Innovative Solutions to Our Water Crisis

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Photo by WaterFX
WaterFX's system in California uses solar energy to turn irrigation runoff into pure water.

“If you think the oil wars are bad, wait until the water wars begin.”

Ron Jones, president of Green Builder Media, recently made this ominous prediction. With severe drought conditions expanding across the globe, the future he warns of may become a reality more quickly and acutely than we think. In the United States, California, Texas, Arizona and Georgia are on the front lines of the water crisis. As of March 2014, Arizona had just experienced its fourth-warmest winter to date, which caused water shortages across the state; Texas was suffering through the lowest reservoir levels in 25 years; and Georgia had documented years of record water shortages. California’s crippling drought has brought the state to its knees, as farmers in the nation’s most productive agricultural zone were forced to keep thousands of acres of cropland fallow, and communities across the state risked running out of drinking water.

Fortunately, many innovators are in hot pursuit of these problems. Entrepreneurial companies are experimenting with technologies that can mitigate water crises, and sustainable builders are offering new ways to reduce water use in homes.

WaterFX, a Fresno County-based desalination company, uses solar thermal technology to turn salty, contaminated irrigation runoff into pure water. Its pilot system produces about 14,000 gallons per day for its customers, who are mostly local farmers, and the company has plans to significantly ramp up production to 2 million gallons daily in the next few years. WaterFX says the cost of this clean water ($450 per acre-foot) is currently more expensive than reservoir water (about $300 per acre-foot), but that margin could narrow if climate change and drought continue to render reservoir water scarcer and more expensive.

Advances in water purification are encouraging, but residential water conservation also plays a role in meeting water-efficiency goals. Homebuilding company KB Home recently built its first Double ZeroHouse in Lancaster, Calif., one of the most water-challenged areas of the country. This house sits at the intersection of both water and energy efficiency. It’s a net-zero-energy building (potentially yielding an electric bill of $0) that reuses greywater, and saves water with ultra-efficient appliances.

KB Home estimates that the structure can conserve 150,000 gallons of water each year when compared with a typical home, which is an average reduction of approximately 70 percent. The Double ZeroHouse’s sophisticated greywater system first pipes greywater from sinks, tubs, showers and washing machines into a heat-recovery system. As hot water runs through the system, the heat is extracted and used to preheat fresh water in the tankless water heater. This heat exchange results in about a 30 percent savings on water heating. Next, the greywater is channeled into a collection tank, where it’s stored for watering the landscape or garden.

Currently, the greywater system featured in the Double ZeroHouse costs more than $5,000 when installed in a new home. For it to become market-viable, KB Home estimates that the cost would have to decrease to between $1,500 and $2,000, which would likely be achieved by a combination of incentives, rebates and increased demand.

As the cost of water rises, the return on investment for these types of systems that combine energy and water efficiency is becoming more compelling. The triple whammy of dilapidated infrastructure, severe drought and climate change has driven water prices up exponentially in recent years, so implementing creative conservation solutions is not only vital to addressing our water crisis, but also paramount to keeping monthly utility bills affordable for homeowners.

This article was republished with permission fromGreen Builder Media.