Sun could hold key to solving California's water problems

Ben Knight
Geekquinox

California’s dreadful multi-year drought has left one of the world’s most hugely productive agricultural zones in dry and draining desperation.

But a bold new water recycling scheme – greener, cleaner and far more efficient – is offering some urgently needed hope.

In the state’s vast Central Valley, a company called WaterFX is developing a practical, potentially game-changing way to reclaim and clean agricultural waste water.

“It’s typically thought that, because of the high energy consumption associated with distilling water – which is essentially boiling it – it’s not a good use of our energy resources,” WaterFX co-founder Dr. Matthew Stuber told Yahoo Canada.

“However, once we couple it with renewable energy, it becomes a different proposition.”

WaterFX's upcoming HydroRevolution project in California uses solar energy to turn waste water into steam, which cooks out all the impurities. As clean, fresh water condenses, that energy is released, recaptured and pumped right back into the process.

“So instead of just using it once to boil water – one unit of energy making one unit of water – we have one unit of energy being recycled so many times, we can get 18 or 19 units of water. It’s many times more effective.”

Even the polluting by-products – salts and agricultural chemicals – can be reclaimed, recycled and put back to work.

“This is actually just the natural water cycle,” Dr. Stuber explained.

“The sun shines on the ocean, the ocean evaporates water, it forms clouds, the clouds come over the land and it rains fresh water down. We’re doing the exact same thing, except in a closed system.”

Traditional desalination methods burn fossil fuel, get limited results, and produce large amounts of brine and toxic sludge. WaterFX is side-stepping all of this – in small, efficient plants that will soon be able to reclaim half a million gallons of water every day.

“You can put these systems at ground zero of water scarcity,” Dr. Stuber said.

Of course, California has limitless access to the near-infinite waters of the Pacific Ocean. But heavy regulation and an understandable desire to preserve the beauty of the coastline has made building desalination plants problematic.

That’s why a small, clever alternative – that doesn’t even need ocean water – is so intriguing.

“We’re actually generating a new source of water that’s sustainable wherever you need it. In that way, as demand waxes and wanes, we can adjust these systems accordingly.”

This is desperately needed. Not only is there no rain, the ancient aquifers that have long been the lifeblood of California agriculture are being rapidly depleted, and may soon run dry.

“No matter what, there’s going to be agriculture in California,” Dr. Stuber said.

“That’s a huge priority for the entire United States. And even though we’re talking about massive drought right now and huge water cutbacks, water’s still being delivered, and used for irrigation.

“Being that California agriculture consumes a huge percentage of the total water that’s consumed – about 80 per cent – making a dent there reduces the agricultural water footprint. It creates new water sources for other uses.”

And new hope, as well.