Throughout the last days of December and into the first half of January, California was pummeled with rains that dropped 32 trillion gallons of water across the state. The resulting flooding caused over $1 billion in damages and killed 20 people.
In some ways, despite the damage it caused, the rains that swept through California were a welcome respite from the state's years-long mega-drought.
And while millions of gallons of water slipped through the sieve of Southern California's giant megalopolis stretching from San Diego north of Los Angeles, the state is now planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create new ways to capture that water before it escapes.
These pressures are creating new demand for companies like StormSensor, which tracks water flows for cities, or Aquipor, which makes a porous concrete that allows rainwater to seep through constructions.
Larger construction projects and urban development efforts to increase green space and drainage can also serve as a bulwark against flooding and cities across the country are looking for those solutions as well.
"It’s a question of groundwater recharge and stormwater capture," said Scott Bryan, the head of ImagineH2O, a non-profit focused on developing technologies and services for water resource preservation. "On stormwater, it’s not just a coastal city thing. It’s St. Louis, it’s Bozeman, it’s rural Kentucky… A lot of these inland cities don’t have the physical backbone to absorb these storms so there's going to be some big projects that have to happen."
These issues aren't academic. As the West continues to suffer through this historic mega-drought, tough decisions await. A report in CNN recently revealed that California had floated the idea of cutting population centers including Phoenix, Las Vegas, and others off from the Colorado River as a potential solution to the region's water woes.
If capturing and controlling floodwaters represent one challenge to the aging U.S. water infrastructure, then the introduction of new pollutants that don't degrade is another.
Here, too, new technologies are stepping up to play a role. Earlier this year the startup company Aclarity announced a successful deployment of its mobile pilot to destroy the polyfluoralkyl substances commonly known as PFAS (or "forever chemicals").
PFAS includes over 4700 different compounds that are used in a variety of consumer products such as waterproof clothing, cosmetics, personal care products, Teflon-coated products, firefighting foams, and more. They pose not only a high threat to drinking water but a great risk to aquatic ecosystems.
The pilot, sponsored by the water tech company Xylem, used Aclarity's mobile units to destroy the chemicals at a landfill site.
“Existing methods for managing PFAS in landfill leachate merely transfer the chemicals within our environment,” Julie Bliss Mullen, Aclarity CEO, said in a statement. “By proving scalability and leading unit economics, our customers now have a feasible solution to destroy PFAS forever, reducing environmental impact, liability, costs, and operations while increasing capacity and public health.”
Aclarity isn't the only startup to identify forever chemicals as a pressing problem in need of a new technological solution.
The Swiss cleantech startup Oxyle also wants to help solve the world’s water crisis, which according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, leaves one in nine people worldwide with unsafe drinking water.
In December, Oxyle received $3 million in pre-seed funding which will be used to bring its treatment tech and real-time water monitoring solution to market. Led by Wingman Ventures with participation from SOSV, Better Ventures, and another.vc, the round bring’s the Zurich-based startup’s capital to $7.4 million raised to date.
Drinking water can be unsafe for a variety of reasons, most of which include a lack of sanitation with micropollutants and PFAS contaminating the water. In fact, UNESCO reports 90% of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated directly into water bodies, leading to 2.4 billion people left without any form of sanitation.
Two million tonnes of sewage enters the world’s waters each day, with much of the world using a combination of activated carbon technology (to absorb pollutants) and membrane filtration technology (to filter out pollutants) in order to treat wastewater.
However, according to Oxyle’s co-founder and CEO Dr. Fajer Mushtaq via TechCrunch, pollutants still remain on the used activated carbon or in concentrated water left over from the filtration process.
In a chemical industry case study, Oxyle proved their process can perform “complete and non-selective removal” of PFAS, which in the U.S. is continuously found in drinking water leading to an increase in state-by-state regulations.
While the rains may have eased California's water woes for the moment, the uncomfortable truth is that most of the midwest and mountain west is still in the throes of a multi-year mega-drought.
Addressing the water stresses affecting the Western half of the country will require better stormwater management like the steps California is taking through public works projects, but it's also going to require more efficient industrial and commercial water usage.
That means turning to technologies like Membrion, which makes a new kind of desalination membrane filter that can recover up to 98% of water in harsh environments.
Founded in 2016, the company's founders specifically designed its technology to remove metals, minerals, and salts, so that industry could reuse (instead of discharge) its water.
“It’s mind-boggling to me that we still pump wastewater onto trucks and drive it somewhere else to be treated. We're seeing pilot projects convert to full commercial installations, which makes the more sustainable option, treating water on-site, an economically attractive reality. It’s exciting,” Membrion CEO and co-founder Greg Newbloom said in a statement.
While Membrion is hoping to get manufacturers to reuse their water, the Canadian technology developer Oneka Technologies is pitching towns, cities, and businesses on the benefits of its ocean-based desalination technology.
Oneka has developed a floating desalination device that harnesses the mechanical energy of waves to purify ocean water.
The company is already in discussions with the town of Fort Bragg, California to provide its technology and has two pilots running in Chile and in Florida.
"We're a solution that can prevent loss and protect their resources," said Oneka Technologies chief finance officer, Alain-Olivier Desbois, of the work with Fort Bragg.
"They were running out of water," said Dragan Tutic, Oneka's co-founder and chief executive. "[And] we can be the lowest cost water production solution."
In capturing the water from the floods, California will also have to figure out a way to rid it of potential microplastics, microscopic bits of plastic that studies have found are extant in almost every ecosystem on the planet thanks to pollution.
The smaller these plastics get, the harder it is for traditional wastewater treatment plants to remove them. Microplastics can have adverse effects on human health, but if scientists can effectively filter them out of the water, it could mean a big change for the drought-stricken West.
In January two Colorado companies, Sporian Microsystems and J-Tech were awarded funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop their respective microplastic-identifying and wastewater re-use technologies.
Lafayette-based Sporian and Lakewood-based J-Tech each received $100,000 from the EPA, along with 23 other organizations across the nation developing tech to help the private sector address environmental issues.
Accurately quantifying microplastic particles and determining their source can prove difficult, Kevin Harsh, a senior scientist at Sporian Microsystems told the publication Boulder Weekly.
But, with help from a federal grant, Harsh said Sporian Microsystems is developing a low-cost, high-speed imaging system that will efficiently detect and quantify microplastics in our environment.
According to Harsh, while the technology will initially be used by scientists, it can ultimately be used by a variety of entities, like local water municipalities. They also hope to keep the cost low so their tech can help rural communities especially.
Detection is only one part of the solution. Capture is another. That's what startups like the Bristol, UK-based Matter are trying to tackle.
The company's flagship product is Gulp, it's a laundry machine attachment that captures microfibers from washing machines. Around 700,000 microfibers are released into the environment with every wash cycle and, though small, that number adds up considering the millions of loads of laundry done everywhere, every day around the nation and around the world.
In the UK, where Matter is based, around 18 tons of micro plastics are released into the environment from laundry every day.
And Matter's just one of the companies that's tackling this problem. Planetcare is another that pitches its solution not to consumers but to laundromats and hotel chains that handle orders of magnitude more laundry.
Even Samsung has gotten into the microplastic fighting game. The company unveiled a new washing machine earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that captures microplastics.
Developed with the outdoor apparel and lifestyle company, Patagonia, the Samsung washers can capture about 40% of microplastics pollution. Planetcare and Matter boast of the ability to capture 90% of the microfibers released in a wash.
Still, the better solution is to try and buy clothes that aren't made with polyester, nylon, or other artificially manufactured fibers.