Silicon Valley – Running Out of Water?

San Francisco

Editor’s note: Not only does it take about eight quadrillion BTU’s of energy per year to run California’s burgeoning economy, but annual water withdrawals in California, just from reservoirs, run a whopping twelve cubic miles! Most of California’s cities are built in arid or semi-arid regions that receive little or no water from rainfall, not only in Los Angeles, but also in Northern California’s Silicon Valley. To compensate, Californians have built one of the world’s most elaborate plumbing systems to move water in bulk from the rainy, sparsely populated north and east, to the dry and densely populated south and west. A slender thread of pipeline, 170 miles long, brings water from reservoirs in the distant Sierra Nevada range to the Silicon Valley. The pipeline is too old and too small to do the job much longer, especially if another drought arrives, and solutions are frought with controversy. Water privatization and more open water markets could fund upgrades, but after the energy crisis of 2000, California’s citizens fear another round of price gouging on the private market, this time for water. One thing is certain, California must upgrade its already impressive system for bulk water transport.

San Francisco. – The Silicon Valley is considered the birthplace of the information age, a place where billion-dollar companies have grown and flourished independent of raw material inputs such as steel or petroleum.

In the last few months, however, the Silicon Valley has gotten a drastic sense of its dependence on natural raw materials, because more than in any other major high-tech regions of the world, the Valley is running out of water.

Dianne Feinstein
U.S. Senator California

Compared to a genuine water shortage, the energy shortage which in the last year threatened Silicon Valley and the San Francisco region’s prosperity was comparatively harmless. “It is no longer the question of if, but when the water crisis hits”, said U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein at a water conference sponsored in March of 2002 by the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group.

Californian business and political interests have begun to address the looming water crisis, but much of their progress awaits the outcome of the November 2002 election. A major debate is over who should pay for the renovation of California’s water pipeline-system, which is the largest in the world, and whose oldest components include some that were installed in the years before the American civil war.

Currently the San Francisco Water District is responsible for the maintenance of the Hetch-Hetchy-pipeline system that supplies water from reservoirs in the Sierra mountains not only to San Francisco, but also to 100% of the northern Silicon Valley and 20% of the southern Valley.

Concerned about the reliability of the aging Hetch-Hetchy system, high-tech firms in the Silicon Valley have pressured San Francisco Water District officials to either initiate voluntary renovation measures or they will seek legal remedies to ensure work begins. San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission has estimated the repair of the 19 reservoirs and the roughly 270 kilometers of pipeline would cost over $3.5 billion.

Inpecting a cross-section of Hetch-Hetchy

In some places corrosion has left the metal of the Hetch-Hetchy pipelines so thin that large holes can be made in the pipe and rusty bolts can be turned by hand. “Restoration costs what must seem an insane amount of money”, said Margaret Bruce, the environmental delegate of the powerful technology industry association Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group , “but a water crisis would be far more terrifying.”

What would happen if the Bay Area went without water for thirty or even sixty days?

For the industry in the region, this would be cause incalculable damage, to say nothing of the impact on private households”.

This frightening scenario of a sixty day total loss of water supply is not just a media tactic of a Silicon Valley lobbyist, but a real possibility; the Hetch-Hetchy pipeline is not only weakened via corrosion, it also crosses three earthquake faults. A California government report estimated a 70% probability of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in the state within the next 30 years.

Hetch-Hetchy’s 270 KM Aqueduct

Moreover, earthquake strengthening and repairing the existing pipeline system will no longer allay the enormous thirst of the region: California’s population growth averages 1.7%, higher than Bangladesh. California’s birthrate amounts to 2.4 children per woman, simultaneously, more immigrants enter California than all other U.S. States. By the year 2025, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates California’s population will grow from the present 34 million to 54 million.

“We must invest seriously in sea water desalination and in water recycling technology”, said California Senator Feinstein, who also criticized the foolhardy consumption of the California’s private households for sprinklers and swimming pools, which accounts for 50% of private water consumption.

Environmental expert and founder of the eco-portal, Ed Ring, hopes that the Valley’s high-tech firms recognize the water and energy crisis as a chance for the Silicon Valley to have a leadership role in environmental technology. “Green technology can fulfill profit expectations, but also provide real vision and hope for another economic boom for the valley”, said Ring.

Gray Davis
Governor California

A more visceral take on California’s crisis comes from California Governor Gray Davis, who has said “water is more valuable than a gold.”

In the Santa Clara County, the heart of the Silicon Valley, the Santa Clara Valley Water District already plans to use recycled water for 20% of its water consumption within ten years. While most semiconductor manufacturers have only research laboratories in the Valley, the remaining chip manufacturers cannot use recycled water, but rather require minerals-free, soft water out of the Hetch-Hetchy system in order to hold their production costs low.

About the Author:

Wolfgang Harrer is a U.S. correspondant for Germany’s leading nationwide daily newspaper, Die Welt. Since 1999 he has been reporting about media, business and technology affairs of the West Coast of the USA. His weekly column, “Der Silicon Valley Reporter,” is Germany’s most read periodical about this innovative region. This article has been translated from the German version which originally appeared in Die Welt.

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