Imagine a world in which desalinated water, instead of being five or 10 times the cost of water from a river or lake, was just as cheap as any other supply. Suddenly desalination would be the solution for lots of water problems, from cities to farms to oil fields.
Imagine a world in which data about how much water people are using isn’t five years out of date before it’s available, but arrives in real time—just like data about energy use.
Imagine a world, in fact, in which companies, universities, and governments invested in new water technology in ways that matched investments in computing, or biotechnology, or cancer research—and and gave us new, more effective ways to tackle problems from the California drought to the lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan.
In its last 11 months in office, the Obama Administration wants to lay the groundwork for that kind of water innovation, hoping to jumpstart new investments, new technologies, and most of all a new attitude.
On Tuesday, President Obama’s White House will do something that, apparently, no previous president has ever done: It will submit a budget with a section devoted to spending money specifically on water innovation. The water innovation section will be two pages, two pages in what will likely be a four-volume document topping 2,000 pages.
But it’s an effort to bring some zest, some disruption, and some creativity to what has been one of the dustiest sectors of the economy for almost a century.
"In the United States, the investment in R&D for clean energy is 50 times the investment in R&D for water," says Ali Zaidi, associate director for natural resources, energy, and science in the Office of Management and Budget. "It’s going to take a lot to turn that around."
In fact, in the U.S., the most visible water innovation for most people in the last two decades has been the blossoming of competing brands of bottled water.
In advance of the Obama Administration's formal budget submission on Tuesday, Zaidi shared the specifics of the water innovation budget with Fast Company, in an effort to make sure water didn’t get overlooked in the larger budget discussions.
Among seven specific elements that total $267 million, the White House is proposing two big new ideas. First, to create a hub of research into desalination technology, in an effort to dramatically lower the cost of desalination, to ultimately make it no more expensive than taking water from a lake or a river. At the moment, there is no research center devoted to that kind of water innovation. And the administration is proposing to quickly develop new prediction techniques, that will provide much more precise forecasts of floods and droughts, to allow for better management of their impact.
The water innovation budget lands in Congress at a moment when a single water issue—the unfolding crisis of lead-poisoned water in the city of Flint—has gotten more attention than any water issue in years. The question is whether public concern, and public attention, to the problems of Flint’s water system can be translated into support for thinking in new ways about the U.S. water system.
In fact, the administration’s proposals do not include the word "infrastructure" at all. The federal budget has money in it to help cities replace existing, and aging, water infrastructure, although not nearly the amounts communities need.
The Obama Administration wants to get beyond pipes and pumps, to bring to water supply and water conservation a taste of the innovation that has swept through not just energy, but medicine or telecommunications.
"In the 20th century, the federal government spent literally billions of dollars building big dams, big irrigation systems, big water projects," says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and one of the nation’s leading water experts. "Until we spend billions of dollars on water-efficiency technology and better water management, until we spend on 21st-century water ideas, in other words, we’re never going to solve our 21st-century water problems.
"In that sense, I do think what the White House is proposing is an effort to shift the way we spend money on water in the right direction."
Even something as simple as data about water use—in cities, in watersheds, by farmers—is painfully hard to get. Far from being "real time," water use information often isn’t available until months or years after the water has been used. The U.S. Geological Survey does a study of water use nationwide every five years that is the bible of water data—but it comes out five years after the cover date. The 2010 report on U.S. water use was only just released last year.
In addition to the new "integrated water prediction (IWP)" capability the White House wants about flooding and droughts, it is proposing all-new money so the U.S. Geological Survey can provide real-time water-use data during droughts, so communities can better manage what water they have, like electric utilities do during periods of high demand.
In fact, the White House is bringing more imagination and visibility to its water efforts than actual dollars. The White House conducted a high-profile water roundtable in December, and is gearing up for a White House Water Summit on March 22, the first event of its kind.
But the amounts on the two-page water innovation budget—a quarter-billion dollars, with about $70 million in new money—are modest. Just two water technology and infrastructure companies—Xylem and Pentair—together spend more than $200 million a year on R&D.
More vividly, in Flint, a city of 100,000 people, simply fixing the water system so it doesn’t poison residents is expected to cost between $500 million and $1 billion.
In contrast, the White House’s proposed desalination R&D center would kick-off with $25 million in funding. The point, says Zaidi, isn’t the scale of the dollars, it’s the ideas—a focus on making desalination cheaper, efforts to make real-time data about water use the standard, money to help farmers grow as much food as they do now with less water.
Given the challenges of an all-Republican Congress, it’s possible that smart proposals with small price tags stand a better chance of making it through than grandiose ones. "These are new things the federal government hasn’t focused on before," says Gleick. "Not to be clever with words, but, even if it’s a drop in the bucket—it’s a beginning."