Shine Versus Solution

Water infrastructure in America requires approximately $1 trillion of repairs and upgrades for which we need to focus on long-term solutions rather than the newest, shiny tech
By Joe Whitworth

There is a difference between what is shiny and what is a solution. That’s what I’m left thinking about this afternoon after reading about a solar-powered pipe designed to turn saltwater into drinking water for the thirsty state of California. If you only read the last part of that sentence, you might question why I’m griping.

For context, “The Pipe” is a finalist in the 2016 Land Art Generator Initiative design competition. This year the competition challenged designers to incorporate an energy or drinking water component, and there’s no denying the idea that a group of Canadian engineers have thought up is both striking and impressive. The 2,000 foot long glistening Chinese finger trap would sit off the Santa Monica Pier and produce 1.5 billion gallons of drinking water each year.

A billion always sounds like a large sum. In reality, it doesn’t hold a candle to what’s required. For reference, the city of Los Angeles consumes 1.3 billion a day – every single day.

We’ve reached for the shiniest of things during times of stress and trouble before. Last December, the largest desalination plant in North America opened in Carlsbad, California, to the tune of $1 billion. While 100 million gallons will be taken into the San Diego facility, an estimated 54 million gallons of freshwater will be returned for use. That meets the needs of approximately 7 percent of San Diego County or approximately 300,000 households. It’s hard to imagine any other business accepting such an ROI. So why would we do so with a resource that sustains us all?

The San Diego Water Authority committed to purchasing the output of the plant for the next three decades for between $2,100 to $2,300 an acre-foot. For reference, an acre foot is about the amount used by one or two five-member families in a year. That’s compared to the $923 per acre foot they used to pay for treated water, and as consequence, San Diegans can expect water bills to jump by $5 to $7 per month. Simple conservation and efficiency measures on agricultural lands can bring the cost of an acre foot down to as little as $150.

I’m not in the business of crushing creativity. I’m in the business of fixing freshwater. That means putting options like this into context, examining them with a critical eye, and demanding solutions that actually meet the needs of today and tomorrow.

Unfortunately, because we haven’t properly valued, protected, or managed water in this country, our current needs are great.

Approximately $1 trillion of repairs and upgrades to water infrastructure are needed. Roughly 10 million American homes and buildings receive water from service lines that are at least partially lead. More than half our rivers are considered impaired under the Clean Water Act. 2015 ranked among the driest on record, and agricultural land is sinking by dozens of feet yearly in parts of California, due to decades of unchecked groundwater extraction.

Examples that characterize the vastness and severity of these quality and quantity problems are plenty, but I’ve never liked the phrase, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” To me, when it comes to a resource that supports every community, our entire economy, and all wildlife, desperate times call for making investments for the long term and not compromising on results.
While desalination may be novel and paraded as a panacea for California’s water woes, failing to examine the solution with a critical eye means a missed opportunity to consider and implement more resilient solutions.

Upgrading aging national infrastructure, using data and new technology to be smart and strategic about how and where restoration happens, paying agricultural producers to implement efficiency and conservation, and retooling water law to incentivize appropriate water usage will never win design competitions.

But last year, The Freshwater Trust prevented 274,000 pounds of phosphorus, sediment, and nitrogen from entering rivers and kept more than 100 million gallons of water in rivers that needed it by working with farmers and ranchers.

While not public art, solutions like these get to the heart of the problem, take a big-picture view of one of our nation’s biggest problems, and net the results necessary for ensuring the world’s wealthiest country can supply enough clean and healthy water to its citizens – something I’d deem worthy of recognition.

Joe Whitworth is the President of The Freshwater Trust and has been responsible for the company’s strategic direction for more than a decade. He may be reached through Haley Walker at Haley@thefreshwatertrust.org.

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