From Egyptian irrigation systems to Roman aqueducts to the dikes and canals of The Netherlands, the world’s civilizations have long found innovative ways to harness and conserve their water supply. But with California entering the third year of an historic drought, what 21st century technologies are on the horizon to help us deal with an ever-shrinking pool of water?
At the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Greg Dalton explored the topic with the heads of three companies that are finding ways to meet the crisis head-on.
Peter Yolles is the CEO of Watersmart Software, which takes a grass-roots approach to the issue by educating residential and commercial customers on how to reduce water usage. For most residential customers, says Yolles, saving water is part of the social compact. “Research tells us that only 1 out of 10 people will change their behavior to save money.” Yolles says. “Only 1 out of 10 people will change their behavior to save the environment. But 8 out of 10 will do so because of what’s happening around them.” Comparing water usage within a community, he says, is the first step. “That really motivates people to say, “Gosh, I’m using a lot more than my neighbors. What can I do to save water?”
The Watersmart approach is working, reports Yolles. “On average, homes that received our home water reports save 5% of their water use across the first year. They’re also twice as likely to participate in the water conservation programs and twice as likely to rate their utility as excellent at providing on ways to save money and water at home. So it’s really a win-win for the utility and for the customers.”
Tamin Pechet is the Chairman of Imagine H20, which seeks out and funds start-ups in the water industry. He says the need for new ideas is greater than ever. “Over the past couple of decades, the pressures on our water system have increased,” says Pechet. “When we face an acute event, like a drought or…a heavy series of rains that causes more water to enter into our storm and sewer systems, we don’t have the same level of excess capacity to deal with that as we used to. We essentially need a new wave of innovation to address those problems.”
And a new wave of innovators, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are out there, exploring solutions from desalination to wastewater treatment to mining satellite data. One idea, aimed at helping the agricultural sector weather the drought, was developed by mOasis – and it’s deceptively simple. Picture a sponge put into the soil, says CEO Steven Hartmeier. “When water is put in, it absorbs that excess water and stores it to when the plant needs it as the soil is drying out.” Reducing the stress on plants, he adds, results in a healthier crop.
The Commonwealth Club audience included several entrepreneurs who have their own water innovations in mind. And despite dire predictions for California’s reservoirs and rivers, Pechet says the future of water technology is promising.
“There’s a lot of really cool stuff out there,” he told the crowd. “The history of water in civilization is one of innovation. And so just about anything that you dream up, is something that someone could innovate and come up with. If you look hard enough, you can find a company doing it.”