No Drop Left Behind: Planning California’s Water Future

11 Dec 2017  |  Steph Aldock

When I first heard there was a water conference in Silicon Valley, I was intrigued. Microsoft hosted the event, No Drop Left Behind, sponsored by Sustainable Silicon Valley. In this forum, Microsoft laid out its impressive water management plans for the company’s Mountain View campus.

With a full room of high level stakeholders, the number of tech companies– from the likes of Google, Facebook, Hewlett Packard, LinkedIn– in attendance for a water conference–highlighted the growing convergence of water & data.

The speakers reinforced many of the key takeaways our water experts have been seeing:

  • California is serious about water, and is actively planning for the future: Richard Nagel of CH2M spoke of the need to prepare for another mega-drought, stating that we cannot use the past to predict future water supply. As a California resident, I was relieved to hear John Varela of Santa Clara Water District reassure the audience that community water leaders are planning for our “grandchildren’s” water future. Hopefully, other districts, municipalities, and utilities are following suit.
  • Resiliency is top of mind: The new buzz word in the water industry is #resiliency. If I had a dollar for every time a speaker used the term “water resiliency.” Instead of replacing water infrastructure, the focus was on augmenting our current infrastructure, in a “circular economy.” Recent hurricanes were still top of mind, and as we sat in the conference, wildfires were burning in Southern California, and likely spreading due to drought conditions.
  • There is not one solution: Water supply is fixed (we have as much water as the earth began with): the key is not finding new water supplies, but rather harnessing technology and innovation to manage the water supply. Paula Kehoe, from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, emphasized the need for a diverse water mix, that includes potable and non-potable water, centralized and de-centralized systems, and conservation.
  • All water is not created equal: There are amazing things happening in water recycling, from groundwater, to greywater, to blackwater, to brown water, some terms I hadn’t even heard of. Speakers emphasized using the right “water” for the “right use case.” There were even jokes about the importance of not watering lawns with purified drinking water.
  • Reuse is only going to grow in importance, but the public still needs educating. People don’t want to think about it, yet craft brewers are getting into the game, even the marijuana industry is using reclaimed water. The reality is that the water is being used for so many other things besides potable uses, such as cooling, irrigation, toilets, and more. It may be a PR issue, as Mr. Nagel humorously pointed out via Jack Black, but the public is already getting on board. 
  • Tech is paying attention: Partly for their own needs­– data centers are very water intensive– many technology companies are now turning to recycled water. From revolutionary shower heads to a water risk monetizer, there is no shortage of innovation, coming out of Silicon Valley. But how far will tech’s investment in water go? Silicon Valley could have a huge impact on the water industry. And not only tech but private equity and venture capital companies will play a key role going forward.
  • The future is now: A key theme in the conference was the need to prepare and predict the future. How much more will water rates increase? What technologies will take off? How will California prepare for the next drought?

While the challenges are many, this is an exciting time to be in the water industry, and Silicon Valley is always at the forefront. The tone was serious, future looking and optimistic.