An early morning hike along the sunbaked edges of Boulder Bay at Lake Mead confirms what scientists and media are shouting to anyone who cares to listen: All of us living in the Southwest must face the consequences of a rapidly dwindling water supply that experts say may never fully recover in a dryer, hotter future.
“There’s no question it’s a situation that is very serious,” says Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “But in the Phoenix area, we have other water supplies. We have a diverse water portfolio. Bigger, older cities in the Phoenix metropolitan area have water from SRP, CAP, and the aquifers. What we have to do is manage these resources for long-term sustainability.”
Governors in Arizona, Nevada, California, Colorado, and Washington are mandating water conservation measures such as reducing water usage by 10% to 15% for farms and some industry, and many have declared drought emergencies. While residents might not see the impact immediately, higher costs for food and goods are likely when water flow to farms and industry is restricted by the multi-state Drought Contingency Plan expected to take effect in January 2022.
“The Colorado River system is in poor health hydrologically. Shortage declarations and cutbacks in deliveries are triggered by the level of Lake Mead, but they cannot ‘prop up’ Lake Mead enough to avoid cutbacks if the inflows are very low,” says Sharon B. Medgal, Ph.D., director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center (WRRC). A key question is how deep will the cutbacks be over time. Consider:
- Lake Mead is at the lowest level (1,067.79 feet on July 15, 2021) it has experienced since the Hoover Dam opened in the 1930s on the Colorado River and filled the nation’s largest reservoir to supply farms, industry, and 40 million people living in Nevada, Arizona, and Southern California.
- Scientists call the drought a “mega drought” and describe it as the worst dry spell the Southwest has experienced in nearly 1,200 years.
- According to the World Health Organization, one-half the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2025.
Even available water supplies are threatened by pollution, degradation of aquatic ecosystems, population and economic growth, poor planning and regulation, and inefficient use of water.
With higher temperatures plaguing western states for the past several years, precipitation evaporates faster, reducing water in lakes, streams, and rivers; snowpacks dissipate through sublimation before melting and filling streams in the spring; and the arid, parched earth bakes, turning hard and resisting absorbing water when scarce rain does fall.
“We are in a long, dry spell, and it’s unlikely to change significantly anytime soon,” says Michael Boyko, co-founder and chief operating officer at Tempe-based Dynamic Water Technologies (DWT). “I have lived in Arizona my entire life, and I’ve spent the last 30 years of my career finding sustainable solutions for water and energy conservation.”
Boyko leads a movement among like-minded business and government officials who envision using technology to reduce water usage, especially among agriculture and industrial users—by far the heaviest consumers of water. In the Southwest, cooling towers for medical centers, shopping malls, and office complexes use vast amounts of water. According to a 2018 National Geographic report, agriculture uses 80% to 90% of the world’s water, followed by energy production and industry. Household use—for washing, flushing, and cooking—accounts for 3% of humanity’s total water consumption.
“In the United States, we live in a world that drastically undervalues clean water,” Boyko says. “We wash our cars with drinking water. We water our lawns with drinking water. We literally use potable drinking water in our toilets.”
He believes long-term sustainability lies in new approaches to water use such as drip irrigation—which reduces water loss to nearly zero—replacing spray irrigation or flood irrigation where appropriate. Spray and flood water lose 35% to 50% of water applied, respectively.
“It is time to start thinking about the stresses experienced by our natural systems and the people and other living beings in them in a new way,” writes Medgal, the director at WRRC, in an article about the agency’s upcoming 2021 conference at the end of August, Tribal Water Resilience in a Changing Environment.
“We must think about how we as humans can adapt to the changing conditions, as our water systems may not return to their prior conditions,” she notes. “In fact, geological history indicates otherwise.”
Boyko sees the wisdom in adapting and believes business leaders can help set a forward-thinking standard by seeking, developing, and adopting technologies that conserve water, particularly in industrial processes. DWT has developed and commercialized several technologies that provide innovative ways to recycle and conserve water.
The company’s electrocoagulation process turns hazardous and contaminated water into “process water” that can be reused in a variety of commercial and industrial applications. The DWT Dynamic Scale Reactor pulls scale-forming minerals out of treated water and eliminates the need for chemical treatment in cooling towers, which further increases water reuse and recycling.
By eliminating the need for chemical treatment, the technology also keeps any of the chemicals from being introduced into the environment in discharged wastewater. Boyko says all DWT’s technologies are about helping industry run better, safer, and more cost-effectively while simultaneously saving water.
Porter’s view is that overall, Arizona has been ahead of the curve in planning for a hotter, dryer future. She points out that Arizona has experienced significant population and economic growth without a correlated increase in water demand. Between 2000 and 2010, the CAP service area saw a 22% increase in population but only a 2% increase in residential water demand.
She also cites Arizona’s Groundwater Management Act of 1980 as a critical factor in the state’s continued water resilience. However, current climate conditions may require more adaptive changes in economic and conservation planning.
“We need a big bunch of people such as business leaders, influencers, government leaders to understand and think through what the solutions are,” Porter says. “We need to engage in the conversation about growing in ways that use water in the smartest ways we can so we can continue to flourish economically.
“All stakeholders need to be part of the conversation so we can look toward a prosperous, thriving community that does all this with less water,” she says.
Boyko’s company is one of those stakeholders. The company’s electrochemical treatment process uses technology first developed in other arid nations. In 2020, the City of Los Angeles won an Innovator of the Year Award for saving 2.45 million gallons of water in less than two years. City leaders attributed the savings to DWT’s technology.
The installation at Los Angeles City Hall East is one of two at government facilities that used DWT’s treatment system as part of studies by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a division within the Department of Energy. The three-month study at the 242,000-square-foot Juliette Gordon Low Federal Building in Savannah, Georgia, produced similar water-saving results as those reported in Los Angeles. The General Services Administration, which issued the study, recommended that DWT’s technology be adopted at all federal government facilities.
“We have the technology available,” Boyko says. “What we need to do is persuade businesses and government leaders to envision new ways of operating that focus on renewable energy and water savings.
“We don’t want to shut down businesses, or curtail economic growth,” Boyko emphasizes. “We want to show businesses how to grow and make money, while being good stewards of our precious resources, such as water.”
For more information, visit www.dynamicwater.com.