Water innovation is a contact sport

January 9th, 2020

As part of the Global Climate Action Summit, we hosted an event focused on the 'Future of Water', gathering US and Australian academics, researchers and start-ups, to discuss this vital resource.

All eyes were on San Francisco last week as it hosted the Global Climate Action Summit to encourage communities, governments and companies to ‘step up’ and address five key areas, one of which is Land and Ocean Stewardship. What an appropriate backdrop for CSIRO US’ ‘Future of Water’ event which brought together Australian and USA academics, researchers and start-ups.

The ravaging wildfires of the west and the arrival of Hurricane Florence on the east coast emphasize the dichotomy of the world we live in today. In between expanding drought and scenes from the 1995 “Water World” movie, there is a growing awareness that fresh water may be more valuable than gold.

Australia leads the world on water management research as a result of grappling with continuous extreme cycles of drought and flooding. While Australia and USA are oceans apart, both continents share common challenges and a heightened sense of urgency to develop effective water policies based on research and innovative new approaches.

Executive Vice-President, Susan Lucas-Conwell and our panelists

Executive Vice-President, Susan Lucas-Conwell and our panelists

To put the fresh water crisis in perspective, according to the EPA, less than 1 percent of the earth’s water is consumable by people. Yet more than 40 percent of fresh water in the US is used to generate electricity and more than 30 percent is used for agriculture irrigation. The result is that 40 states in the USA face increased water shortages as well as escalating costs to treat and deliver water. For electricity and agriculture use, much of the need for fresh water could be met with the use of recycled water if properly managed for health and environmental risks, and assessed using the best available science.

The ‘Future of Water’ panelists included Dr Peter Fiske, Director of WEERI at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Dr. Declan Page, Environmental Researcher, CSIRO; Dr. Nicholas Pinter, Professor of Applied Geosciences Dept of Earth and Planetary Sciences, UC Davis; Ms. Meena Sankaran, Founder/CEO, Ketos; and moderated by Lisa Kreiger of the San Jose Mercury News.

The panelists championed four best practices that communities and governments should embrace today:

  1. Build future water security by managing water as an investment portfolio of assets. The lesson learned is that water assets are correlated and directly tied to climate change.
  2. Invest in freshwater generation today even if you don’t need it. Australia invested heavily in desalination plants during its early drought cycles. While most of the plants are not in production, they are ‘ready to go’.
  3. Implement sophisticated water rights. Water is a sale-able, trade-able asset and different types of water should have correspondingly different secure and unsecure rights. The Australian government allocates various water rights based on each location’s environmental situation.
  4. Decentralize water management because moving water is expensive. The historical best practice of centralized water management is inefficient and consumes more energy transporting water than it saves.

Everyone agreed that water is a ripe bed for innovation coming at the intersection of disciplines, methods and open innovation R&D partnerships between companies, academia and contract research firms. Today’s focus on water innovation is on distribution, conservation and monitoring.

Monitoring and analytics of water is a good example. According to the EPA WaterSense, “minor water leaks account for 1 trillion gallons of wasted water annually ”. That’s enough water to support 11 million households. In California, that drippy faucet, hose or underground water pipe contributes to a ten percent loss of freshwater. Combining sensor and process control technology with public education is a more effective and sustainable way to conserve water and increase grid efficiency.

Meena Sankaran addresses the audience

Meena Sankaran addresses the audience

Real-time, in-depth understanding of the state of various water types, leads to less reliance on ground water and enables water to be allocated according to cascading scales. This ensures that water is readily available for the highest needs first before it is made available to other uses that are not directly life-sustaining.

R&D and open innovation play a critical role in the future of water by leveraging technology in other fields and theoretical ideas into real-world products and services. The cross-pollination that CSIRO promotes between industries and countries doesn’t just solve real-world issues but develops new products and services that extend the core business of companies.

That is particularly important for start-up water technology companies where financial sustainability is difficult. Start-up companies today are focused on filtration, water quality/purity, and process monitoring in agriculture and industrial manufacturing technology.

There is a sustainable water future, but it requires investment and thoughtful policy. Everyone – every citizen and company, has a role to play in securing a sustainable water future. The necessary groundbreaking innovations needed will come from open innovation and ongoing collaboration across country borders, ecosystems and R&D partnerships for the simple reason that “water is a contact sport”.