Bridge with lake below during the sunset

Tech Innovations Meet Water Challenges

22 Mar 2016 by Susie Steckner

Technology is constantly evolving — not unlike a living organism. It isn’t static. It isn’t constant. That makes it disruptive. Businesses, even niche businesses, often forget to, or choose not to, evolve with technology and are turned upside down — because their products, their policies, their customer interface becomes, simply put, outdated. We live in a consumer-driven world, and we are often drawn to technology everything — from convenience to novelty. This is Insight’s Disruptive Technology series. We will be addressing how technology enters an industry and does exactly that — disrupts.

Water innovation is reaching all realms of our world, flowing everywhere from family farms and municipalities, to international corporations.

The new tech is focused on wide-ranging challenges, and the results are impacting our daily lives: A mobile app reveals the water quality at the stream where you want to go fishing. A water recycling system dramatically reduces the water footprint at your university. A high-tech facility recovers nutrients from wastewater and transforms them into eco-friendly fertilizer for your garden.

The need for innovation continues to grow, as the stakes keep getting higher, says the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Our water resources are limited and face mounting pressures from climate change, pollution, population growth and aging water infrastructure,” says the EPA. “Technology innovation can help address our water challenges and help put us on a more sustainable path while also supporting economic growth.”

Tapping opportunity

One of the more talked about water innovations recently — in pop culture anyway — is “toilet to tap,” an effort to transform wastewater into drinking water. The technology grabbed the spotlight thanks to images of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gatesdrinking tap water that just moments earlier had been “a pile of feces” and a subsequent water taste test with Jimmy Fallon.

Of course, water innovations are taking place across the world without accompanying viral videos. Here’s a sampling of how water tech is changing the way we live our lives:

  • Water conservation technology is driving major change in farming. Soil tension sensors help improve irrigation systems. Data analytics offer information about key environmental conditions that could help improve water efficiency. Advanced processes for water cleaning and reuse make this water-saving option more accessible for farms.
  • Municipalities around the country are relying on a range of innovations to reduce water and energy use, better manage water resources, boost environmental protections and more. Efforts run the gamut, from extracting heat from wastewater to purifying water for reuse.
  • Technology also enables lowering water use to brew beer or dye clothing, using smart water meter management to cut down on water waste and reusing wastewater to conserve resources. Corporations are seeking out innovations to address serious water concerns, impacting business operations, the environment and the public’s perception of them.

The case for innovation

Since 2011, companies across the globe have targeted more than $84 billion in spending to improve the way they conserve, manage or obtain water, according to an analysis from the Financial Times.

As the publication notes, investments are being propelled by a number of challenges: physical water shortages, the need for more or higher quality water as industrial processes advance, water conservation concerns by the public and new regulations that call for improving wastewater treatment.

But water innovation isn’t growing at a fast enough clip, says Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.

“Solutions to the country’s growing water challenges lie, in part, with the development and adoption of new innovative technologies,” the institute says. “Yet, in comparison to the electric-power sector, investment in water innovation is extremely low. Indeed, investment by the savviest promoters of innovation — such as venture capitalists and corporate research and development — are strikingly low in the United States and globally when compared with other major sectors of the economy.”

The EPA lays out a business case for technology and institutional innovation, tapping opportunities that range from recovering nutrients to reusing water and recovering energy.

The bottom line: “Our nation’s water resource and sustainability issues offer market opportunities for technology and institutional innovation as well as a vehicle for economic growth.”