Michael Podolsky
Michael Podolsky
CEO and Co-Founder of PissedConsumer.com

As the water shortage problem becomes more widespread, it’s time to figure out how to deal with it. One of the possible ways to save water is to reduce its use at home. Still, it may not be enough. Can we avoid a water crisis by reusing and recycling water? Will it hurt your family budget?

The do-it-yourself water treatment is a solution to a lot of problems in America, and it enables more utilization of the water, be it residential, industrial, or agricultural.

Riggs Eckelberry is a co-founder of OriginClear, a company that provides water treatment solutions. Riggs spoke with PissedConsumer about the water shortage in California and answered the questions on solving the upcoming water crisis in agriculture, cities, and households.

Here are the main points discussed with our water expert in this video interview:

How Widespread Is the Clean Water Problem?

Riggs: My name is Riggs Eckelberry, and I am the co-founder of OriginClear, which is a company that is working hard to create innovative, disruptive ventures in the water industry. We're an innovation hub. We have conventional water companies that we've created in the industrial space. We also have new financial vehicles to create water as a service, which is a whole new area.

We have a division that does nothing but modular water systems, to get away from the custom water equipment. The water industry is very backward, and we have technology that creates these water systems in a box, which is very exciting.

Michael: Hi, my name is Michael. Thank you for joining me. Is clean water the problem in America only, or is it worldwide?

Riggs: There are several different levels. Worldwide, counting everybody, only about 20% of all sewage is treated. That's not true of OECD countries, which do a good job of treating most of their water.

You have places in the undeveloped, or developing world, like Bangladesh, where there's virtually no water treatment. Even in a second-world country, like Mexico, there are rivers that look like a rainbow, because there's a lot of dumping still going on. I would say there's a big difference between the developed countries like America, European countries, Australia, and the developing countries.

Even America does not reach as high a standard as, for example, Italy. I remember having vacations in Italy several times around a lake surrounded by fields that went down into the lake, and yet, the lake was pure, pristine, completely drinkable water. In America, the fertilizer would've been going into that lake, and creating all kinds of algae.

I would say that the best practices are in the European community. America does okay, but there's the factor of recycling. In that area…

…Israel is probably the world leader, where almost 90% of all water is recycled. The second in the world is Spain, with 20%. America is only at 1%.

The reason for that is, that we have an old sewage grid that only works one way. Just like the energy grid, you send your water to the city, the city processes it and sends it into the ocean, or a river. The water is treated, and there's nothing wrong with it, but the opportunity to recycle has been lost. We're seeing that as an issue in places like California, where they're still struggling with outdated sewage systems.

For example, in San Diego, they're trying to do this thing called toilet-to-tap, but because the central systems aren't built that way, it's involving billions of dollars. There are some new approaches needed in places like California because there's an infrastructure problem.

How to Solve Water Shortage Problem in California?

Michael: You think California's problems can be solved with a little bit of money and ingenuity. Can they be solved with water recycling?

Riggs: Water recycling helps tremendously. Here's the gorilla in the middle of the room in California, and that is agriculture which represents about 80% of all the use. Yes, we're happy that citizens are taking shorter showers, but the net effect is negligible, overall. It's a good PR campaign, but the fact is, there has been a pivot toward high-value crops, such as nuts, which are high water users.

Granted, there's been more movement toward high-value crops, which tend to use more water, but also more water efficiency. That's dancing around the problem. California is a desert, and the high agricultural water use there, unfortunately, is a ridiculous amount of money.

$20 billion a year in exports for agricultural products, and they have to irrigate and use vast amounts of water. 34 million acre-feet of water per year are irrigated. An acre-foot can easily take care of four households. Those 34 million means…

…about 120 million people could be served with the same amount of water that is being used for irrigation.

That's the nature of the beast, because, 80% of all water used in California is agricultural. At some point, California's going to have to confront that issue and deal with it in as much of creative way as possible.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California website, the higher revenue crops such as nuts and grapes, which use a lot of water, have increased as a share of irrigated acreage from 16% in 1980 to 33% in 2015, and up to 45% in the Southern Central Valley.

This is lots more use of water, which generated more revenue, but actually, farm water use was 14% lower. It's good that they are working very hard to become more efficient, but there are limits. When I take a bunch of grapes, most of that grapes are water, and that gets taken. It can't be reused. It gets taken to a grocery store in New York City or somewhere else, and consumed there.

That water leaves California, and it can never be reclaimed. At some point, we're going to have to confront the nature of agriculture use in California.

Michael: From your point of view, the agricultural need for water takes most of the Californian water out. Regular consumers, most likely, are not going to suffer badly. They have sporadic turn-offs and turn-ons of water in their households, but they're not going to end up in the complete desert, without any water around them.

Californians will just spend less water on agriculture, right?

Riggs: I think that residential users are going to suffer because the government has already shown that they're going to start doing rationing. By the way, the populations in California have been very supportive.

Per capita water use has declined from 231 gallons per day in 1990 to 180 gallons per day in 2010, and it continues to fall. In 2015, it was 146 gallons per day.

They're doing a fine job, mostly by reducing landscape watering, but there are going to be requirements for long-term reductions. If you are a big water user for landscape, I can tell you, because I've been a water user in California, your water bill goes crazy. Plant desert plants, of course.

It's going to be hard for residential users, and there are going to be sacrifices, but it doesn't accomplish that much in numerical terms. The real gains are in the agricultural area, and unfortunately, $20 billion a year is a big vote, and it's very hard for California to get rid of that revenue. They're in a tough place. It's very hard for them to get rid of their avocados, and instead, plant barley.

How to Recycle Water at Home?

Michael: You've mentioned that water recycling equipment could be purchased and installed in a single household. Do you work with such equipment? Can you advise our consumers about water recycling for a single home?

Riggs: Of course, we work at the housing development use level. Single-family is a very competitive market. There are systems for water recycling. For example, Fuji water has an excellent system for taking you off the grid, and you don't need a sewage connection if you have a single-family home.

They do a fine job, it's $10,000, $12,000. We don't try and compete with that, because they do a fine job already. As you know, a whole home water purification is very mature. We intervene at the housing development level and work with the developers so that they have an opportunity to locate the entire development away from conventional water sources.

OriginClear has a program that enables them to not pay upfront for the equipment but pay by the gallon as if they were still getting it from the city. We call that ‘water on demand.’ Basically, it creates water as a service.

We have investors who purchase the equipment, and then, these housing developments can enjoy the three parts: the incoming clean water, the treatment of the black water, and the recycling of what we call the gray water, all on a completely self-sufficient basis. I think that's the future because more and more residential requirements are outstripping the availability of sewage.

Let's take, for example, Miami Dade County, which expanded very fast, without any kind of urban planning, almost 100 years ago. Over 100,000 septic tanks were installed throughout the county, very widely spread. The county has come up with a proposal because septic tanks are terrible.

As the water levels rise due to saltwater intrusion, it's become a problem. They want to replace all those septic tanks with hard sewage. That's $6 billion in today's money, it would probably be about eight or 10 by the time it's built, 20 years of disruption.

The better solution is to simply run a rebate program, and let people install their own self-sufficient water treatment.

The do-it-yourself water treatment is a solution to a lot of problems in America, and it enables more utilization of the water, be it residential, industrial, or agricultural.

What Are the Costs of Water Recycling?

Michael: Is your plan priced per gallon of water? How does it impact the consumer's wallet? Is it less or more expensive? What is the pricing structure?

Riggs: Price has been skyrocketing for water. Water rates are not very regulated. You would think they would be, but they're not. The water rates over a 10-year period tripled versus ordinary, core inflation. Water rates were already taking off, even before the current inflationary phase. In some places, they are as high as 14% of the residential budget, which is ridiculous.

That's another reason for people to become self-sufficient. I never thought I'd say it, but the preppers were right. You need to have a plan for taking care of yourself in this current environment, and that includes water.

Michael: What's the current price for water in some of your installations? How does it match up to the town's water, in comparable locations? How does it compare?

Riggs: There are two things. We are talking about businesses or communities. We're not talking about single-family homes. If it is residential, it will be a community of homes, or it's a business. By committing to a long-term contract for water service, they can limit their increases. It's a way to cap the inflation increases by going into our programs. That's number one.

Number two, by doing their own treatment, they are able to reuse their water the way they normally cannot. For example, in a brewery, you can reuse about 50% of the water without using the water for beer, just for washdowns, steam vessels, and so forth.

If you can get a 50% increase in water use for every dollar you spend, that's a win.

A combination of service contracts that cap the increases to some reasonable inflation index, and reuse of water, to get more turns out of the water.

Michael: Does your system produce drinkable water as an end product?

Riggs: Exactly. Hotels are beginning to install whole hotel water systems, and we have such a hotel, a high-end hotel chain. Unfortunately, we can't disclose it yet, they're launching in July with our system. What they've chosen to do is, that all the water coming into the hotel is pure, whether it's for the kitchen, showers, or anything. That, I think, is going to become a trend.

We have a well-priced system that is certainly very affordable for a business, or a community, that does the full reverse osmosis, which is what you need to get rid of what's called the forever chemicals, the PFAS, the things that are in Teflon and so forth.

There's really only one way to get rid of those, and that's with reverse osmosis, and that's what you have to use to clean the incoming water. For example, I don't have reverse osmosis for the entire home. I have just a plain, 0.2-micron filter. In my kitchen sink, I have a tap that is RO water, and that's what we drink from. That's really what you have to do.

What to Do If Recycling System Breaks?

Michael: The hotel installs your system. Do they install a duplicate system right next to it? What happens if your system breaks?

Riggs: You can always switch. This hotel will be located in Nashville, Tennessee. The city water will not kill people immediately. It's not like they're going from pure water to no water. They're going from pure water, for the brief amount of time that might be down, to tap water.

Remember that these systems are on a service contract, they're easy to swap out. We have local service providers who come in, swap out the filters, whatever is broken down about it. These are very simple systems. It's just like a refrigerator breaking down. Generally, you have enough time before the fridge starts to warm up that you can fix it. Similarly, with incoming water.

It's strange, Michael. Once upon a time, we all drank tap water, and it was okay. That's now become a no-no, but if it's two to three hours, five hours on tap water, that's not the end of the world.

How to Maintain a Water Reuse System?

Michael: My experience with water filtration is, lots of maintenance because filters get clogged up, and they need to be cleaned. How do you address regular maintenance? This is a complex system, and it needs to be addressed properly.

Riggs: People can invest in redundant systems, but they typically don't. That's the truth of it. Again, you're not going from pure water to no water. You're going from pure water to treated water, which many people would say is old-fashioned. People would say, "It's just fine." We haven't run into people who are willing to invest in redundant systems, let's put it that way.

What Are the Differences Between Recycled and Bottled Water?

Michael: Quality-wise, do you have any data comparing recycled water to bottled water in the stores?

Riggs: Bottled water is typically purified using reverse osmosis. There is an issue with bottled water being in plastic, and there's some data that the plastic can contaminate the water, especially if you let the bottle get hot or warm. There's not a huge difference in quality.

If you have standard bottled water that comes out of 7-Eleven, it will be reverse osmosis treated. It'll be pure, and it'll be very similar to the water you can get from one of our water systems. The difference is that we're not using a ton of plastic bottles. That's a big difference.

Michael: Riggs, thank you for joining us today.

Do you think reusing water and installing water treatment systems will help to avoid water shortage? Please share your opinion in the comments. Don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel to follow updates on experts’ videos and consumer video reviews.

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  • expert interview
  • water crisis
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  • water reuse
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