Future of Water: A trip to the water-wise California city of 2040

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Series: Future of Water

KPCC's Future of Water series looks at how California's relationship to water is likely to change in the hotter, drier, more populous state of the year 2040.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CAwater2040.

Cities are already being asked to cut back water use in the face of the crippling four-year drought. But as droughts become more frequent and more prolonged in the future, cities will be asked to cut back even more. 

So let's take a look at how the relationship between water and urban dwellers might change by the year 2040.

Neighborhoods linked by water

Neighborhoods may be interlinked with rainwater capture systems that collect water through such methods as towering inverted umbrella-like structures. Community "bladder houses" would store rainwater and household graywater for later use. Los Angeles wants to get 50 percent of its water from local sources by 2035.

Image courtesy of Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects

This architectural rendering shows a neighborhood of the future linked by a variety of home storm-water capture systems that feed community wells and regional storage facilities and aquifers. 

Dual-purpose dwellings

Homes of the future may not just be "passive" places to live, but "active" infrastructure that creates its own energy and collects its own rainwater. 

"Buildings are no longer going to just look like stucco boxes, they are going to have exterior materials that are performing other roles," said architect Lorcan O’Herlihy.

One concept: The sponge house

Image courtesy of Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects

In this rendering, a home is covered in a sponge-like membrane that captures storm water and collects it. 

"That in effect also cools the building because you are creating a secondary skin," said O'Herlihy.

A rendering of the "Bladder House," a home designed to capture and store water in its walls. mage courtesy of Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects

Solar paint, solar shingles, wind turbines

Water also plays an important role in how we generate power.

As California pushes to cut its carbon footprint to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050, it will need to harness more renewable energy.

Currently, the bulk of the state's green energy comes from hydroelectric sources — which are vulnerable to drought. Wind and solar, experts say, are likely to flourish across California's cities as the state pushes to generate more sustainable sources of energy.

"The shift that we are seeing towards distributed renewables, whether it be solar panels or wind turbines, is really good from a water perspective," Kelly Sanders, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC said.

Photovoltaic solar panel shingles that blend into roofs, she suggests, or even solar panel paint could become new ways for homes to generate energy while cutting California's carbon footprint.

Lawns are passé

Caption: Tom Underhill stands in his front yard filled with California native plants at his home in Long Beach. Photo by Benjamin Brayfield.

The California Water Commission has limited turf grass to only 25 percent of lawns in new homes, and thanks to rebate programs, many lawns have been scraped in favor of drought-tolerant plants.

This trend will likely continue into the future, according to Jon Christensen with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

"I hope we learn how to maintain the beauty of Southern California along with increasing our careful conservation of resources, especially water," he said.

Christensen added that some cities, like Tucson, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada are leading the way when it comes to creating a distinctly western style of gardening.

Of course, grass won't disappear completely, but in the future most lawns will likely be plucked in favor of low-water grasses or even highly realistic synthetic turf.

Inside the home

About a third of all urban water is used inside the home, according to the California Energy Commission (CEC), and in the future, new technologies will help conserve more of it.

Atomizing shower heads

Beginning next year, California will be ratcheting up its standards for shower heads: they must use 2 gallons of water a minute or less.

That's more efficient that past standards, but the CEC's Andrew McAllister says shower heads of the future might go even lower.

For instance, atomizing shower heads could use less than a gallon a minute by filtering water through advanced nozzles that spray tiny droplets instead of large beads of water.

"It really mists water versus a solid stream of water like a typical shower," he said.

Standard-issue graywater reuse systems

New homes in the future are likely to come fully equipped with graywater systems. KPCC's Molly Peterson took an in-depth look at some of those systems a few months ago. 

Simply put, these systems take dirty but reusable water from tubs, bathroom sinks and washing machines and recycle it for garden or toilet use.  Here's a promotional video from an Australian company that is now marketing its services in California.

Video: Graywater in a nutshell

Next generation appliances

Dishwashers, washing machines and faucets will all use less water in the future.

In fact, McAllister says even the pipes carrying this water have room for improvement.

He thinks we'll see new homes built with smaller pipes and shorter runs between the water heater and the faucet so less is wasted waiting for hot water to hit the tap.

But he added that toilets are already pushing the limit of efficiency. And he doesn't expect a waterless toilet anytime soon.

"I think that’s called an outhouse," he joked.

Meters to measure it all

Almost 10 percent of urban water use is lost to leaks, said McAllister. In the future, new technology could change that.

"There are equivalent technologies to what in electric sector are the smart meters, that will allow you to do real time monitoring of your water use so you can detect pattern changes."

He says these devices could even send a message to homeowners letting them know as soon as a leak develops, so it can be fixed right away.

How you might change

Personal water metering

The future belongs to data, and water conservation is no exception.

UCLA's Jon Christensen thinks one day, we'll develop devices that help us track every drop we use similar to the way a Fitbit wristband monitors every step we take.

People could look at daily reports letting them know how much H2O they drank, used in the home and in their gardens.

"We’ll become much more aware of our water use on a granular basis because it is precious," he said.

Water-conscious dining

Foodies love to talk about whether a meal is organic, farm-to-table or locally sourced. In the future, those dietary concerns may also to expand to consider the water use of ingredients.

That's the idea behind the "water footprint," said Ruth Mathews with Water Footprint Network, an organization that tracks the water used to make everyday items.

"Its not just thinking about how much water is in your hand or on your plate," Mathews said, "but thinking about the water that is behind that, that was used to grow that."

Some foods, like beef and oats, have very high water footprints, while beans and potatoes are much more water friendly.

Caption: Chef Wesley Avila of Guerrilla Tacos made this drought friendly veggie taco with a sweet potato tortilla. Photo by Maya Sugarman/ KPCC

"I think it’s very important for chefs to keep that in mind," said chef Wesley Avila of Guerrilla Tacos.

He recently made a water-friendly taco using sweet potato instead of corn for the tortilla. "I think you will see some people start doing this, and once it kind of becomes a thing, where it’s socially acceptable that restaurants offer that, it will start catching on," Avila said.

You can find the recipe — and see our index of the water footprint of common ingredients — here. Got a water-conscious recipe to share? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments

Sound effects for radio story from freeSFX.co.uk.

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