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Where do we get our water?

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JULY 13, 2022

It has been said countless times: Water is considered to be the most important thing on Earth. Frankly, we don’t value it enough. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “On average, each person uses about 80-100 gallons of water per day for indoor home uses.” That’s a lot. 

In the Bay Area, we get our water from a variety of sources, two-thirds of which are located outside the region. Some water sources include the Hetch Hetchy water system originating in Yosemite National Park, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Russian River water system. Additionally, the Mokelumne River water system originates in the Central Sierra Nevada and Lake Berryessa is a reservoir in Napa County. 

In an article about last year’s summer drought, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that there was still enough water supply to sustain the Bay Area for the year. However, we still need to make an effort to reduce our usage. 

Currently, the Bay Area is in the orange “severe drought” level as shown by the National Integrated Drought Information System. So, what can we do about this? Let’s dive into this not-so-shallow problem. 

There are quite a few ways to approach solving the problem of water scarcity. One option that is popular in different areas of the world is desalination. While not a very large-scale method, it has helped a lot of communities where clean water is hard to come by. Desalination is a natural process that occurs when heat from the sun makes salt from the ocean evaporate. The fresh water that remains falls back to Earth as precipitation.

This process can be repeated to make fresh water in two main ways. The first is through thermal desalination, where water is boiled and the steam is collected to make fresh water. The second way is called reverse osmosis, which is a trickier process. During this procedure, pressure is used to force the salty water through a membrane, separating the fresh water from the brine that remains. 

Here’s where a problem comes in. Desalination is great in principle — it’s cheap, the technology is present and it can easily provide communities with fresh water. However, there are cons. Brine is a big one. 

Brine is the leftover ultra-salty water from desalination. It’s hard to figure out what to do with it. Most of the time, brine is placed back into the ocean, which can be damaging to marine life. Therefore, desalination probably can’t save the global water issue. It would be very difficult to dispose of all that brine, and, of course, not all places in need of fresh water have access to an ocean. 

Desalination is just one look into how water conservation science is changing. Instead of focusing all our efforts on conserving, we need to make more sometimes. Here in California, however, we really need to conserve. 

Some ways to do so are taking five-minute showers, fixing leaky faucets, turning off the water while brushing your teeth and planting drought-tolerant plants in your garden. All of these things are pretty simple — they just take some conscious effort. For example, you can set an alarm in the bathroom so you don’t shower for too long or take a trip to your local plant nursery to learn how to make your lawn drought resistant. 

We all have to pitch in this summer and in the future to avoid water scarcity. It’s not just a local issue. Water is global, too. 

Contact Sophie Horvath at [email protected].

JULY 13, 2022

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