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Engineering a New Water World

In our third bonus episode of the summer season, we look back at some of the most innovative ways people are sourcing their freshwater, from building home water systems in the Navajo Nation to engineering a state of the art wastewater treatment facility in Orange County. We learn how different communities are finding innovative solutions to recycle and reuse their water supply. We also hear what improvements need to be made to aging water infrastructure and how nature-based solutions are key to restoring the damage that over-engineering has done.

This mini-episode features the voices of Emma Robbins, Peter Gleick, Mike Markus and Sandra Postel. You can find their full episodes from our previous seasons here:

S2E1 (COVID-19 & our Water Supply) featuring Emma Robbins:

S2E6 (Bide(n) Time for America’s Water Resources) featuring Peter Gleick:

S3E4 (Replenishing a Broken Water Cycle) featuring Sandra Postel:

S3E7 (Debunking ‘Toilet to Tap’) featuring Mike Markus:

We’d love to hear your thoughts about our show in our What About Water Listener Survey. As a thank you, we will plant a tree through One Tree Planted for each survey our podcast listeners complete.

Guest Bios

Emma RobbinsEmma Robbins

Emma Robbins is a Diné artist, activist, and community organizer with a passion for empowering Indigenous women. As Director of the Navajo Water Project, part of the human rights organization DigDeep Water, she is working to create infrastructure that brings clean running water to the one in three Navajo families without it. In addition to her water work, she is also the founder of The Chapter House, a new Indigenous arts space, currently all digital, but eventually will be a brick and mortar space on Tongvaland and on the Navajo Nation. Robbins completed her BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and studied Modern Latin American Art History in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is a 2020 Aspen Institute Healthy Communities Fellow. Robbins splits her time between Los Angeles and the Navajo Nation.

Peter GleickPeter Gleick

Dr. Peter Gleick is the co-founder and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute in California, an organization dedicated to creating and advancing solutions to global water problems. Gleick is a hydroclimatologist focused on climate change, water and conflict, and the human right to water – work used by the UN and human rights court cases. He pioneered the concepts of the “soft path for water” and “peak water” and has worked extensively on issues related to water and international security. Gleick is a MacArthur Fellow, member of the US National Academy of Sciences, and winner of the 2018 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization. He has a BS from Yale University, MS/PhD. from the University of California Berkeley. He is author of many scientific papers and twelve books, including The World’s Water, Bottled and Sold, and A 21st Century US Water Policy.

Mike MarkusMike Markus

Michael (Mike) R. Markus is the general manager of the Orange County Water District (OCWD; the District), which manages the Orange County Groundwater Basin that supplies water to more than 2.5 million people in north and central Orange County, Calif. With more than 40 years of experience, Mike is well known for his expertise in large project implementation and water resource management. In September 2007, he became only the sixth general manager in the District’s history. Mike was named the 2017 Pioneer in Groundwater by the Environmental & Water Resources Institute, one of the Top 25 Industry Leaders of 2014 by Water & Wastewater International, he received the international 2009 Säid Khoury Award for Engineering Construction Excellence, the 2007 American Society of Civil Engineers’ Government Engineer of the Year award, and he was one of the Top 25 Newsmakers of 2007 by the Engineering News-Record.

Sandra PostelSandra Postel

Sandra Postel is an American conservationist, a leading expert on international water issues, and Director of the Global Water Policy Project. During her years at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC, she was early in adopting a multi-disciplinary approach to water, after having studied geology, political science, and environmental management. In 1994 Postel founded the Global Water Policy Project. She is also the co-creator of the water stewardship initiative Change the Course, as well as a prolific writer and a sought-after communicator. Between 2009 and 2015, Postel served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society.

Photo Credit

Emma Robbins – Emma’s Website
Peter Gleick – Peter’s Website
Mike Markus – Submitted
Sandra Postel – Cheryl Zook, National Geographic

Full Transcript

Emma Robbins:
There are 30% of Navajos on the Navajo nation who don’t have that luxury of turning on the tap and who don’t have that luxury of having access even to safe water, whether that comes through a sink in their house, or if they’re hauling water from a source.

Jay Voice Over:
That’s Emma Robbins. Emma grew up in a Navajo community in Arizona and saw first hand how people in her community – especially elders – would often go without basic, clean, safe drinking water:

Emma Robbins:
And it’s a huge issue because, you know, everybody needs water to survive. When you think about what you do in the morning, you get up, you take your medicine, you take a shower, you make coffee, you water your plants, your dogs and everything. And it’s a big issue, especially during COVID because, you know, we’re told constantly that you need to wash your hands and stay at home. But when you don’t have running water, that’s not a possibility.

Jay Voice Over:
Ensuring people get clean, fresh drinking water should not be impossible.But sometimes, in order to do that, we need to turn to water engineers.

Welcome to the summer edition of What About Water. I’m your host Jay Famiglietti.

In this episode, we look back at some of the most innovative ways people are sourcing their freshwater. Replenishing it. And transforming it.

Jay Voice Over:
We start by heading to the Navajo Nation in Arizona.

The Navajo are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without running water or a toilet.

That’s where the Navajo Water Project comes in. The idea? Set up a community-run utility to bring hot and cold running water to homes without access to water, without sewer lines of their own.

We sat down with Emma Robbins back in Season Two, and she told us how The Navajo Water Project works — and how it was affected by COVID-19:

Emma Robbins:
The Navajo water project was started about five years ago and it started when our CEO and founder of Dig Deep Water – The Navajo water project is under the umbrella of the human rights organization, Dig Deep Water – and he came across a nonprofit in New Mexico that was doing water delivery routes. And so this water delivery route started because so many people in their area did not have running water. And this was actually started by a school because they were seeing that their student population was missing classes often.

And they were able to link that to the fact that people didn’t have running water in their homes. And so we teamed up with them. I came on very shortly afterwards, four and a half years ago. And what we started doing was installing what we call home water systems. And these are off-grid systems for families who don’t have piped water, who don’t have access to a safe water source.

And these are comprised of an underground tank. There is some plumbing, a pump that brings it in a water heater, a sink, and obviously you need power to, um, electrify the pump. And so we very quickly saw that not only do people not have running water, but they don’t have electricity. You know, most of my family growing up did not have electricity or running water.

I personally was very fortunate to have those two luxuries. And so we had to design a second system, which implemented solar elements so that the pump could be powered. To date, we’ve done about 300 of these home water systems. We’ve since branched out from that first location in New Mexico to all three states across the Navajo nation.

Obviously we’re a sovereign nation. It’s huge. If we were a state in the US we’d be the 10th largest. And so it takes a lot more than just going, throwing in a tank and making sure that it’s filled up by a water delivery route. We have to make sure that we’re identifying a safe water source as well. You know, this area has a lot of abandoned uranium mines.

A lot of the groundwater has arsenic and uranium in it. And so we need to make sure that not only are these sources safe, but that they’re going to be long-term. With climate change we’re seeing that a lot of wells are drying up and that’s something that we simply can’t have. In addition to these home water systems, we also assist families who might have piped water but aren’t able to afford expensive fixes.

And it’s something that, you know, the running water element is great. But what we’re moving into now, post COVID is installing septic and bathroom additions,

Jay Famiglietti:
Emma you are, you’re clearly doing God’s work. I mean, this is just, just amazing what you’re, what you’re talking about, but I’m curious how COVID has impacted your mission of bringing those home water systems to more and more people.

Emma Robbins:
When the pandemic first hit. I’m sure many of you know that the Navajo nation was the hardest hit in the US there for a while. We have the highest infection rate per capita.

And so it’s really up to us to make sure that we’re protecting our community. Either staying out of their homes or bringing them water because, you know, when we lose our elders, we lose our culture. We lose our language, we lose everything. It was everything that we fought for hundreds of years to keep alive.

So far we’ve done about 300 of these. We will have done 540 at the end of the year. And this has been sort of a silver lining because we were working in three different areas on the Navajo nation, and now we’re working in like 10 different areas. And so again, getting back to that idea of building relationships and, you know, a large part of my job is to make sure that we’re collaborating with communities

Jay Voice Over:
That’s Emma Robbins. These off-grid home water systems installed by the Navajo Water Project show how a simple, yet life-changing bit of engineering makes all the difference to people without clean, safe drinking water.

Doing that on a much larger scale is something Peter Gleick would like to see. He’s the Co-founder and President Emeritus of the Pacific Institute.

This is a person who pushes governments in the United States to spend more on water. A person who wants to ensure marginalized people don’t lose a basic human right: the right to clean water and safe sanitation.

Peter Gleick:
Part of that need is water related infrastructure. It’s low-income housing assistance funding, it’s rural water improvement funding, um, it’s investment in frankly, a program to remove every single lead pipe that still remains in our streets. In our old urban centers that contributes to lead contamination in our drinking water. Uh, it’s new standards for contaminants that are, have not been adequately regulated.

The PFS perchlorates, the whole suite of chemical contaminants that ought to be regulated under our safe drinking water act and ought to be removed from our tap water. We’ve not addressed that adequately. Um, it’s water efficiency programs, both in cities and on farms that frees up water that permits more water to be made available to these disadvantaged communities.

And at the same time saves the environment and saves money. Or those are some of the priorities that we describe as terms of solutions for addressing this failure to meet basic needs for water and sanitation.

Jay Voice Over:
Peter Gleick co-founded the Pacific Institute. He’s a leading scientist on global water and climate issues. He appeared in Season Two on our episode: Biden Time for America’s Water Resources.

As freshwater rivers and reservoirs across America recede, thanks to climate extremes,water demand around the globe is likely to increase by 20 to 30% between now and the year 2050. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Southern California — where Mike Markus lives.

Mike Markus:
We down here in Southern California, for those that may not be aware, we live in a desert.

We only get about 13 inches of rain, per year. And, uh, what the Orange County Water District does is manage a very large groundwater basin in central and Northern orange county. So it’s up to us to find additional supplies, sources of water, to replenish the groundwater basin.

Jay Voice Over:
But it’s finding those additional supplies that’s the tricky part. And it requires thinking a little bit outside the box. Or in this case – the bowl.

The Orange County Water District in Southern California has one of the most impressive groundwater replenishment systems I have ever seen.

And what’s amazing about it, is that it’s replenishing freshwater supplies by transforming wastewater into safe, clean drinking water in a way that’s affordable.

Mike Markus is the General Manager of the Orange County Water District:

For us, we’re able to produce the water, at an equivalent cost of imported water. So imported water, for those that don’t know in California, Southern California, we rely primarily on water outside of Southern California. So the metropolitan water district of Southern California brings water in from the Colorado River in Northern California. But with climate change and everything else, those sources of supply are very variable moving forward into the future.

So it’s really up to us to develop these local supplies. The cost of groundwater I should say is about half the cost of met water. So it’s very important for us to find sources of supply so we can continue to utilize the groundwater basin.

Jay Famiglietti:
I don’t know if you remember Mike, but I used to tell people, “You know, it’s like Disneyland. You should put the groundwater replenishment system on your, like on your tour of Southern California.”

This place is so cool. So, let’s talk about that. What aspects of the water crisis, what led you to develop this facility? And specifically I’m talking about the groundwater replenishment system.

Mike Markus:
Our board was very visionary in the mid nineties to see treating wastewater to a very high degree, and using that treated wastewater is a source of supply for the groundwater basin. And so that was kind of the genesis of the development of the project.

Jay Famiglietti:
Yeah, so, you know, the usual challenges that Southern California faces: Growing population, lots of people, changing climate, not very much rainfall to begin with, and all of these issues with not as much snow, that’s a huge problem. So when you say wastewater, where exactly is this water coming from?

Well, it actually comes from our neighbor next door, the Orange County Sanitation District. And the Orange County Sanitation District treats all of the municipal and domestic wastewater in Central and Northern Orange County, which serves about 2.5 million people.

So they take the wastewater and they treat it. So they go through it through a primary and secondary type treatment process, which makes the wastewater safe enough to discharge into the ocean. But rather than discharging it into the ocean, we intercept that water after it’s been treated. We consider wastewater a resource, not a waste.

We take that wastewater, uh, secondary treated, and then we run it through an advanced purification process consisting of micro-filtration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation. By the time it’s gone through our treatment process, it’s nearly distilled water. In fact, uh, the end of the tours is as you well know, we give people a taste of the water.

But, we then take that highly purified water and we put it back into the ground. So we put it back into the groundwater basin and, and then the retail water agencies in the area pump it out of the groundwater basin and goes directly into their distribution system, serving their customers.

Jay Voice Over:
That was Mike Markus from the Orange County Water District. Mike was a guest in our third Season and he talked about the water recycling happening in Orange County in the episode, Debunking ‘Toilet to Tap.’

But with drought and flooding, sophisticated technology only goes so far. As humans try to control water with engineering, with dams and diversions we often end up creating more problems for ourselves:

Sandra Postel:
Big diversions that move water to farms and cities, tremendous amounts of engineering. And yet, this kind of command and control approach to water and water management has kind of entailed a bit of a Faustian bargain, if you will. It’s breaking that water cycle. And thinking we can engineer our way out by doing more and bigger of the same kinds of things is really not going to work.

Jay Voice Over:
Sandra Postel suggests maybe we humans need the ultimate engineering power to fix our water woes: Mother Nature.

Last season, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sandra Postel. She’s the winner of last year’s 2021 Stockholm water prize. She was also a freshwater fellow of the National Geographic Society:

Sandra Postel:
You know, we have this tremendous water engineering that’s incredibly impressive. You know, the 60,000 large dams, many tens of thousands of hundreds, of thousands of smaller dams. And it’s hard in some ways, I think to imagine our world without this engineering, the ability to store water for when and where we need it and so on.

And I come back to something, something Einstein said, that we can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created the problems.

And so what I feel is our best hope for building a more secure, resilient water future is to really begin working with nature as more of a partner, less command and control approach and more looking at natural services, ecosystem services, looking at nature and working with nature as much as we can.

Turns out that the science suggests that we don’t need to reconstruct, you know, a huge area of wetlands. For example, in the upper upper basin of the Mississippi. Again, taking the Mississippi river basin as an example, the Mississippi river basin covers 41% of the continental United States.

And if we could rebuild a relatively small percentage of the wetlands and the upper part of the basin, it could help control a significant amount of flooding and as floods intensify, we’re going to need more of that. And so I think very much we could scale something like this. I think it would take bringing all the stakeholders together, including farmers and compensating. But I think there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to repair that part of the water cycle and control floods differently. And we’re beginning to see this happen.

Jay Voice Over:
That is the voice of Sandra Postel – the winner of the 2021 Stockholm water prize.

You can listen to the full conversations I had with Sandra and these other guests at

If you like these stories about technology, you’re going to love our upcoming season which is looking at all the ways technology can help – and hinder – us as we try to solve water and climate-related problems.

Jay Voice Over:
Like what you hear? Want to tell us about water stories where you live?

Take part in our What About Water listener survey You can find it on social media and at what about water dot org.

For every completed survey, we’ll plant a tree!

We’ve paired up with one tree planted, a non-profit restoring damaged ecosystems, stabilizing the soil, and supporting the water cycle — through tree planting.

Jay Voice Over:
That’s it for this episode. We record and produce What About Water? on treaty 6 territory, homeland of first nations and Metis people.

It’s produced by the Walrus Lab and the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan.

I’m Jay Famiglietti. Thanks for listening.