As the American West Coast suffers through its longest and worst period of drought in 1200 years, cities and states across the region are scrambling to find ways to conserve water.
The problem is especially acute in California, the most populous state in the country and the one that's arguably most exposed to the drought. Despite record daily snowfalls in the state over the last months of 2021, half the state remains under a drought advisory warning.
“These droughts are now on a new timeline,” Newsha Ajami, a hydrologist and director of urban water policy at Stanford University’s Water in the West program, told Bloomberg. “There used to be at least 10 years in between droughts in California, which was time enough for water ecosystems to recover.”
All of this is making counties like Marin, which are dependent on local water resources, to rethink how they approach water management.
“We need a new relationship with water, and must realize that we are in this moment of climate change, and we cannot continue to use water, particularly outside, in the way that we have in the past,” Cynthia Koehler, president of the board of directors at the Marin Municipal Water District, which serves two-thirds of the Bay Area county’s 252,000 residents, told Bloomberg.
Cities are already responding by trying to find ways to quench the region's thirst for water. And startups are helping to provide the answer.
Across the bridge in San Francisco, developers are experimenting with new technologies being commercialized by companies like Epic Cleantec and Greyter, which are pitching novel waste water treatment units for multi-tenant offices, apartment buildings, and homes.
In Los Angeles, a plan is in place to reclaim 100% of the city's wastewater as part of an effort to source over 70% of the city's water needs locally. Currently, the 18.5 million people who live in the greater Los Angeles area rely on water brought in from Northern California, the Colorado River Basin and other external sources.
The LA Sanitation and Environment Department already treats 12 million gallons of municipal wastewater that's pumped into aquifers and eventually winds up back in the city's water supply. That number is expected to rise to more than 200 million gallons per day to meet the city's ambitious water reclamation goals.
Around the world, cities are turning to innovative water reuse strategies to keep their populations hydrated. Singapore has used indirect water reclamation for the last 20 years and the tiny island nation meets about 40% of its water needs through the process.
Cities are turning to these reclamation solutions in greater numbers, but water conservation is also a priority.
That may be one reason why Walmart was willing to invest $400 million in the indoor farming company, Plenty. Indoor farms like Plenty, Bowery Farming, and newer entrants like Near and Dear or Oishii are pitching produce that's grown without the need for massive amounts of water (or fertilizer) to provide fresh produce closer to consumers.
It's not just the West Coast that's increasingly worried about water. In Chicago, Gross Wen Technologies is using an algae-based water treatment tech to remove and recycle nitrogen and phosphorous from a anaerobic digester facility. The tech should capture CO2 and increase wastewater treatment efficiencies.
Gross Wen is just one of the companies that's being guided through its potential growing pains by ImagineH2O, a non-profit organization focused on bringing new water preservation, reclamation and monitoring technologies to market.
That could look like Gross Wen's algae-based treatment system, or, in Panama City, the development of a waterless toilet from Change: WATER Labs and its chief executive, Diana Yousef. These toilets help keep groundwater clean for communities that lack access to clean drinking water and provide necessary sanitation services.
Or it could look like BlueConduit's smart system for line inventory and reporting that's tracking lead pipe replacement and monitoring in the Southeastern U.S.
Finally, in Detroit, Julie Bliss Mullen, the chief executive and co-founder of Aclarity is building a business that uses electrochemical treatment to destroy contaminants in wastewater.
The company is treating the forever chemicals known as PFAS in landfills at sites in Detroit to prevent those chemicals from finding their way into groundwater.
Back in California, cities like Marin are spending money on whatever they can to shore up dwindling water supplies. That includes a $90 million initiative to import water from across the San Francisco Bay to meet indoor consumption needs.
The city is also considering spending $35 million to bring in portable desalination plants from Osmoflo Holdings, an Australian company that makes the systems. These plants would desalinate water from the San Francisco Bay for the town's use.
Marin, one of California's wealthiest areas, may soon take a page from the LA playbook and look at better water reuse and reclamation services. That could include groundwater storage and wastewater treatment -- all things that would require upgrades to the city's infrastructure.
“We live in the 21st century, but we use the same plumbing in our homes as 50 years ago,” Ajami told Bloomberg.