Water, water, everywhere
Nov 29, 2023
Season 4 | Episode 7

Water, water, everywhere

How technology can help solve the water crisis in the West.

Water is running low in the southwest. The ongoing drought, the shrinking Colorado River and climate change all contribute to the crisis. So finding new water supplies is critical. The good news is water is all around us; you just have to know where to look. 

Some communities are looking to the ocean, the sewer and even the sky to produce drinking water. 

In this episode, we’re going on a road trip across the west to check out the fascinating water tech solutions that our future might depend on: from desalination to recycling wastewater and an invention that feels like it came straight out of “Star Wars”! We’ll explore what the next generation of our water supply might look like and how it could complicate the fight against climate change.

Amy Scott: It’s trivia night at Desert Monks Brewing in Gilbert, Arizona outside Phoenix.

Trivia Host: Whoever wins first game wins a $10 gift certificate.

Amy Scott: The crowd is lively and the beer is flowing.

Trivia Host: Oh yeah, the rule is don’t internet cheat. And while you’re discussing the answers, keep your voice within your team.

Amy Scott: Trivia nights are popular here. But lately Desert Monks has been getting lots of attention for its beer. One in particular…

Summer Decker: This is our Town Square lager.

Amy Scott: That’s Summer Decker one of the brewery’s owners.

Amy Scott: Proost. Town Square lager. It’s really refreshing.

Summer Decker: As lagers are intended to be.

Amy Scott: I really needed a beer. I didn’t realize it.  This was a special batch because of the type of water Desert Monks used to brew it. Summer describes it as the purest kind of water like a blank canvas. But the water didn’t start out that way.

Summer Decker: The water that we get from the city of Scottsdale, this direct, potable reuse water is so clean and fresh.

Amy Scott: Wow. And this is wastewater. Right. This is coming from the sewer. Originally, yes. I’m Amy Scott. Welcome to How We Survive. This season, we’re on the hunt for solutions to the water crisis in the West. Water supplies in this part of the country are drying up for all sorts of reasons overuse, drought, climate change. So finding new supplies is critical. The good news is that water is all around us, if you know where to look and how to treat it. This episode we’re going on a water road trip across the West to check out the technology that’s creating drinking water from, yes, the sewer, from the oceans, even out of thin air.

Michelle: You can actually taste the difference.

Amy Scott: And you’ll want to stick around till the very end because I’ll be doing a taste test along the way and picking my favorite.

Amy Scott: This tastes good. I mean, I think it actually tastes better than what comes out of my tap, in Baltimore.


Amy Scott: This is Episode Seven: Water Water Everywhere. We start our water tasting tour not far from that brewery on top of a building in Scottsdale, Arizona. We are going up onto the roof. Thank you. Oh yeah, it is bright. We’re surrounded by beautiful desert hills shimmering in the heat.  I’m totally gonna get vertigo.  We came to the roof, not for the view, but for a glimpse at a mind blowing piece of technology.  So there are 1-234-567-8910 Okay, so 10 of these up here.  It’s an installation of what look like solar panels but do something very different. These are called hydro panels, and they’re pulling water straight out of the dry desert sky. Sounds a bit like something you might have seen in a movie.

Clip from Star Wars: What I really need is a droid who understands the binary language of moisture evaporators. Evaporators?

Amy Scott: If you’ve ever watched Star Wars, you may remember Luke Skywalker grows up on a desert planet. His family makes a living as moisture farmers using devices that pull drinking water from the air and the evaporator devices and Star Wars are a bit like the tech behind these hydro panels. Cody Friesen is the founder and CEO of source the company that makes them.

Cody Friesen: Think about the way that if you leave the lid off the sugar bowl, over time it gets a little bit clumpy because it’s obviously the sugar is absorbing water vapor from the air. The science-y word is that the sugar is hygroscopic.

Amy Scott: Okay, this next part gets a little technical, but stay with me, we’re gonna get into how the panels work. So, you’ve got the sugar in the bowl getting clumpy.

Cody Friesen: Now imagine that we have a material that’s engineered do that same process very rapidly. We then show those materials to sunlight, which causes the water vapor to respire.

Amy Scott: Meaning the water vapor is evaporated and condensed to create liquid water.

Cody Friesen: We do that many many times per day and so very efficiently now we can produce drinking water really anywhere.

Amy Scott: Even in bone dry Arizona.

Cody Friesen: Water vapor is actually everywhere on the planet and even when it’s hot and dry out. Hot air holds a lot more water vapor than cold air and so even though the relative humidity is low, the absolute humidity may not be. And so, in a place like Arizona in the middle of summer when it’s literally sub 5% relative humidity there’s still a lot of water vapor in the air.

Amy Scott: How much water can one of those panels produce here on a hot day?

Cody Friesen: Yeah, so each panel can do about five liters a day. So, like 10 standard 16 ounce bottles of water a day. And so, you know, if you have two on your home you are producing like a case of bottled water a day. So, two panels enough for the drinking and cooking water for family.

Amy Scott: So not enough to run a dishwasher or shower in but enough to survive on and in places where clean drinking water is scarce, like Tohajilee, where Savannah Maher told us earlier this season about the smelly rusty water, or Rio Verde Foothills where the local water supply got cut off. That could be a lifeline.

Cody Friesen: Because as soon as you have a hydro panel at your home, you own intrinsically your own drinking water supply.

Amy Scott: And what’s the cost?

Cody Friesen: A single panel with installation kit, the all the plumbing and everything else combined, is $2,100.

Amy Scott: The bigger the project, Cody says the lower the per household cost. Cody imagines a future where an array of hydro panels provide water for entire communities. He says he’s talking to some developers about large-scale projects. For now, though, it’s more of an individual household solution.

Cody Friesen: This is the four corners of the earth.

Amy Scott: Here in a sort of control room, a staffer pulls up a digital map on a giant screen.

Cody Friesen: Each of these pins represents a home.

Amy Scott: Many of these homes are right here in the United States, in communities that have struggled without running water for generations.

Cody Friesen: This is our panels that are sitting across the Navajo Nation.

Amy Scott: About a third of the households on the Navajo nation have no running water. A partnership has installed more than 500 source panels on the reservation with plans for hundreds more.

Cody Friesen: Obviously many, many around Phoenix area. So I can start zooming out.

Caitlin Esch: Wow.

Amy Scott: The map shows blue dots scattered around the globe. Cody says hydro panels are producing clean drinking water in 52 countries. Okay, now for the really important question. How does it taste?  Alright let’s go try some. Alright.  In the kitchen at Source headquarters near the Pac Man arcade machine. There’s a water dispenser fed by the hydro panels on the roof.  Okay. Tastes like water. Caitlin you should try some.

Caitlin Esch: The thing about water. It’s like you really only notice it if it’s like not good. It’s not not good.

Amy Scott: The highest compliment, okay, and I am going to fill up my water bottle if you don’t mind.  So yeah, pretty good. And five stars for innovation. On to stop number two of our water tasting tour. Not too far up the road in Scottsdale is a place where drinking water is being created from another unexpected source.

Brian Beismeyer: I think is just that next step that we need to take in the southwest to provide a sustainable water solution for us. I’m Brian Biesmeyer I’m the Executive Director for Scottsdale water.

Amy Scott: That’s the city’s water utility. About 60% of its water comes from the Colorado River. But with recent cuts to the city’s share of the river and more coming Scottsdale needs alternatives. And the next step Brian’s talking about is happening here turning wastewater into safe drinking water. You might know it as toilet to tap, Brian prefers another term, ultra-pure water.

Brian Beismeyer: We live in a desert environment we don’t we all know we don’t get much rain or water resources are limited. And this is a way to maximize the water resources we do have and recycling water and making this ultra-pure water available for drinking water purposes seems just that next step that we need to do as water managers for the region.

Amy Scott: So can we see how it works?

Brian Beismeyer: Yes, please.

Amy Scott: Brian takes us to a viewing area where we see clusters of long tubes.

Brian Beismeyer: This is our first membrane treatment.

Amy Scott: Before it even gets here the wastewater has gone through treatment to remove solids and other gunk.

Brian Beismeyer: We actually we use microbes naturally existing microbes to degrade waste and to eat that way stuff.

Amy Scott: Then the clear water goes through several more rounds of treatments and filtration to remove bacteria, viruses and other particles. There’s a little sign out here it says reverse osmosis in case you get lost.  Then it’s disinfected with ultraviolet light. Caitlin, my producer spots a sign listing all the contaminants the water is tested for.

Caitlin Esch: Giardia, asbestos, uranium, silica, radium.

Amy Scott: Wow, that’s a lot of stuff that could be in your water.  Once they’re sure it’s clean, a few minerals are added in for taste.

Brian Beismeyer: Because there’s nothing in the water. And most people enjoy water that actually has some minerals in it. Many bottled water manufacturers do the same thing.

Amy Scott: Scottsdale Water isn’t sending any of this water directly to taps yet, but for decades, it’s been pumping this stuff into the ground where it trickles through hundreds of feet of soil, a natural filter and into the aquifer and eventually gets pumped back out and treated again before going to residents. That’s known as indirect potable reuse, and lots of communities do it. But with the ongoing drought, Scottsdale is moving toward direct potable reuse, skipping the aquifer and sending the water right into its drinking water supply. And that means some PR to convince customers that it’s safe.  Did you have any sort of ick factor when you first started thinking about this?

Brian Beismeyer: No, I have none. I have no qualms about it. We understand why folks could have some qualms about it. But I think when they look into the science, they look at the quality of the water we actually produce they see the test of the water that we produce, reasonable person will be won over.

Amy Scott: To win people over Scottsdale Water is teaming up with one of the country’s most beloved beverages beer, the agency launched a campaign to get local breweries like the one I visited earlier to use recycled wastewater in their beer. There’s even an annual showcase for brewers using recycled water called one water. Desert Monks has been so happy with the results. They plan to start brewing most of their lagers from recycled Scottsdale Water. Okay, so we already know I was a fan of the beer.  Wow. Okay, it’s a drinking fountain.

Brian Beismeyer: Yeah, we wanted this to look like something people are familiar with.

Amy Scott: But what about the recycled water all by itself?

Amy Scott All right. Should I go for it? I’m going to drink out of this drinking fountain looks like the kind you’d find in an airport. Only. It’s ultra-pure recycled water. It tastes like bottled water. Just like you said it would. I was thirsty.

Brian Beismeyer: Drink as much as you want.

Amy Scott: It is hot. Yeah.

Brian Beismeyer: I can tell you that. Generally, people like the taste of a recycled water. Why? Because it’s the same process bottled water use.

Amy Scott: I have to tell you my 12 year old daughter when I told her I was coming here and then I was gonna taste some recycled wastewater. She said, well, isn’t all water recycled wastewater? I was like, damn kid.

Brian Beismeyer: Smart girl. So yes, and the natural environment has been done. Since the earth was since the earth was came into being so all we do here is we take that natural environment, and we accelerate it with a technology.

Amy Scott: Water experts say this is the future and attitudes are changing slowly. From Los Angeles to Wichita Falls, Texas. Cities across the Southwest, big and small are working on plans for direct potable reuse. In Scottsdale, the goal is to start sending its clean recycled water directly to customers by 2026. That’s a lot of time to get used to the idea.  All right, for our final stop in our water tasting tour, we’re leaving the desert and heading west to the beach.

Michelle Peters: There’s the ocean, not too shabby of a view.

Amy Scott: We’ll be right back.

Amy Scott: That’s the sound of the Pacific Ocean after Arizona. I kept heading west and reached Carlsbad, California. Its peak summer locals and tourists are surfing swimming soaking in the sun. There’s a guy sitting in a van with his laptop open. Hair still wet after surfing. And just across the street from the beach, a chain link fence and what looks like a big industrial park. You can’t really tell what it is an old power plant maybe. We drive through a gate and to the final stop in our water tasting tour. We’re at the Claude Bud Lewis Carlsbad desalination plant, where water from the Pacific Ocean is being turned into drinking water, about 54 million gallons a day, making up about 10% of the local water supply.

Michelle Peters: So we’re a piece of the pie as I like to say, and in San Diego region’s water portfolio, making sure that it’s diverse and continuing to provide reliable high quality water.

Amy Scott: That’s Michelle Peters. She runs operations here and will be our tour guide.

Michelle Peters: Okay, so actually, real quick before we do go out a couple of safety things. So everyone has hardhat best glasses, no pressing any big red buttons. I know it’s tempting. But they do work.

Amy Scott: They’re big red buttons?

Michelle Peters: There are big red buttons.

Amy Scott: I have to keep my hands in my pocket. The first thing you need to know about seawater desalination is that the technology has been around for centuries. There are 17,000 operational detail plants around the globe using various techniques. The Carlsbad plant uses reverse osmosis.

Michelle Peters: We’re going to follow essentially on the flow path where the water’s going underneath us is a 72 inch pipeline. It’s all underground until we get to our pre-treatment filters, and then the pipe will come up. So we’re going to actually walk over there so you can see that pipe.

Amy Scott: In big green letters see water supply, pointing up. Every day, 100 million gallons of seawater come in from the ocean through this 72 inch pipe and go through various treatment stages. In the first round of treatment, algae and other impurities are removed.

Michelle Peters: Think of it like if you’re going going hiking or backpacking and look for water supply, you didn’t have a water filter on you, you’re looking for running water that’s coming into contact with media, rock, something there, to kind of help remove those impurities. Just an engineered version of that.

Amy Scott: The next step is a big one, the reverse osmosis or RO process.

Michelle Peters: Right now we are standing in our RO gallery is it’s really the heart of desal.

Amy Scott: Picture rows and rows of long white cylinders stacked neatly on top of each other.

Michelle Peters: So we’re looking at about 2000 of these whites vessels all filled with our reverse osmosis membranes connected with these blue hosts in the middle. Those hoses are actually what’s collecting become drinking water once it goes to the disinfection process here, so quite quite a bit is going on here. There’s a red button there is a red button, please no touching.

Amy Scott: The system works by pushing water through the tight membrane filters at very high pressure letting water molecules through and leaving behind salts, bacteria and viruses. The salty or sea water or brine that’s leftover is then diluted and sent back to the ocean. We’ll come back to that. The water then gets disinfected and minerals like fluoride are added back in to bring it up to drinking water standards. The entire process from the moment it comes into the plant takes about an hour and a half, almost as long as our visit. Plans to build this plant started in the 1990s when San Diego County was in a brutal drought, importing almost all of its water from the Colorado River and Northern California. It wasn’t completed until 2015.  Now we’re 20 plus years into another mega drought. Has this solved San Diego’s water problems?

Michelle Peters: To say it solves is really a bit of a stretch I think but it has played a very key and critical role in us being able to provide this water to the region. And folks not have to worry about when the Colorado River reductions are coming through.

Amy Scott: It’s a controversial solution. There are three classic criticisms of desal let’s call them the three E’s. The first E stands for expense the Carlsbad plant cost a billion dollars. San Diego County pays more for desalinated water than for water imported from the Colorado River. The second E stands for environmental in impact. critics worry all that super salty water or brine that’s being released back to the sea could wreak havoc on marine ecosystems. And the third E stands for energy. Removing salt from ocean water sucks up a lot of energy. This plant is powered by a mix of natural gas and renewables provided by the local utility. This tension between energy and water is something that came up a lot this season, including in my interview with Pat Mulroy, who we heard from in the last episode.

Pat Mulroy: In our world today, it’s a constant battle between water and energy, a lot of energy solutions are heavily water intensive. So, imagine how much water it takes to create a lithium battery large enough to store power for a facility or for a house, huge water users. The flip side is that a lot of the quote sustainable water solutions are very energy intensive. So, the two butt heads constantly and it’s like, we’re looking for that new fulcrum. You know, there’s that new middle point where you’re balancing both energy and water maximizing efficiencies of both. And I think everybody is still struggling to find that point.

Amy Scott: The industry is working on cleaner options using wind and solar to offset emissions. Wave powered DSL is another up and coming innovation. Michelle at the Carlsbad plant says scientists are even looking at how to use the brine byproduct from desalination to capture carbon dioxide.

Michelle Peters: There are a lot of really, really smart folks out there, I will say that are looking into every single angle possible as to how to essentially bridge this gap that’s been in place now for a while between water and energy. People have been saying we can only have one. But now we need both.

Amy Scott: One thing we do know is that desal isn’t going away. California regulators have approved a new plant in Orange County. Arizona is considering a plan to import desalinated water from Mexico.

Michelle Peters: So we’re gonna just walk just back through the plant here.

Amy Scott: Yep, it’s time for a taste.

Michelle Peters: And then we’ll get to our final stage here. Go on the product water deck and you guys will actually get to try the water and tell us how we did.

Amy Scott: All right, this for me. I am kind of thirsty. So, Michelle has opened the tap and is filling up a bunch of glasses of water for us. Plastic cups, really. All right. Cheers.

Michelle Peters: Cheers.

Amy Scott: Ocean water.

Michelle Peters: Tastes like water?

Amy Scott: Tastes like water. It tastes like bottled water. So, tell me what to be looking for. Help me develop my palate for water.

Michelle Peters: Through lightness on the tongue, perhaps.

Amy Scott: It’s got a nice mouthfeel.

Michelle Peters: It does have a good mouthfeel. Yeah, exactly your pro already.

Amy Scott: What about the nose?

Michelle Peters: But yeah, on the nose. We hope we don’t smell anything that was like you shouldn’t.

Amy Scott: One thing water experts seem to agree on there isn’t a single solution, no panacea that will get us out of the water crisis. We’re going to need all the solutions we learned about today. From extracting water from the air, those hydro panels to recycling wastewater to desalination, and countless other innovations we didn’t get into in this episode that are getting the attention of investors. An estimated $1.2 billion of venture capital funding has gone into water technology over the last two years, still just a fraction of the 70 billion pouring into climate tech overall. So we’re gonna need way more investment. And we may have to reconsider how we think about the natural sources of water we have.

Gary Wockner: In my opinion, this creek is alive. You can hear it, you can see it moving. You can taste it, you can smell it. And so in our opinion, it is alive and it has a right to exist.


Amy Scott: Next time on How We Survive the fight to recognize the rights of nature, to save ourselves. Before we go the moment of truth, I’ve tasted a lot of water on my road trip across the west and would like to think I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur. I can say they all taste like yeah, water. But I do have a favorite honestly it’s whatever is available when I’m thirsty. That’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening and if you like what you hear, please leave us a review or share it with a friend. It really helps. How We Survive is hosted by me Amy Scott. Marissa Cabrera and I wrote this episode. With help from our production team Hayley Hershman, Lina Fansa, Courtney Bergsieker and Sophia Paliza-Carre. Our Senior Producer is Caitlin Esch. Our editor is Jasmine Romero. Sound design by Chris Julin and audio engineering by Brian Allison. Our theme music is by Wonderly. Bridget Bodnar is director of podcasts. Francesca Levy is our Executive Director. Neal Scarbrough is Vice President and General Manager of Marketplace.

The team

Amy Scott Host
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Hayley Hershman Producer
Savannah Maher Reporter
Sophia Paliza-Carre Producer
Courtney Bergsieker Associate Producer
Lina Fansa Fellow
Jasmine Romero Editor
Chris Julin Scoring & Sound Design