It's not science fiction: Water tech can keep California golden

Irrigation system in a wheat field at sunrise
An irrigation system in a wheat field at sunrise. 

Water conservation software based on behavioral science and cloud computing. Agricultural irrigation technology using sensors to measure sap in grape vines. Satellites that measure plant water needs. Home greywater recycling systems. Water meters connected to the Internet. Solar-powered desalination.

These are some of the high-tech drought solutions featured at California’s first water technology summit July 10 in Sacramento. This isn’t science fiction. These and other new technology solutions are being used on the ground in California, generating new water supplies when the state needs them most.

California is a world leader in high technology. So it’s natural that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are turning their creative energies to developing new technology-driven solutions to help California meet the challenges posed by a devastating four-year drought.   

California Gov. Jerry Brown deserves credit for convening this summit. His California Water Action Plan includes a broad framework for action to ensure that California responds to the drought and ensures a reliable long-term water supply. After all, the drought eventually will end, but with a growing population of 38 million residents, more than 9 million acres of irrigated land and the world’s eighth largest economy, California must find new water supply solutions. These solutions are necessary to serve our residents, grow our economy and protect our environment

A review of Brown’s Water Action Plan reveals many priorities that dramatically can benefit from innovation. The governor has established aggressive urban water conservation goals. He has called for advances in agricultural water measurement and efficiency, investments in water recycling and programs to ensure that communities have access to clean, safe drinking water. Technological advances can help in each area, delivering new, cost-effective solutions. 

One way to understand what technology can do in the water sector is to review what technology has accomplished in the energy sector. In the past two decades, solar and wind power, LED lighting, more efficient appliances and other technological advancements dramatically have reshaped the California energy landscape.  California is on track to generate 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. This transformation, which began during Brown’s third term, has made our state the most energy efficient in the nation.

In addition to generating clean energy, technological innovation has created a new energy industry that employs 430,000 Californians. In our state, the clean-energy industry employs more workers than does Hollywood and more than the nation’s coal industry.

Water technology offers similar potential benefits. New water technologies already are emerging, and the potential for more progress is vast. Leading municipal, industrial and agricultural water users already are embracing cutting edge water tools. But California is a large and diverse state, leaving us with enormous opportunities to encourage broad adoption of existing water technologies and the development of the next generation of solutions. 

By tapping into California’s technological creativity, we can develop new ways to save water, to reuse it and to ensure that it is safe for human consumption. We also can help launch a new industry to employ Californians in locally based companies that are leaders in a growing global water technology sector, challenging Israel and Australia. New water solutions should be California’s next technology export.

The Summit on Water Technology and the Drought (PDF) led to several clear conclusions. California has an opportunity to align its policies with the development and adoption of water technology, such as the next generation of water conservation and recycling goals. The state should recognize that California’s water technology incentives lag far behind incentive programs in the energy field. We can accomplish far more with the state’s budget and the water bond. Greenhouse gas reduction funds can support technology that saves energy and water. And the state can encourage water agencies to invest a modest percentage of revenues in new technologies.

In a difficult fourth year of drought, the summit ended with an optimistic sense of momentum. Brown recognized many years ago that energy technology innovations and investments would follow innovative energy policies. The water technology summit can begin that process in the water field.

These emerging innovations couldn’t be more timely. In the past year, California has seen record low snowpack, declining water storage, collapsing salmon runs, land subsidence caused by groundwater overdraft and other clear signs that our rivers and aquifers are overtapped and that we need new answers. 

A collaborative effort among the state, technology entrepreneurs, investors and water users can build a powerful new partnership to ensure that California fosters the water solutions it needs to keep our state golden.

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