisco Alencia Mobile Home Park through a partnership with Pueblo Unido CDC.

These kinds of mobile, light-weight solutions are the kinds that Imagine H2O’s Bryan finds most interesting.

“Near term I’m interested in increased modularization and on-site treatment technologies,” Bryan said. “We do need to think about how you could have an EpicCleantec in a shipping container … We need to think about resilience and what technologies you can have in your home to ensure that you’ve got safe water after a natural disaster.”

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