Monday, April 8, 2013

What Should We Assume About New Technology in California Water Policy?

When we talk water in our Center at Pacific, my colleague Dr. Pogue always brings up the lack of emphasis on new technology in California water debates, and the assumption of constant technology that undergirds virtually all economic and planning studies.  Dr. Pogue's PhD is in the economics of technological change, and I should listen to his advice more.  But I am as guilty as anyone in making conservative technology assumptions, as I don't want to be accused of making unrealistic assumptions to tilt an analysis.

However, California water policy is driven with built in expectations of sea-level rise, changing precipitation and levee-exploding earthquakes.  We accept those assumptions, but not assumptions about advancing technology.  I am confident that we will have game-changing technological advances concurrent with if not before any of those climate change and natural disaster impacts hit California water in a large way, and I am certain we would if our policies did more to encourage these technological advances.  If water policy analysis is going to assume 18 or more inches of sea-level rise by 2050 and a 2/3 chance of levee destroying earthquake by 2050, it seems realistic to also assume that the real cost of alternative water supplies, including desaliniation, will drop by half or more in the same time frame.

In fact, last month, Lockheed Martin acheived a patent for Perforene, a carbon membrane the width of a single molecule that promises to reduce the energy requirements of desalination by one-hundred times
we believe that this simple and affordable solution will be a game-changer for the industry,” said Dr. Ray O. Johnson, senior vice president and chief technology officer of Lockheed Martin...At only one atom thick, graphene is both strong and durable, making it more effective at sea water desalination at a fraction of the cost of industry-standard reverse osmosis systems.

But that isn't the only new desalination technology on the horizon.  In the past year, Lawrence Livermore National Lab has been touting its own technological breakthrough, flow-through electrode capacitive desalination.  They have a prototype and patent application pending, and are seeking industrial partners to help it bring the technology to market.
LLNL has developed an innovative technology that promises to unlock an almost inexhaustible water source for U.S. and global population markets.
And they aren't the only ones working on new desalination technologies, and more advances continue in water efficiency, recycling, and stormwater capture.  Now that we have reached the point where two highly credible sources like LLNL and Lockheed Martin are a few years from bringing important new technology to the market, I think it is time to more explicitly embrace technological innovation in California water planning and policy. 

If California were to focus more on these types of technological breakthroughs, we would not only be solving our own water problems but helping to solve a critical present and even greater future problem in poor, developing countries.  We could develop technologies and advanced manufacturing here, and sell to a global market.

Instead, California water policy is fixated on a pair of $14+ billion concrete tunnels, where an estimated $3 billion of the total will be spent on foreign tunneling machines and plumbing components.  It seems so last century and unCalifornia to me.  This is the state that funds stem cell research, that has moved ahead with cap-and-trade and supported alternative energy supplies, and has the most innovative technology center in the world in Silicon Valley.

What if it became a goal of state policy to shut-down the state water project pumps over the Tehachapi mountains in 20 years?  What if both southern California and Silicon Valley were to stop importing water from the Delta.  It sounds less crazy to me than past technology goals like putting a man on the moon, or current California policy goals like bringing carbon dioxide emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020. 

Unlike the current Delta plan, developing these water supplies would actually increase the state's water supply, and pumping less over the mountains would make more low-cost water available for San Joaquin Valley agriculture as well as support higher outflows for fish.  Developing these alternative water supplies would create thousands of jobs in California, save energy, and foster the development of new California industries to sell water technology around the globe.  The only loser would be the Metropolitan Water District (the agency itself, their customers would benefit), and therein lies a major problem.

The only way to finance the collosal debt of the Delta tunnels will be to keep southern California and silicon valley dependent on Delta water.  I have heard people say the state should do the BDCP and develop advanced water technologies and alternative supplies, but the two visions are fundamentally in conflict.


  1. Jerry Brown needs to give up on his old ways and start supporting an advance approach to our water issues. It is obvious the tunnels are his way of paying off someone

  2. Nice written article.
    Good job!