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My View: Arizona Policymakers Set Pace for Innovators — and us — to Keep Water in Our Future

Phoenix Business Journal

When it comes to preparing for our future, the power of public policy cannot be underestimated. It can bring people together and motivate them to act for the common good. Nowhere is that more apparent than when the focus shifts to a commodity that all will agree is precious to everyone.

Water. Without it, life as we know it stops.

Living in the midst of a long-term drought and in a desert that is rapidly giving life to new professional and residential developments, we likely have stopped and wondered: What if we turn the tap and nothing comes out?

Thanks to public policy started decades ago and a technology community with life-sustaining ideas, it’s good to know such a possibility remains remote.

In a recent letter to federal officials prompted by the head of a Southern Nevada water company forecasting a dire situation, Thomas Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department Of Water Resources, gave a snapshot of our state’s situation.

“Between 1957 and 2019, our state’s population has grown from 1.1 million residents to 7.2 million residents. Meanwhile, our water use actually decreased from 7.1 million acre-feet per year to 6.9 million acre-feet per year,” he wrote. “While some of that increased water efficiency naturally came with technology improvements, we can also credit our Groundwater Management Act. Since 1980, our more populous areas of the state that have used the most groundwater have been subject to a series of management plans with increased conservation requirements in each management period.”

Desalination a key part of the puzzle

But the letter wasn’t about coasting on past successes. For the future, Buschatzke pointed to a number of actions to take, including “invest in water reuse, water recycling, and desalination programs.”

Use of “gray water”— that is, wastewater collected separately from sewage flow — is already being practiced, even at Arizona homes for such things as landscaping. On a grander scale, semiconductor factories such as those operated by Intel routinely turn to water recycling to the point that the manufacturer has committed to achieving net positive water use.

Desalination is the next piece of the puzzle. Fortunately, technology has reached the point that this isn’t a dream for maybe someday.

“The Binational Study of Water Desalination Opportunities in the Sea of Cortez” released in 2020 weighed different scenarios to determine if a joint desalination project is feasible. Commissioned by Central Arizona Project, Salt River Project, mining company Freeport-McMoRan and Southern Nevada Water Authority — ironically, headed by the person whose letter prompted Buschatzke’s response — the report concluded such a project is feasible. Options included building two desalination plants along the coastline of the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

Perhaps Arizona’s biggest proponent of desalination has been Gov. Doug Ducey. This summer he signed historic legislation that makes an unprecedented $1 billion investment to help secure Arizona’s water future through the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority. The body gets new responsibilities to provide loans and grants to water providers and entities for the purposes of importing water into Arizona, conservation, efficiency and reuses and new technologies. This clears the way for innovations in desalination.

More recently, the governor turned to Arizona State University to take the lead in working with a host of partners beyond the university to come up with new methods of ensuring our taps keep flowing. The state is investing $40 million in the Arizona Water Innovation Initiative that will leverage ASU’s programs in water science, technology and more.

Plenty of Arizona innovators

But there are others from Arizona’s technology community who already are doing their part. N-Drip, an Israeli-based company operating in Glendale, has invented a gravity-fed irrigation system for farming operations, eliminating the need for costly pumps, filtration systems and electricity found in traditional drip systems.

In Avondale, agritech company OnePointOne created a 50,000-square-foot vertical farm that uses 99% less land and water than traditional agriculture operations.

Cody Friesen of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering launched Source Global. Its Source hydropanel can be installed at any location with access to sunlight for solar power. The device extracts water vapor from the air to generate a sustainable supply of pure drinking water.

Meanwhile, The University of Arizona’s Water & Energy Sustainable Technology Center in Tucson is pioneering research in desalination systems, wastewater treatment and monitoring, and contaminant removal.

But the efforts shouldn’t stop there. We all have a role to play.

For example, Scottsdale has asked residents to conserve water through cutting our use by 5%, providing ideas on how to do just that. One way is to not overseed our lawns for the winter. While a yellow lawn isn’t pretty, it’s the right thing to do.

As you can see, by seeing eye to eye with government officials and innovators on critical issues, we all can remain positive about the future. None of this is just a drop in the bucket.

Steve Zylstra is president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council.

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