Finding New Ways to Think About Water

Back in 1957, the Army Corps of Engineers built a full-scale hydraulic replica of the San Francisco Bay, which has a complex watershed larger than the state of Rhode Island. The purpose was to study the tides and water changes of the massive area, hoping to figure out, say, how offshore sand dredging or a new thirsty housing development would affect the city.

On our way into San Francisco, we visited the Bay Model, a highly innovative idea in its time. Despite being largely replaced by advanced computer models, the original structure allowed engineers to tinker over the entire miniature replica (which is almost two full acres in size) before advising policymakers about how the region would react. Army Corps ranger Linda Holm helped break it down. “Learning about this watershed has always been vital for protecting the area for future generations.”

Stanford Professor Richard Luthy is trying to anticipate California's future water needs. Photo by Spencer Millsap

After seeing how water was studied in the past, we then headed down to Stanford University to meet Richard Luthy, director of the university’s freshwater program who is thinking about California’s water future. The state is a prime case study for water management. Finite amounts of water coming from the Sierra Nevada mountains trickle to the major population centers at the north and south ends of the state. Increasing demand for water—especially from the state’s booming farmland that feeds much of the country—has pushed researchers to find more creative ways to claim, store, and recycle water.

“We’re going to have increasing demand for clean water,” Luthy said. “So we’ll have to find better and smarter ways to reuse the water we do have.” That kind of thinking has led to urban sponge parks and bioswales that capture and help purify storm water. Creating new treatment wetlands that have the capacity to store grey waste water (from things like washing machines and sinks) and storm runoff before being processed can also help increase supply.

That’s saying nothing about aging infrastructure, which researchers expect to be burdened exponentially as populations grow. But for now, for California, the need is simply more H20.

Changing Planet