Where California’s Water Will Come From

Where California’s Water Will Come From

Conversations about the California drought shift constantly, ranging from doomsday scenarios, to unfounded accusations, to total apathy. We wanted to get a handle on how bad things are, really, and what actual solutions could make a difference. For answers, we turned to Amanda Little, an environmental reporter and long-time goop contributor who’s had her eye on the problem since the very first water restrictions, writing in-depth pieces for Bloomberg and The New Yorker. Below, she explains what looks most viable.

Solving California’s Drought

A few months ago, I got an email about the “Skip Showers For Beef” campaign that’s asking drought-stressed Californians to give up 54 showers for every 8 ounces of beef they eat. Fifty freaking four? I thought, and went to the website, where I watched a video of a hipster couple in L.A. cleaning their bodies with Wet Wipes in penance for grilling burgers. “It takes 18,000 gallons of water to create 1 pound of beef,” they reasoned.

It took me a few beats to realize that, while the facts about water-intensive beef production were mostly true, the campaign itself was a satire—a collaboration between activists the Yes Men and Funny or Die. It reminded me of that Jack Black video where he promises to help solve the growing problems of drought by promoting “Porcelain Springs”—delicious, bottled, recycled water from toilets.

These spoofs work because they’re edged with a harsh reality—one that’s much harder to swallow than the jokes themselves. The California drought, now in its fourth year, has wiped out more than half a million acres of farmland, claimed some 20,000 jobs, and cost the economy billions dollars in damages. And even with the recent El Niño rains, water reservoirs in California are still about one third of their normal capacity.

Looking beyond California, the world’s water problems become only more grave. Countries from South Africa and Ethiopia to India and North Korea are currently experiencing brutal droughts and some, as a result, are facing famine. Government climate models predict that by 2025, about 2.8 billion people will live in water-scarce areas—nearly double the 1.6 billion who do now.

I’ll state the obvious here: Without water, we—and virtually all living organisms on planet Earth—are toast. “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” wrote the poet W. H. Auden. But when an essential condition or requirement to living becomes scarce, we can either become desperate, or innovate. And countless scientists and engineers all over the world are now developing technologies for a drought-proof water supply.

I’ve traveled from Miami to Mumbai to investigate what the future of water looks like. Will we tap water from our oceans? Or even—humor aside—from our sewage systems? How much of a role will conservation play? Here’s a snapshot of what I’ve found:


Just last month, the city of San Diego opened the largest desalination plant in the Western hemisphere. It provides nearly a tenth of the city’s total water supply—enough for about 300,000 San Diego residents. The $1.5 billion plant sucks up 100 million gallons of Pacific ocean water per day and transforms half of that into drinking water; the rest is pumped back into the ocean, carrying the removed salt.

Five thousand years ago, Greek sailors boiled ocean water in caldrons on ships and then condensed the steam to make drinking water. The modern technique for desalination is called “reverse osmosis,” which removes salt as the water moves across membranes no thicker than a sheet of tracing paper. The plastic membranes have holes so tiny—smaller than the width of salt molecule–that nothing can get by but pure H2O. The hitch is, it takes a lot of energy—from 7000-horsepower pumps running night and day—to blast the water through these membranes.

Critics have raised legitimate concerns about the energy demands (and carbon impact) of desalination, and about its effects on marine life. But most of the scientists I’ve interviewed say that the environmental risks of this technology are not much greater—and perhaps even less—than damming rivers and importing water over long distances. And even though large-scale desalination plants are new to the U.S., there are thousands of these plants along the coastlines of countries including China, Israel, India, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Spain.


So it turns out that Jack Black wasn’t very far afield in his Porcelain Springs skit. That very same “reverse osmosis” process used in desalination can remove virtually all contaminants from sewage water so that it’s not just drinkable, but purer than the stuff that comes out of the tap where I live in Nashville, TN. I know this, because I recently went to the water treatment plant in Orange County, California. All of the water it treats comes from the sewage treatment facility next door. Daily, the water plant produces enough to supply 850,000 Orange County residents—which makes this the largest “toilet to tap” facility on the planet.

Before you cringe, rest assured that the sewage passes through seven different stages of filtration. In one stage, a filter of gravel and sand pulls out suspended particles. In a “microfiltration” stage, the water is sucked through thousands of tiny, porous straws. After the reverse-osmosis process, you have a hyper-pure water product. When I finished my tour of the Orange Country plant, I took a swig. The water that hours earlier had begun as raw sewage was now flowing crystal clear from the tap. I poured some into a Dixie cup and—I sh*t you not—it tasted just as good as a gulp of Poland Springs.

One California water official told me that toilet-to-tap water will probably be “the single largest source of water for California over the next quarter-century.” Already, San Diego is planning to get 30 percent of its water from recycled waste in the next two decades. Countries all over the world are also moving in this direction. Already, Singapore produces one-third of its water from sewage streams.


Consider this crazy statistic: On average, one third of all the water distributed around the world is lost in leaks and bursts in underground pipes before it gets to faucets. Water waste on both this grand scale and inside our homes is as much a problem as it is an opportunity.

A new generation of so-called “smart water networks” use advanced software and sensors inside pipes to detect leaks before they become a problem. There’s also a growing number of options for home appliances—low-flow toilets and showerheads, Energy Star washing machines and dishwashers—that can help homeowners slash their water waste. The trend in “xeriscaping,” which uses native plants that need little or no irrigation, can cut water usage for gardens and front lawns by about two-thirds.

And Funny or Die was on to something: 80 percent of all water use in California goes to the agriculture industry, and a huge portion of that goes to growing water-hungry crops like alfalfa to feed cows. So cutting meat from your diet—or, at least, limiting it—is one of the most effective ways you can conserve water. And if you’re really motivated, by all means skip showers a few days a week, and knock yourself out with Wet Wipes.