Energy/Water Nexus

Can Business Solve California's Water Woes?

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The California drought is real and it’s not going away any time soon.  Growing up in New Mexico, one of the nation’s most arid states, drought is no foreign concept, but never in my life have I experienced a drought as severe as the one plaguing California for the past few years.  I find it shocking and troubling that the Golden State, home to some of the smartest minds in technology and the most prestigious research institutions in the country, can barely get it together when it comes to dealing with an issue that’s been several years coming.  Governor Brown’s recently announced restrictions, including banning restaurants from serving water unless requested and requiring hotels to give guests the option to re-use bed linens and towels, are weak at best and don’t break any new ground or work towards a real solution to the problem.  They’re the proverbial band aid on a bullet wound.

The bottom line is, we are always going to need water.  Unlike our ability to move away from fossil fuels to more efficient energy sources for cars and homes, there is no apparent substitute for the magical combination of some of the most abundant elements on earth.  We need it to drink, cook, bathe, and yes, water the vegetation that keeps us cool and happy.  Poor lawns have come under fire as the main culprits for water use, and we will soon see them go Brown (pun intended?) leading to a pretty ugly urban scene.  Yet agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s water, with almonds using an astonishing 10 percent of the annual water supply and Alfalfa claiming another 15 percent.  A quarter of our water used to produce two crops.  But you can’t have a nice green lawn to cool off your backyard and provide your kids with a place to play.  With Brown’s latest announcement including plans to rip out 50 million square feet of grass, we need to ask ourselves if attacking landscaping is the right approach.  As urban areas become denser, trees and smartly planted lawns irrigated with reclaimed water should be seen as an asset rather than a liability.  Years ago, Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles was deforested to make way for an unappealing concrete field that’s not inviting for children, pets, or workers looking for a shady place for lunch.  Recently plans have called for bringing some of the trees and green back, a welcome addition in one of the densest and hottest areas of the city.  Yes those trees will use water, and yes we need trees.  Next question.

The drought is compounded by the State’s population growth, which also isn't going to stop.  By 2050, California’s population is expected to reach 50 million.  50 million people that all need to drink, bathe, and, unless things get really drastic, water their yards and wash their cars.  I wouldn't want to be the person tasked with telling wealthy OC residents that they can no longer wash their Ferrari's and Bentley's.  While this drought is one of the most severe the state has ever seen, the problem is compounded by the fact that California has a much larger population than during past shortages.  Even with existing residents reducing their use, the savings will be offset by more people and more development coming in to the state. 

So what do we do?

A proposal to stop or reverse population growth is out of the question, so we have to accept that the water shortage problem is here to stay, even if El Nino soon graces us with its elusive presence.  Depending on rain and snow pack for much of our water supply in a relatively arid state is a risky strategy.  Desalination plants have been built in some areas, but remain a very costly option and come with their own environmental repercussions.  One could write a dissertation on the subject, but this is a business forum and I’m not a scientist.  Government isn't doing much to help aside from regulate, so the solution needs to come from somewhere else.  Somewhere that has the minds and the capital to truly make a difference...

Business, I’m looking at you. 

The government used policy to steer automakers toward more fuel efficient vehicles, but I would argue that nothing really changed until a private sector business, Tesla, came along.  Elon Musk made the electric car sexy, practical, and hopefully affordable when the automaker announces a much anticipated lower-priced alternative to the wildly successful Model S.  There is a good chance the answer to our water woes lies within intellectually fertile Silicon Valley, but some of the best minds there are being wooed towards other alternatives.  Top graduates from the most prestigious schools in America are drawn to companies with flashy perks and prominent app-icons, not businesses that center on a lowly utility that’s relatively cheap and available to all.  Investors and the media place more emphasis on a trivial app with questionable uses that pays fresh out of college students nearly half-million dollar compensation packages to work there.  And while I’m sure they’re out there, companies looking to seriously address the water crisis are eerily absent from the headlines of leading tech start-up publications Inc. and Fast Company

For someone with the capital and the knowledge, I’m practically handing you a business idea!  Finding ways to better manage and allocate our water could be hugely profitable and carry an even greater value for society; in California and beyond.  Find some smart people, pay them well, and you’ll make a bigger impression than any photo-sharing app ever can.  But Facebook and Google have catered lunches.  And with fridges stocked with all the premium bottled water one could ever drink, who needs water from the tap?

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