The Innovative Technology That Might Save California From Its Drought

Startups fight California's drought with new technology.

Rachio, a smart sprinkler controller system and app. (Image: YouTube)

Presented byPresented by Microsoft
Oct 16, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Orci is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared on NPR and and in New York Magazine and The Atlantic.

A while back, artist Isaac Cordal placed some clay men in a puddle in Berlin. The result was both striking and dreadful in its forecast. Politicians Debating Global Warming depicts a ring of gray-suited white men droning on in conversation with one another as the waters rise around them. The bodies are in different levels of submersion, with many heads already underwater. No one is alarmed at the prospect of his doom. This is by all accounts a perfect summation of bureaucracy in the face of permanent human-made climate change. Thankfully, innovations in the private sector are leading the charge.

Tech start-ups such as Rachio are seeing there's money to be made in drought technology. To eliminate water waste, the smart-tech sprinkler system allows you to manage your watering preferences from your smartphone so you can turn off the sprinklers when it rains or adjust the amount of water your plants need. A company called PlantLink sells plug-like devices that alert you when your houseplant is thirsty. But the future of California's water may have less to do with lawn watering than with agriculture. California's agriculture uses about 80 percent of the state’s water resources and provides 80 percent of the nation’s agriculture.

On an industrial level, Cambrian Innovation is a Boston-based company that has figured out how to extract clean water and clean energy from wastewater using electrically active microbes. Another company, Ambient Water, extracts water from humidity in the air. The market for water-saving technologies is huge and growing, with a rate of growth of 14 percent from 2013 to 2018. But this too can only do so much without (gulp) politicians. If only there were a successful model we could look to for guidance. There is.

Enter Australia. Australia adopted a cap-and-trade system that has been extremely effective in conserving and capping water use. Farmers and the like can log in to a system and sell water to each other online. Australia is a successful example of applying a private sector innovation and using it in conjunction with effective policy decisions. So California can just copy-paste, and then we'll reduce our water waste by 50 percent, right? Eek.

California's water laws date back to the gold rush and were designed to protect prospectors. After the 49ers left and the gold boom died down, what remained were the most complex water rights in the U.S. Water in California is considered private property in the agricultural sector, and claiming it is more or less on a first-come, first-served basis. Moreover, if you sell your water to someone else, you won't be getting it back. California's water rights are inflexible and inefficient and could be the biggest roadblock to getting the state out of the drought, no matter how much money Silicon Valley sinks into smart tech. To Californify Cordal's installation, perhaps above the drowning politicians could be the ghost of an old prospector fistfighting a microchip in a Steve Jobs turtleneck.

On this World Food Day see how Microsoft technology is empowering sustainable farming solutions and sprouting the future of food at Growing Underground.