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Q&A: ASU expert discusses water ahead of Business H20 summit

Las Vegas conference focuses on what industry can do to conserve resource in face of uncertain future

John Sabo, Director of Research Development, ASU Global Institute of Sustain

John Sabo

December 08, 2016

The world faces an uncertain future when it comes to one of its most precious resources, water. As fresh water dwindles and long-term droughts take hold, many are now looking to new sources of water or to new ways to conserve and re-use the water we already have.

John Sabo, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences and a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability as well as director of ASU’s Future H2O initiative, is taking part in Business H2O, a water summit in Las Vegas on Dec. 12 that focuses on what industry can do to conserve and better manage water. Here, Sabo talks about the role industry plays in conserving water, developing “greener ways” to convert and treat water and the benefits they will incur as a result. 

Question: As we face an uncertain future with water, why is it so important to get industry on board with water conservation policy?

Answer: Conservation is an easy, potentially cost-effective new bucket of water that will improve the potential for continued economic growth and prosperity in the Valley. The technology of conservation is also a potential area for business development and growth in our region.

Industry can be the driver for innovation in conservation policy, and just plain get the job done. Some big companies can set the example for their value chain, including the smaller companies that distribute their products by setting goals for water use within the four walls of their facilities and beyond. There are a number of examples of companies doing great work to promote long-term water sustainability. For example, the Coca-Cola Company restores and creates wetlands in watersheds that provide water to its bottling facilities (in cities) in order to improve the quality of water and augment storage through green — rather than gray — infrastructure. 

Q: How much water does industry use? 

A: In Arizona, about 400,000 to 500,000 acre-feet or 6 to 8 percent of the total freshwater withdrawals annually. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons or enough to provide for a family of five for a 1 to 1.5 years depending on efficiency.

Q: How can they conserve the use of water?

A: The biggest savings are on the commercial, industrial and institutional side of the equation. Here water can be saved outside — think lawns in front of churches, hospitals or restaurants — or leaks in water systems that are not continually monitored, like a homeowners association or a shopping mall. Water can also be saved inside buildings by using technologies that reduce use in their production lines or in cooling. Dry cooling technologies are key here as they eliminate water use in this aspect of manufacturing. 

Also, water can be reused and transferred between purposes. Intel treats its effluent to better than drinking water standards and injects it into groundwater where it blends with natural recharge and can be drawn for future use by the city of Chandler. They essentially use, treat and store the water in an underground acquifer for reuse by other water customers later. 

Q: How do companies benefit from water conservation?

A: Conservation may turn out to be cheaper than going after more water supply, like through desalination. If the incentives are set up right, a business can sustain supplies of cheaper water into the future by investing in conservation.

Q: How do events like the Business H2O event in Las Vegas help in this regard?

A: Business H2O will be focused on innovation in water technology, particularly the role of technology in improving water efficiency and reducing costs for businesses. More importantly, there is an emerging industry and market for efficient technologies and this could be a new opportunity for entrepreneurs, innovators and for the Valley’s economy to grow.