Drop of water on puddle
Drop of water on puddle

Population growth, climate variations and urbanization have the potential to cause chronic water shortages in a growing number of regions worldwide.

“Water Unifies,” a five-day international conference co-hosted by UC Irvine beginning Monday, Dec.1, will bring experts together to share innovative solutions and identify water resources and management principles to help answer water scarcity challenges. Working with UCI on the event are the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the U.S. Geological Survey.

William Cooper, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of UCI’s Urban Water Research Center, discusses the conference, Southern California’s pressing water concerns and research addressing the issues.

Q: What is the central objective of the conference?
A: We all have to change the way we think about and value water. And we must look at the world as interconnected – what we do affects our neighbors, even those on the other side of the world. That’s what the conference is all about: figuring out what the issues are, deciding how we can attack them and trying to determine how we can make a difference.

Q: What are the biggest water-related challenges Southern California faces today?
A: The population has exceeded nearby resources. We get about 33 percent of our water locally, 33 percent from the Colorado River and 33 percent from the Bay-Delta area in Northern California. The bad news is some predict the Colorado River will eventually dry up, so we could lose that source. And if there was a big earthquake in the Bay-Delta region, we could lose that water overnight and not get it back for four or five years. The question is: How can we survive with an increasing population and an uncertain water future?

Q: What are some potential solutions?
A: We have to develop innovative methods of water resource management. Conservation is one aspect. Another is desalinating ocean water, though it’s not an end-all solution. Probably the best one I’ve seen is purifying waste water into drinking water. The Orange County Water District has the world’s largest indirect water reuse facility, and sewage is as reliable a source as any. It’s now cost-effective to treat it beyond drinking water purification – in fact, it’s closer to distilled water quality. I think water reuse is going to play a larger and larger role in water sustainability here in Southern California.

Q: How is UCI helping to address water issues?
A: We’re building Water Plant 2050 at the Irvine Ranch Water District’s Michelson plant near campus. It will help us examine how we will treat water, waste water and water for reuse in the year 2050. We’re planning our own research on innovative treatment technologies, and we hope to test and validate procedures others have developed.

We also have teamed with OCWD’s Groundwater Replenishment System research team to help optimize its water processing – we want to maximize water quality and minimize the carbon footprint. We also are developing online monitors to continuously ensure the quality of the water being handled by the system.