03/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

'Water' by Steven Solomon: Southwest Water Fashions for a New Decade

When I was a boy growing up in San Diego, nobody thought much about water.

After swimming in the unheated community pool, we'd bound into the locker room for long hot showers then splash back into the deep end to play king of the mountain on a floating rubber inner tube.

I remember my family's regular journeys to the banks of the Sweetwater River to buy fresh produce. We'd visit farm stands to buy the corn, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and fruit that grew courtesy of flood irrigation along the banks. The only concern about the river in those days was periodic flooding during heavy winter rains.

That was in the early 1960s, less than 30 years after Hoover Dam was completed and at a time when the massive California State Water Project--to bring water from the Sierra Nevada to Southern California--was barely under construction.

Today along the Sweetwater, the farms of my boyhood are all but gone, replaced by parkland and a roaring freeway to serve San Diego's burgeoning population. Saline groundwater is pumped to augment the water supply for the low-flow shower heads at the local pool. Water, once taken for granted even in this desert, is on just about everybody's mind as farms go fallow to supply growing urban populations and as households and businesses pay more for less water.

Steven Solomon's book, "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization," puts this all in perspective, reminding me just how much things have changed in the Southwest, where the Colorado River barely reaches the sea any longer. Whether it's a wet or dry year and whether or not the climate has changed it can't be denied that population growth has brought about the water "crisis" that is shaking rural and urban communities throughout the Southwest.

In 2010, population has outstripped the existing water resources of this vast but arid region--at least as managed through the existing infrastructure. Without massive technological change, there simply is not enough water to go around to meet the needs of farmers, suburban dwellers with their lawns and golf courses, and the fish, birds, and other wildlife that depend on rivers and wetlands for habitat.

As Solomon writes, the mighty Hoover Dam has effectively become obsolete in less than a century. Likewise, the California State Water Project can no longer meet the needs of San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California suburbs. Whether it rains or not, push has come to shove in the Southwest, moving the region from a water management strategy focused on developing supply--with new dams, reservoirs, pipelines, and storage facilities--toward a new paradigm focused on managing water demand.

When it comes to water, the Southwest is in the midst of a major technological shift that's unleashing massive--but compared to the towering dams along its rivers--low profile investments. From the increasing use of Astroturf on high school fields to no flush urinals in restaurants and stores, Southwesterners are grappling with how to meet the water challenge.
As they reach for new ways to use water efficiently, here are some emerging trends for the decade ahead:

  1. Out is the English garden and expanse of green lawn in places like Los Angeles and San Diego; in is drought tolerant landscaping.
  2. Out is draining storm water to the sea as fast as possible through cement pipes and channels; in is capturing runoff from rooftops, driveways, sidewalks and parking lots in cisterns to irrigate landscaping during dry times or to percolate into the ground to recharge aquifers.
  3. Out is treating wastewater and discharging it to the sea; in is using "grey water" from sinks in homes and buildings to water plants and gardens and treating sewage for local reuse, even making it clean enough to drink.
  4. Out is inefficient agricultural use of water, such as remaining flood irrigation; in is high tech crop moisture management guided by satellite imagery and communications, plus the recapture of agricultural runoff for reuse on the farm.

All of these trends represent massive investments and the birth of new business opportunities manufacturing, installing, and maintaining these devices as they increasingly are employed by myriad water users. Inevitably, the new technologies will spread around the world.
They may be smaller in scale than Hoover Dam or the Roman aqueducts, but promise to be just as revolutionary.