Tackling the water crisis will be just as hard as it sounds

As entrepreneurs grapple with water sustainability, they find big challenges lie beneath the surface.

Tackling the water crisis will be just as hard as it sounds
[Images: Leyn/iStock; Mirifada/iStock]

Today’s World Water Day, which falls on March 22 each year and is often an occasion for plenty of “doom and gloom,” says Scott Bryan. That’s why Bryan, president of ImagineH2O, a nonprofit organization that runs a startup accelerator and other programs aimed at solving water challenges around the globe, holds his organization’s demo day and gala event in the run-up to the day, “in hopes that there might be a story out there that’s a little more positive.”


Looking over ImagineH2O’s 10th cohort—which includes a baker’s dozen of startups offering everything from high-efficiency faucets and showerheads to handheld water-quality scanners, devices to reduce water loss in cooling towers, trenchless water-pipe replacement technology, and more—there is certainly reason for optimism. But these entrepreneurs are inspired, at least in part, by the fact that the doom and gloom is real.

Water scarcity threatens the environment around the world. [Photo: USGS]
More than 2 billion people around the world lack what the UN considers “safely managed drinking water supplies,” and millions of people across the United States—as much as a quarter of the country, by some estimates—drink water contaminated beyond legal levels.

Rectifying that situation won’t be easy. The big challenges include not just providing more clean water, but understanding how much water is available in a given region in the first place, so that resources can be managed more equitably and efficiently for all those who need them.

A thirst for information

“The sparsity of information about groundwater is a global reality,” says Nick Hayes. “It really is an unmeasured resource, of all the resources humans depend on.” Hayes and Marian Singer are cofounders of Wellntel, a Milwaukee startup that makes networked well monitors that use a patented acoustic measurement technology to track groundwater levels and well use.

According to Wellntel, groundwater makes up more than 40% of both drinking water and irrigation supply in the U.S., and something like 70% of irrigation worldwide. It affects everything from crop production to local economic development to “whether or not you can have a city,” Hayes says. “There are all sorts of key outputs that depend on this input. There is measurement that goes on, but it happens at government-scale only.”


To rectify that, Wellntel wants to use the 15 million domestic and agricultural irrigation wells that exist across North America to create “a network of dense data that can support decision-making and conflict resolution,” Hayes says. That kind of data could be used by civil agencies as criteria in granting construction permits, or to help determine policy around water transfers, to take just two examples. And commercial customers can get detailed insights into their own water use and supply.

Wellntel so far has about 600 systems deployed across 35 states, according to Singer, with another thousand or more due to come online this year. Of its current systems, “a couple of hundred” are in California, a state where water politics have long made headlines (and feature films, like 1974’s Chinatown). Much of the state’s agriculture and development would not be possible were it not for an irrigation and water transfer system that dates back more than 150 years. Water scarcity has been an issue in the state for decades, climate change is driving more volatile weather patterns in California, and—despite the state’s leadership on many environmental issues—until recently it was the only state that did not regulate the use of groundwater.

As a result, many local water basins have been overdrafted by agricultural and other users—21 are considered “critically overdrafted” by the California Department of Water Resources. Groundwater depletion has in turn led to land subsidence—a sinking of the surface of the Earth. Some areas of the heavily farmed San Joaquin Valley have seen subsidence of almost 30 feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Wells have gone dry, and up to a million Californians do not currently have access to clean drinking water, says Adrian Covert, vice president of public policy for the Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based business association that works with local companies and water agencies on a wide range of policy issues.

Weird weather ahead

Wellntel hopes to provide a ground-level perspective of the nation’s groundwater, but NASA is taking a different view. Its Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites (GRACE) spent 15 years measuring minute changes in the Earth’s gravitational field as a way to understand things like the water level of underground aquifers around the world, and the shift in water as places like Antarctica lose ice mass and sea levels continue to rise. The GRACE Follow-On mission (known as GRACE-FO) launched in May 2018 to continue that work, and to test technology that will enable future missions to make even finer measurements.

The GRACE-FO mission launches aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. [Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls]
“Water is a vital resource that we all need to sustain our societies, and we really need to understand the trends in that and where they’re headed,” says Frank Webb, the GRACE-FO mission’s project scientist. “Especially when we have large population centers that develop around water sources—if we can provide insight into long-term trends or even short-term changes that take place, this is really important information as we try to plan for the future and how we’re going to adapt to our evolving climate.”


GRACE data allowed Antarctica’s ice loss to be accurately quantified for the first time. [Image: NASA/GSFC/SVS]
Getting that kind of information into the hands of the agencies that manage water resources will be a crucial next step. “Our water systems and our weather patterns are going to change in many parts of the world in ways that the local water resource managers in those regions are not prepared for,” says Jason Morrison, president of The Pacific Institute, a think tank devoted to global water issues. “These are massive challenges both in terms of understanding what we’re going to need to respond to, then building solutions and water management capability to address the weirdifcation of the weather.”

Orianna Bretschger [Photo: courtesy of Aquacycl]
Among the most important solutions to alleviate water supply challenges will be wastewater treatment and reuse. Many current treatment alternatives are expensive, energy inefficient, or time-consuming—or all three. One company that thinks it’s found a scalable solution is Aquacycl, a startup launched in late 2016 after its CEO and cofounder, Orianna Bretschger, had developed the technology with support from the J. Craig Venter Institute and the Roddenberry Foundation.

While the fundamental technology is not new—using existing bacteria to digest the pollutants in wastewater—Aquacycle has devised a modular system in which each of the reactor units that treat the water is about the size of a car battery. “The reactors can be stacked together like Legos to increase treatment quality or capacity,” Bretschger says.

Aquacycle reactors treat wastewater and produce electricity. [Photo: courtesy of Aquacycl]
In a pilot at a pig farm near San Diego, Aquacycle has deployed a dozen such reactors to treat 150 gallons of swine wastewater a day. In just four hours of “hydraulic residence” (the time that each volume of water must remain in a reactor), Aquacycl’s technology removed 65% of the organic carbon present in the flow, and through microbial extracellular respiration produced enough electricity to offset half the demand of the system.

By comparison, most wastewater treatment facilities utilize anaerobic digestion and can require a 15- to 40-day residence period, Bretschger says. And the anaerobic reaction produces not electricity but methane—a greenhouse gas—which then has to be captured and disposed of, itself a complicated and expensive process.


No silver bullet

A new Aquacycl pilot, at the Joshua Tree Brewery in the southern California desert, will start at 500 gallons a day and scale up to 1,500 gallons as the business grows. But Bretschger really wants to focus on industrial wastewater treatment at low volumes. “We want to be treating the really high-strength stuff, stuff that’s 300 times more concentrated than what you see in a sewer,” she says.

“Ultimately, our goal is emerging markets,” Bretschger continues. “Our mission is sanitation and water for all. One-third of the world population doesn’t have access to a toilet. Eighty percent of all the wastewater we generate, whether industrial waste or raw sewage or gray water, is discharged to the environment with minimal treatment or no treatment at all. This has devastating effects on public health and environmental health. What we’re developing is not a silver bullet, but we hope it can be part of a solution to improve sanitation throughout the world. As long as we can scale, we should be able to get to a price point that we can help emerging markets.”

Aquacycl installation [Photo: courtesy of Aquacycl]
While Wellntel also sees early opportunities in places like California and Texas, it’s important to note that “this groundwater stress isn’t just California,” Singer says. “And it isn’t just Texas. It’s everywhere in the U.S.” She cites the case of a town in Wisconsin that drew down its groundwater to “perilously low” levels. It was “getting to a place where the groundwater had naturally occurring arsenic and radon in it,” she says. “You wouldn’t think, in a place like Wisconsin, which is very water-rich, that there would be a place of such local stress. But the location of humans and businesses and agriculture meant that even in Wisconsin we had this area of great stress.”

As aquifers not just in California but in the Midwest and elsewhere come under increasing strain, and as climate change leads to more questions about the reliable availability of water, whether in California or elsewhere around the country or around the world, necessity has become the mother of invention. “It’s going to create new opportunities for technology to make things more efficient,” Covert says. Entrepreneurs are stepping up, but there’s still a long way to go.

Mark Wallace (@markwallace) is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, New York, Wired, and many other publications.