The innovations that could help solve California’s water crisis


A three-month-long NBC Bay Area investigation into California’s water crisis found several Silicon Valley technology companies and venture capitalists ready to design, produce and manufacture innovative high-tech solutions to the state’s drought.

But the investigation also discovered that California’s labyrinth of rules, regulations, and the multiple agencies that oversee water policy have become serious barriers to those innovations and their large-scale adoption.

Climate scientists warn the California drought could last for decades. With the prospects of global warming, population growth, and disappearing snowpack on the horizon, dozens of water policy experts say it’s time for California and its hundreds of separate, independent water agencies to aggressively approach technology in a fashion similar to the state’s approach to energy, climate change and transportation.

The Investigative Unit found entrepreneurs with proven solutions, many based in Silicon Valley, that are shipping their technology overseas because they can’t get any traction in California.

Those companies’ CEOs say bureaucracy and aversion to risk, as well as drawn-out permitting processes, can be insurmountable challenges for startups.

San Francisco venture capitalist Stephen DeBerry has money to invest in California water technology. But he’s trying to figure out why that’s so difficult to do. He’s the founder and CIO of Bronze Investments.

As CIO, DeBerry says, he makes a point to invest in companies that can have a positive impact on marginalized communities. As California’s water crisis drags on, he worries those communities will be hit hardest.

“I think we (the State of California) have got to get out of our own way,” Deberry said. “There’s no shortage of capital in Silicon Valley. There’s no shortage of innovation. There’s no shortage of people. This is what we excel at,” he commented.

DeBerry first spoke to the Investigative Unit in Israel, where he traveled in search of solutions to California’s water crisis. About a decade ago Israel faced its own water crisis, similar to the one California now faces. At that time Israeli leaders decided to make water a national priority on par with combatting terrorism.

Because of that, Israeli leaders took aggressive measures to innovate their way out of the crisis, investing in water reuse, efficient irrigation, desalination and rainwater collection.

DeBerry doesn’t see why California can’t do the same thing. He understands the need to balance innovation with environmental and safety concerns, but worries about the consequences if the state can’t streamline permitting and regulations.

“We’re moving our cars over rails that are moving a lot slower because of regulatory and other constraints,” DeBerry said. “And so if there’s a place for us to innovate, it’s really on the regulatory front rather than on the technological front.”

In San Francisco, the non-profit organization Imagine H20 works with entrepreneurs to launch and scale businesses built around water technology. They also work with major utilities, helping bridge the gap between businesses and municipal partners.

Imagine H2O’s president wants to see California approach water with the same intensity it has energy, climate change and transportation.

“Willing to become a buyer or adopter of water innovation technology is going to be a simple step for our companies and cities to take here in California,” Imagine H2O president Scott Bryan commented. “As we’ve learned in energy, these kinds of questions don’t have to be about red tape, regulation and things that divide us. This can be our innovation opportunity, so why not do that with water and the drought right now?”

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