“We’re in the middle of this drought. Why are we using fresh water from our national parks to flush our toilets in downtown San Francisco when we can be producing recycled manufactured water right on site?”
That’s a question asked by Aaron Tartakovsky, CEO and co-founder of Epic Cleantec, a California startup born out of a challenge to reinvent the toilet, now emerging as a leader in the onsite water reuse space.
“Wastewater is this incredible resource that is comprised of water, of energy, and of nutrients. All of these things we can actually recover and repurpose,” Tartakovsky said in a video introducing his startup and the concept of wastewater reuse.
Water reuse is an ancient idea that goes back to the Indus civilization around 2500 B.C. in South Asia, later the Roman Empire, and is now, a growing subsect in the 21st-century water technology industry to reclaim and recycle water for everything from agriculture, irrigation, and groundwater replenishment, to industrial processes, environmental restoration, and maybe even drinking, in order to combat the growing threat of water depletion amid the climate crisis.
“At Epic, we believe that there is no such thing as wastewater,” he said in the video. “There is only wasted water.”
According to Scott Bryan, president of Imagine H2O, the water tech startup accelerator that houses Epic Cleantec as a portfolio company, a significant portion of the federal funds allocated to the states as a solution to the Colorado River crisis could go to water reuse projects.
“That counts as low-hanging fruit,” he told FootPrint Coalition. “I think in the region more can be done on the municipal and industrial side. And I think it will be mostly on water reuse. Water reuse will probably be the big theme here.”
On Monday, May 22, the Biden administration finally announced the long-awaited solution to protect the Colorado River Basin — a water system that seven states, 30 Tribal nations, and 40 million people rely on for drinking water and electricity. The basin is slowly diminishing due to climate-fueled prolonged dry spells and excess water demand, not just for direct human consumption, but also for water for the animals and crops we eat.
In 2021, the river’s biggest reservoirs, Lakes Powell and Lake Mead, fell to one-third of their capacity due to two decades of warming and drying in the American West. As the region dove into uncharted waters in terms of resource scarcity, the Biden administration considered unprecedented cuts to water supplies for Arizona, Nevada, and California, the top three consumers of the river.
Two years later, the federal government has stepped in once again with a formal solution just as a wet winter blanketed the basin, allowing snow melt to stabilize water levels.
A short-term billion-dollar solution to a long-term climate problem
While the federal government calls its solution “historic,” others like Mark Gold, Director of Water Scarcity Solutions of the People & Communities Program at the National Resources Defense Fund (NDRC) call it, “a short-term band-aid for a long-term problem.”
According to Gold, via an NDRC blog post, the “extraordinary snow” in the Rockies has allowed water levels in Lake Powell to increase by 25%, dissipating fears about low water levels for the near future, allowing for “modest cuts,” that only temporarily fallow agricultural fields instead of deploying “permanent conservation and efficiency solutions.”
Essentially, the deal proposed by the federal government is to pay farmers across Arizona, Nevada, and California $1.2 billion to not farm using money earmarked by the Inflation Reduction Act, aka the climate bill. All divvied up, this amounts to $521 per acre-foot on average, three times the price used in an initial pilot program.
It would reduce water usage by more than 3 million acre-feet, equal to around a trillion gallons, or roughly 13% of the three states’ total water usage.
By 2026, however, the program will end, and the states will have to address the giant multi-headed elephant in the room: river shrinkage, climate change, and water equity.
Money going to farmers to not produce or even bank water “is definitely in the cards,” Bryan said, "but that’s stuff that people have been trying to do for quite some time and you need that regulatory framework for that to happen, but we’re still a ways off.”
“So I think it's possible, and maybe it will continue in some kind of interim policy kind of sandbox if you will, but where is the low-hanging fruit that we still haven't tackled, you know? We don't know where our leaks are.”
Bryan is right. Paying farms not to farm and use less water has been attempted before. As Grist reports, in California’s Imperial Valley, the “salad bowl” of the nation where almost all of our winter veggies are grown, farmers have balked at the idea of being paid off for not farming.
Conservation solutions in the cropland
Technologies to reduce water and recycle it can and have been utilized, but Bryan says “Arguably a lot of the farmers in the Colorado River area have deployed conservation and risk management strategies more than the general public may realize.”
“In some cases, it’s not being driven by policy, but driven by supply chain,” he said. “However, there will be even more pressure [for farmers] to do more.”
Some of these agricultural solutions include those scaled by Imagine H2O portfolio companies.
Oakland, California-based Ceres Imaging was founded in 2014, inspired by emerging technology in AI and spectral imagery and galvanized by the growing plight of California growers navigating a severe drought.
Now, a fully-fledged data analytics company, Ceres has a tech-enabled product suite for farmers including near real-time insights and portfolio management solutions, crop inventories and productivity forecasts, damage reporting, and insights on performance all the way down to the individual plant level.
Another Imagine H2O portfolio company, Arable, uses crop intelligence technology to increase crop quality and yields and optimize the use of natural resources, like water, all in one system. According to the company, its customers are able to reduce water use by as much as 30%.
These are the type of solutions that Bryan says farmers are already enacting, “but at the end of the day, there will be some tougher questions about the very nature of agriculture and where food comes from,” he said pointing to another head of the elephant in the room: the inherent, massive thirst of agriculture which uses approximately 80% of the Colorado River, half of which is used to grow or feed livestock like cattle.
It is also responsible for irrigating 15% of our nation's farmland.
Technologies including those for agricultural water reduction, reuse, conservation, and small-scale desalination will definitely make a difference at varying levels, Bryan notes, but “For me, I think it's a reminder: When we think about water and water solutions, it’s not always water technology that’s going to save the day.”
“There is an incredible amount — great stats you can find on how much food actually goes to waste and we’re just using a ton of water to grow food often that goes to waste so anything around supply chain and optimizing harvest time food, storage, reduction in spoilage… that’s all on the table here, but that’s not always credited as a water technology.”
Wastewater reuse: "low-hanging fruit" for water management and greenhouse gas emissions
To Bryan, along with innovation, one of the biggest recent developments in the sector is federal funding and infrastructure spending even before this week’s billion-dollar announcement.
“That's been a clear signal to the market, and I think that’s driving a lot,” he said, “But all of a sudden there’s the realization that water’s going to play a critical role in climate, and I think for too long its been cast aside as an adaption play for the future and not a mitigation play, when in fact simply treating more wastewater is a climate solution.”
“80% of our wastewater goes untreated in the world, and untreated wastewater has three times the GHG’s of treated,” he said referring to the fact that improved wastewater treatment could lead to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
In fact, as one March 2023 study from Saint Louis University shows, methane, the GHG that’s 25 times more potent than planet-warming carbon dioxide, is underestimated in urban areas, and a big portion of that is contributed by untreated wastewater.
So when it comes down to it, treating wastewater is not only a water scarcity solution but also a climate solution, as Bryan makes clear.
According to Benjamin de Foy, a professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Saint Louis University, and lead researcher on the study, “Some urban areas could reduce their emissions 50% or more by fully treating all their wastewater.”
The study, which was published in the journal, Environmental Research Letters, used a dataset that consisted of 61 urban areas, and if all of these areas treated their wastewater, 6% of the world’s emissions could be cut.
That is the equivalent of the entire globe's food waste per 2020 statistics.
Of those 61 cities, about a third were in the United States. The highest-ranking cities produced the most wastewater while treating the smallest fraction. While East Coast, Midwestern, and Southern states were placed higher on the list (led by Baltimore, Milwaukee, Dallas, Tampa, and Philadelphia) western cities like Riverside and Los Angeles, held their own in terms of lack of wastewater treatment and resulting emissions.
The most wastewater treated in the world is in the Middle East and Western Europe, with some hotspots in Australia and Chile. Israel leads in wastewater treatment, recycling almost all, making it what Tartakovsky calls, “water independent.”
“I just came back from Israel last week, touring with the mayor of San Francisco as part of a delegation we were taking her on a tour of Israel,” he told to FootPrint Coalition.
“As a nation, we’re in the realm of somewhere between 5% and 10%,” he said referring to how much wastewater is reused in the States. “Spain is around 35% and Israel is around 90%.”
“I think we are now coming to a bit of reckoning when it comes to water in the United States and especially in the Western States where the status quo is just no longer sustainable. There’s a lot of easy things we can do to drastically cut down on our water demands on the water supply and the lowest hanging fruit is water reuse,” he said.
Investors are definitely noticing that wastewater treatment is a cost-effective solution, especially with the news of the “world’s first privately-funded water tech unicorn,” Gradiant, this week, which raised an oversubscribed $225 million Series D round led by Centaurus Capital at a $1 billion valuation.
According to Epic, its solutions can help buildings reuse up to 95% of their wastewater — the company already has three major San Francisco projects, either completed or in the works.
But in terms of using wastewater as a resource scarcity solution, Tartakovsky told FootPrint that solutions lie in “leveraged smart policies with technologies like drip irrigation, wastewater use, and desalination.”
“The ability to count on weather patterns that we used to have disappeared,” he said. As many agree, the short-term solution for the Colorado River crisis was only possible because of the wet year, but as climate change worsens droughts, wet years can’t be depended on.
“Climate change is putting these weather systems out of whack and it’s going to lead us into disaster and in many places it already is,” Tartakovsky said.
Bryan highlighted startups scaling many of the technologies Tartakovsky referred to. On the water conservation side, ratepayer conservation programs enabled by startups like DropCountr are “low-hanging fruit” as well as reducing non-revenue water waste like leaks on the municipal level which companies like California-based and AI-driven Fracta and Asterra focus on.
Potential in climate-smart irrigation, desalination, and groundwater monitoring
Another solution lies in climate-smart farmland irrigation. One startup, nDrip, is currently partnering with the Central Arizona Project, the Colorado River Indian Tribe, and the University of Arizona to produce higher yields while reducing water use by 50%. The technology is currently helping these tribes in Arizona meet conservation goals as agreed upon with the federal government.
Another less-tapped solution is desalination or the process of cleaning saline ocean water. While it is on the expensive side, Bryan says there could be some emergency exemptions for coastal communities as conditions rise in severity, highlighting, Oneka Technologies, an Imagine H2O portfolio company that just launched a $10M wave energy-powered desalination project in Canada.
However, Bryan says that solutions like that are on “the far right-hand side,” which are “the most expensive, but with big results.” Instead, policy tends to start on the “left-hand side” of easier-to-implement and most cost-effective solutions, even if the results are more modest.
Still, right now the world’s largest inland desalination plant is in El Paso, Texas, and as California invests millions of dollars into desalination research and last year green-lit a $140 million desalination plant in south Orange County, seawater may be the Golden State’s new wave of water supply specifically to address water equity on the coast.
According to The Coastal Commission, which approved the project, local communities near the project rely almost entirely on water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River, leaving them vulnerable to drought and earthquakes that could damage critical water lines.
As José Pablo Ortiz Partida, a senior water and climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, puts it: “The drought won’t end until everyone in California has access to drinking water.”
Since 2023, there have been more than 100 reports of wells going dry, Ortiz Partida wrote in a blog post explaining California’s drought situation from various scientific and social standpoints, highlighting that “California’s groundwater drought and socioeconomic drought certainly haven’t ended.”
According to Bryan, groundwater monitoring is ripe for innovation, with companies like FredSense, 120 Water, and iFlux having the potential to come into play as communities try to better understand their quality and groundwater issues better.
“There’s certainly more we can do from a tech standpoint, especially in groundwater monitoring,” he said. “It strikes me that like there’s a lot we still need to know about how much water is down there, and of what quality. And there's been a lot of efforts to try to change that. But we’re still kind of behind playing catch up and in many cases there just haven’t been the regulatory signals or buyers of those solutions to really create a market.”
“However in general, we have the technology to address a lot of these issues,” he said.
“This is a year when we can recognize that drought is not a temporary thing. That’s this is the new norm. And if anything, we have to be better at managing these wet years than we have in the past.”