As the stranglehold of drought tightens, governments and private investors are looking beyond tightening usage at the tap to solve water woes. Burgeoning efforts range from finding new water sources to recrafting storage solutions to making the undrinkable drinkable. But even while pioneers make headway with novel projects, challenges loom.
One such beleaguered endeavor is the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery, and Storage Project. Located deep in the Mojave Desert, the privately backed project would build a series of wells to divert groundwater that currently flows to dry lakes and is lost to evaporation and salt contamination, according to the project description.
After collection in the wells, the water would then be transferred via a 43-mile pipeline where thirsty “project participants,” could distribute it to their customers throughout California. A second phase of the project would allow participants to store water they don’t need in a 1 million acre-feet aquifer system on the project’s property.
The problem? After ten years and tens of millions spent wrangling regulatory concessions, the project has yet to break ground. Cadiz owner Scott Slater said he believes the project will become reality next year. Technological immensity and regulatory challenges aside, however, the project is likely to (and already has) run aground other hardships—namely, those who feel that monetizing water is a slippery slope.
Finding solutions to dwindling water isn’t cheap, leading water districts to partner with private investors in order to assure supplies last. Both strapped organizations and investors see the collaborations as win-win.
“Investing in the water industry is one of the great opportunities for the coming decades,” Matthew Diserio of Water Asset Management, a major backer of Cadiz, told the New York Times. “Water is the scarce resource that will define the 21st century, much like plentiful oil defined the last century.”
It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see why viewing water as a commodity—especially in a time of drought—is a scary prospect.
“Water is a public trust, and it shouldn’t be privatized,” Adam Scow of Food and Water Watch told the Times while speaking about Poseidon Water’s long-thwarted desalination plant in Carlsbad, California. “It can’t be managed for the benefit of a few people like Poseidon’s investors.
On the other hand, public resistance to rate increases, tiered pricing, and conservation efforts have left many water agencies with little choice. Increasingly, publicly opposed efforts such as desalination and so-called toilet-to-tap technologies are becoming more appealing.
Finding and creating potable water isn’t the only solution, though. In Denver, water officials are looking at how they might use huge underground aquifers deep beneath the city to store treated water that could be pumped back out when needed. The system would allow the state to hedge its bets against times of drought, as well as prepare for population growth, according to the Denver Post.
If the Artificial Groundwater Recharge plan—only one piece of the Colorado Water Plan for addressing future water needs—pans out, the city will need to build multiple wells to inject and extract the water and pipelines to carry it. Extraction and lack of information about the long-term impacts of the aquifer storage and recovery (which has been used since the 1960s) could also be problematic, although cities such as Wichita and Phoenix have had success using similar methods.
Regardless of how promising any one technology to address drought may be, though, the issue will always be fraught with social elements. For that reason, the truly best answers to the problem are likely to be a combination of human and engineered solutions, as Mike Antos, director of the Center for Urban Water Resilience, pointed out in a recent interview.
“Water resilience is not just a technical question—it is a social one, too,” he said. “In the face of so much change before us, building resilience is a process of collaboration and education—not just building new things.”