A Publication of WTVP

The race to save water may be the most important innovation race in all of history.

For the first time, there is real, definitive proof that water is running out. A recent study by NASA and the University of California, Irvine, has shown that in the past decade, 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers have been used past the point of sustainability. In places like the state of California, where a historic drought is taking place, some people don’t have water for basic needs like cooking. We will take a glimpse into how current technology is attempting to save water, and how new innovations are attempting to use it more efficiently. You will learn why we should all become more water-conscious and do our part in making this basic human need more sustainable.

Let’s start by addressing water usage in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the average American family uses about 300 gallons of water per day. In 2005, irrigation accounted for 37 percent of all freshwater withdrawals, while 41.5 percent of withdrawals were used for thermoelectric power. The map on the next page illustrates that by 2030, nearly every state will use more water than ever before. So how can we accommodate the rising demand?

Jay Famiglietti, a lead water scientist who participated in the aforementioned NASA study, has claimed the best way to fight our depleting water sources is with a combination of better water monitoring, increased exploration of groundwater and more efficient use of water in agriculture. He adds that it is difficult to know whether water has depleted because of nature, climate change or people. That’s where the following innovative technologies come into play.

Agricultural Innovations
Large agricultural companies have developed elaborate IT infrastructures to practice precision agriculture. This process uses real-time data collection on weather conditions, soil quality, equipment and labor costs, crop maturity, and predictive analytics for better long-term planning during crop season.

The Farmlogs software was created for the purpose of assisting farmers with precision agriculture. It integrates a mobile and desktop interface to gather, collect and report farming logistics. As of 2015, Farmlogs is used on 50,000 farms out of the 2.2 million across all 50 states, and its inception has made precision agriculture remarkably more autonomous. The only obstacle is trying to convince farmers to transition to digital performance support when they already have experience with live, visual inspection. But crops are not the only thing we are harvesting.

Fog harvesting is a cheap, environmentally friendly method of gathering clean water. Researcher Daniel Fernandez of California State University used fog harvesting to gather nearly 40 liters of water per square meter in a day. The Standard Fog Collector is made of a fabric mesh one square meter in size that faces the wind like a perforated sail. Fog tends to form during times when there is little rain, making it especially effective in areas like some parts of South America and the currently drought-ridden California.

One downside of fog harvesting is that we cannot determine with certainty when, where and how much fog will appear. There could be a remedy for this in the mobile form, however; an app called Sunshine for iOS allows users around the world to collectively report weather conditions for a better representation of how the weather differs depending on their location. Crowdsourced data such as this would be ideal for learning where fog is in real-time. Luckily, fog does not contain saltwater, which brings us to another important topic.

Techniques for Desalination
People often ask why we face water shortages when two thirds of the earth is covered in water. The answer is simple: most of that water is saltwater, which cannot be consumed without some type of desalination. You may have heard the term reverse osmosis, which describes a desalination process where water is forced through a filtered sheet called a membrane. As water travels through the sheet, the particles in the water are left on the other side, effectively purifying the water. However, reverse osmosis has left many systems with an overwhelming salt buildup, which often gets released back into the ocean. It also requires high amounts of energy, making us search for more efficient desalination techniques.

There has been growing interest in solar desalination—a cost-effective method that uses heat trapped by solar panels to purify water as it runs through pipes. The water turns into steam and is then collected as liquid, leaving the salt behind. The upside to the solar method is that it requires significantly less energy than reverse osmosis. There is just one facility in the entire world using solar panels for this: a California-based startup named WaterFX.

Our company sponsors a shoe drive each year to support WaterStep, a nonprofit organization based in Kentucky that provides clean water to impoverished countries. WaterStep developed its own form of water purification, with the development of a device called the M-100 Chlorinator. Powered by a 12-volt car battery and salt, the M-100 efficiently and cheaply removes waterborne pathogens by generating chlorine. It can disinfect 38,000 liters per day. The M-100 cannot remove salt or heavy metals from water, but WaterStep’s continued success shows that it is heading in the right direction.

Power Up!
Long before innovations like the M-100, most of the world learned that even if we could not purify water, we could still use it for producing power.

When you see a dam built on a river, there is a good chance you are looking at a hydroelectric power plant. These dams direct water into turbines, which use the kinetic energy released by falling water to generate electricity. The turbines are connected to generators that convert the rotational force into power. In fact, the largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam, has an electricity-generating capacity of 22,500 megawatts, supplying three percent of China’s total need. Although they release no greenhouse gases and have low maintenance costs, hydroelectric power facilities are expensive to build, and can have a substantial impact on the ecosystem in and around the river.

For power on a smaller scale, look to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. It found a way to retrieve hydrogen and carbon dioxide from seawater, turning both elements into a hydrocarbon fuel that was successfully used during testing. While these tests took place in 2013, the laboratory’s official press release predicts its process for making and using hydrocarbon fuel will be commercially viable in around seven years.

Earlier this year, Carnegie Wave Energy, known for the patented CETO wave energy technology, turned on the first wave power station built in Perth, Australia. Wave motion supplies renewable energy and fresh water by using submerged pumps that feed high-pressure water to a hydroelectric station. The pumps are moved by the kinetic energy of waves from the ocean; the waves themselves are driven by wind. This method can also desalinate water with no emissions in the process.

Closer to Home
If water-powered transportation, hydroelectric power and wave motion are taking too long to impact you directly, there are actions you can take to become more water-conscious, like observing your own water usage, spreading awareness about water availability and using water-saving technologies in your home. Another option is participating in the crowdsourced method of live weather reporting with an app like Sunshine. There are a range of water-related mobile apps available, showing that mobile is a great platform for learning about and interacting with water. The following are a few of our favorites.

Rain Harvest is an app that helps users find out how much water they could collect during a rainstorm, with a formula measuring rainfall inches, efficiency and catchment area by square feet. Another useful app is Water and Waste Management Engineer, containing more than 600 conversion formulas used in the water industry that can be accessed any time a worker may need them, which actually shows how water has found a place in mobile performance support. The Insteon for Hub app syncs with Insteon’s own leak sensor, a small device that can alert a user to leaks in the household, and allows users to monitor and set alerts on the go.

After reading all of this, your gut reaction might be to grab a megaphone and shout, “Save water!” to the nearest passerby—or build your own saltwater-powered hoverboard. In some ways, it can seem like time is not on our side as we strive to make water sustainable. While the predictions about depleting water sources may seem dire, it is important to remember these predictions have pushed us into what might be the most important innovation race in all of history. The race to save water is, by extension, a race to save the world. iBi

Float, based in Morton, Illinois, mobilizes people, processes and software in high-performing organizations through custom apps, digital strategy and human-centered design. For more information, visit