Fresh Thinking: Freshwater Science Is Being Pioneered in Arizona

Published by The Bee News

September 13, 2019

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About 71 percent of the Earth is covered by water, and most of that is ocean. Only 2.5 percent is fresh water, and only a fraction of that—1 percent—is easily accessible. The world’s population of 7.6 billion is expected to grow to 9.8 billion by the year 2050, which means by that year, more than half the people on Earth will live in water-stressed areas. The demand for potable and irrigation water has never been greater. New solutions for water management and agricultural production are crucial.

As the only state that contains all four North American deserts (the Sonoran, Great Basin, Mohave, and Chihuahuan), Arizona has long been at the forefront of water management and conservation. In fact, Arizona has the highest concentration of water experts in the country, and for more than a century, they have worked to address the challenges of scarce water, developing methods to capture, store, move, and manage water for the state’s millions of residents, agricultural enterprises, and industries. Today’s combination of technology, research, and the brilliant minds behind them will undoubtedly make a difference in the accessibility of fresh water for generations to come. Researchers continue the work, began 100 years ago by their predecessors, to ensure everyone has access to fresh water.

Getting water to the central and southern Arizona deserts was the first hurdle to overcome. One of the first federal projects under the federal Reclamation Act of 1902 was the Salt River Project, which provided for the building of new dams and the repair of existing dams and irrigation canals. For the first time, reliable water and power flowed into the area. In 1968, the Central Arizona Project was authorized by the Colorado River Basin Project Act to bring Arizona’s share of water from the Colorado River to urban areas in central and southern Arizona by way of a 336-mile canal. The canal carries 1.5 million acre-feet of water—almost 489 billion gallons—from Lake Havasu City to points east, terminating 14 miles south of Tucson. Arizona also receives a portion of water stored in Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, formed by the Hoover Dam, which straddles the border of Arizona and Nevada.

These management practices have enabled the state to weather the current prolonged drought while preserving agricultural use, holding down municipal water rates, avoiding mandatory rationing, and banking water for future needs. Today, Arizona uses about the same amount of water as it did in 1957, even as the population has increased nearly fivefold.

Anticipating the population in the Southwest will grow from 56 million to 94 million people by midcentury, experts continue to research new methods of conservation and management and to find additional resources. It’s an effort shared by leaders in government, academia, and the private sector working together to find new and even more innovative methods.

One of those methods is a new technology developed by Arizona-based startup Zero Mass Water. The company found a way to generate clean drinking water from vapor in the air, using renewable energy from solar panels. To date, Zero Mass Water has generated enough drinking water to replace more than 130,000 half-liter bottles of water and offset more than 11 metric tons of carbon emissions. The water system is now being used in eight countries, including Chile, Peru, and Jordan.

Other methods to produce water are also in development, including a technology called the membrane biofilm reactor, which uses naturally occurring bacteria to remove contaminants from water. This method, invented by Bruce Rittman, director of the Biodesign Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology at Arizona State University (ASU), creates clean water without creating brine or waste by-products by using a few inexpensive inputs, including hydrogen and carbon dioxide. At the University of Arizona (UA), researchers are working on solar thermal-driven desalination. They’re producing technologies that reduce the environmental impacts of desalination by generating clean water and dry salt instead of brine.

The UA has also opened a wastewater reclamation facility called the Water and Energy Sustainable Technology (WEST) Center. WEST will take advantage of its location in southern Arizona at the Pima County Agua Nueva wastewater treatment plant and its adjacent water recharge basins and constructed wetlands to develop and evaluate new water treatment and energy technologies. The center also provides training for technicians, utility personnel, and students.

New methods are also being developed so new plant cultivars, farming technology, and irrigation can draw more out of arable land. Outside the town of Marana, Arizona, Monsanto’s seed production greenhouses use state-of-the-art automation technology and cutting-edge climate control systems to grow corn using a fifth of the water and only a fraction of the acreage used in traditional fields.

UA agriculture and biosystems engineering professor Joel Cuello has developed the Vertical-Hive (V-Hive) Green Box, an indoor vertical modular growth system. The V-Hive reduces water consumption by 80 to 90 percent compared to traditional field farming. UA scientists working with the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture (YCEDA), a public-private partnership, deployed technology to precisely measure water use at YCEDA. Researchers track evapotranspiration and the water-salt balance throughout a complete cropping cycle to evaluate sustainable water needs for Arizona’s agricultural future.

Other research projects underway at UA to find efficient, sustainable agriculture methods include research at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. Students are studying advanced sensing and climate control; indoor growing systems under artificial lights; and aquaponics, systems in which farmed fish and plants that don’t need soil grow together in one integrated system. Researchers there are also studying mushrooms, which have extraordinarily high protein levels and unique pharmaceutical properties, demonstrating how production environments can be optimized to enhance the properties of this valuable food resource.

The UA Water Resources Research Center (WRRC) has focused on enhancing the understanding and practice of water resource management in Arizona and the region for over 50 years. The WRRC works with ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy to provide a forum for the public to consider and evaluate solutions; promote research, analysis, and collaboration; and open up dialogue to ensure sound water stewardship for Arizona, the West, and beyond.

Those involved in freshwater science know it’s a global issue that affects people everywhere. Collaboration is vital to this effort, and Arizona’s water experts recognize the benefits of sharing ideas and processes widely. For example, UA Tech Parks is collaborating with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico on joint research projects to explore arid land agriculture and water. The trilateral partnership focuses specifically on desertification and climate change.

With Arizona’s long history of expertise in water management and conservation and the volume of research currently underway, the state will continue its leadership role in freshwater science and agricultural technology—and play a key role in solving global challenges in order to ensure a sustainable future for all.

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