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Will Sarni: Can We Tech Our Way Out of Wicked Water Problems?

Can we really “tech” our way out of the world’s water crises? In our Season 4 finale, we’re asking the big question of the season – will water technology be enough to solve wicked water problems? Will Sarni joins Jay for a look back at the bright ideas and inventions we’ve heard about this year, sharing his view on technology’s ability to solve problems around water quality and scarcity.

Jay and Will discuss what a “disruptor” like Uber could do for the water sector and what it will take to get the public sector to respond to innovation. And if you’ve ever wondered why piping water from a wet part of the country to areas hit by drought is a hot-button issue, you’ll want to stick around for our last ‘Ask Jay’ segment of the season.

Will Sarni is the CEO of Water Foundry and the founder and general partner of Water Foundry Ventures, a technology venture fund focused on addressing water scarcity, quality and equitable access to water. Will is a podcaster, an internationally recognized thought leader on water strategy and innovation, and the author of numerous books. You can check out his children’s book, Water, I Wonder here.

Guest Bios

Will SarniWill Sarni

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry, a water strategy consultancy. He is also the founder and general partner of Water Foundry Ventures, a water technology venture fund focused on addressing water scarcity, quality and equitable access to water. He has been a sustainability and water strategy advisor to multinationals, water technology companies, investors, and non-governmental organizations for his entire career. Prior to Water Foundry, he was a managing director at Deloitte Consulting where he established and led the water strategy practice. He was the founder and CEO of DOMANI, a sustainability strategy firm, prior to Deloitte.

Will is an internationally recognized thought leader on water strategy and innovation. He was ranked as; Worth Magazine Worthy 100 for 2022, A Key Player Pressuring Businesses to Care About Water and one of the Top 15 Interviews In Smart Water Magazine 2019. He is the author of numerous publications on water strategy and innovation including the following books:

  • Corporate Water Strategies” (Earthscan 2011, and in Chinese by Shanghai Jiao Tong University Press 2013)
  • Water Tech – A Guide to Investment, Innovation and Business Opportunities in the Water Sector” (Sarni, W. and Pechet, T., Routledge 2013)
  • Beyond the Energy – Water – Food Nexus: New Strategies for 21st Century Growth” (Dō Sustainability 2015)
  • Water Stewardship and Business Value: Creating Abundance from Scarcity” (Sarni, W., and Grant, D., Routledge 2018)
  • Creating 21st Century Abundance through Public Policy Innovation: Moving Beyond Business as Usual” (Sarni, W. and Koch, G., Greenleaf Publishing 2018)
  • Digital Water: New Technologies for a More Resilient, Secure and Equitable Water Future” (Routledge, 2021).
  • Water, I Wonder” (Sarni, W and Dunnigan, T., Outskirts Press, September 2022).

Sarni is a co-founder of WetDATA and a host of the podcast, The Stream with Will and Tom. He is a board member of Silver Bullet, Project WET and the Rocky Mountain Rowing Club. He was the Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board for the WAITRO Global Water Innovation Summit 2020 and was on the Scientific Program Committee for Stockholm World Water Week from 2013 through 2019. His advisory work includes working with the 2020 X-PRIZE (Infinity Water Prize), as a Bold Visioneer for the 2016 X-PRIZE Safe Drinking Water Team and a Technical Advisor for the Climate Bonds Initiative: Nature- Based Solutions for Climate and Water Resilience. He is also on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Water Security.

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Photo Credit

  • Will Sarni – Submitted

Full Transcript

Will Sarni: The status quo is no longer working. We can’t rely on traditional sources of water. So we really do need to not just adopt technology, but we need to create public policies that facilitate the adoption of those technologies and even provide incentives for those technologies to scale.

Jay Famiglietti: Welcome to What About Water? I’m your host, Jay Famiglietti. This past season, we’ve looked at technology and innovation and the brightest ideas that will get us out of our darkest water dilemmas.

A.J. Purdy: And so there’s these really fine-tuned, they’re called sonic anemometers, that measure the three-dimensional direction of wind. And so in conjunction with measuring how much water vapor is in the air, you can actually capture and measure how much water is evapotranspiring from the area in which the wind is coming.

Bruno Basso: So some of these farmers, we have never seen them. So we deliver these prescription maps to the farmers and the machine, the big tractor, goes and applies 50 pounds of nitrogen on one side of the field and 160 pounds a few yards away from that.

Ernst Siewers: If you look at all the steps that you’re doing in the textile industry, all your processes, the dyeing step is by far the most polluting step of your process.

In CO2 dyeing is much more simple because dyes actually dissolve in CO2.

Vanessa Speight: With these robots, this is not a simple kind of technology. Mainly it’s a source of power that’s an issue because they need to swim around in the water. It’s more advanced in sewers which are full of water and they can kind of walk along the bottom during dry periods, whereas a drinking water pipe is full and under pressure.

Seyi Fabode: I hate using the words, the buzzwords, artificial intelligence and stuff, but that’s really, we built a model that recognizes the city for all the critical metrics required to build a capital improvement plan.

Cate Lamb: A lot of people’s pensions are invested in stocks that are likely to have a shelf life. So why should your brother and your grandmother and your father care about this topic?

Because much of their pension funds, much of the money that they are going to be and are relying on at the moment, your pension is at risk. You’re going to potentially lose value of your pension if the value of those companies, or as the value, so not if, when the value of those companies erodes, and they are eroding today.

Brandon Dugan: And so what they could do is actually use less freshwater and use partly salty water for some of their activities, including oil and gas recovery or cleaning of equipment, And then that fresh water that they’re not using anymore could be used for traditional uses, like running our infrastructure in a city.

Virginia Burkett: It sounds like we got it all figured out. Well, there’s technology that would make hydrogen-based fuels economically viable. That is really important. So technology is important to the nation, but it’s particularly important in terms of helping or enabling these major emitters to get off of the fossil fuels and use renewable energy or low carbon power.

Jay Famiglietti: Joining me now is someone who understands how to take water innovation to new scalable heights. Will Sarni is the CEO of the water strategy consultancy, Water Foundry. He’s also the founder and the general partner of Water Foundry Ventures, a water technology venture fund focused on addressing water scarcity, quality, and equitable access to water.

And he’s the host of his own podcast called The Stream with Will and Tom. We reached him in Denver, Colorado. Welcome to What About Water, Will.

Will Sarni: Jay, great to see you. I was going to come back with a crack that this could be the Jay and Will show.

Jay Famiglietti: Exactly.

Will Sarni: But I won’t go there.

Jay Famiglietti: Here it is. It’s The Stream with Will and Jay. Tom’s out. And we’re just going to replace him for the week. No, great to have you and great to see you again. So, we just heard that look back over our season and we had a focus on technology from water robots to getting cities better leakage data to tapping into deep sea reservoirs. We’ve heard really a lot of bright ideas this season.

What do you make of all these advances in water technology?

Will Sarni: Well, it was great. It was fascinating to listen to that. It really an exciting time in terms of innovative technologies, some that I would consider to be disruptive technologies, either try to get into the marketplace or in the marketplace and scaling well.

But I would say I balanced that with the sort of softer side of technology adoption, which is the human side. And how do we bring the water technology sector, you know, however broadly you want to define that, to a place where technologies, in particular digital technologies, are embraced? You know, it requires an engaged, committed workforce to adopt the technology.

It requires the right business model, the technology provider needs to have the right team, you know, the right capitalization and all of that good stuff. So, love what’s happening in the space. Just a little bit of a cautionary note, if you will.

Jay Famiglietti: You know, you’re really like a renaissance man. I think you’re really ahead of your time because you’re actually a scientist, you’ve got a background in hydrogeology and environmental science, but you’ve been talking about technology for like as long as I’ve known you. So when was it when you had that sort of "aha!" Moment, when you realized that technology could really help us solve water problems?

Will Sarni: I had my own sustainability strategy firm, by the name of DOMANI, and we focused on greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, energy, renewable energy, and water. And I would say, so the back end of when we had that firm, and just before we sold it to Deloitte, it became clear that technologies were out there that were addressing carbon emissions by reducing energy use, energy efficiency, renewable energy, and so on.

It’s really kind of interesting, now that I think about it, the "aha!" was more related to energy and carbon and climate change as opposed to water. We were doing a little bit of work with water technology startups and I really got hooked at that point on the whole startup world, working with entrepreneurs, you know, supporting them and started to get more involved with water tech hubs, accelerators and price competitions.

And, and also when I was at Deloitte, I led a team working with XPRIZE and it was funded by Clorox Brita. So I would say the XPRIZE experience was really the big "aha" Jay and the turning point in me realizing what is possible from a technology perspective in solving some of the big challenges that we have in the world of water that you know, you’re so embedded in.

Jay Famiglietti: Well, sometimes Will, I think you’re kind of like a cat with nine lives because you’ve taken the next step and now you run your own venture capital fund, Water Foundry Ventures. So how’s that going? Have you had a lot of pickup? Who’s investing? Is it just you or are there other people involved?

Will Sarni: No, I have other partners.

That’s been really interesting in terms of what we’ve learned, what we’re focused on. Water Foundry Ventures is an outgrowth of a fund that we started last year. We got Pepsico and AB InBev to make grants to the fund to support us. And I think that pretty clearly speaks to sort of where I sit in the world of water, which is, you know, I do corporate water, strategy work, both on the risk side and business opportunity sides.

And then on the tech side, it was sort of a logical extension to not just do my own personal investments in innovative water technology companies, but to raise capital and work with other partners and continuing to raise capital and scale solutions. So thanks for referring to me as a Renaissance man, but I tend to refer to myself as a bit of a Venn diagram of, you know, multinationals, technology and investing.

And that has really played out well in terms of where I sit and where we sit both on the advisory side, on the investing side, but it’s been a great experience. Create a community of investors and entrepreneurs and multinationals and even NGOs that want to solve scarcity, quality, and equity issues.

Water is a pure play, but also water is it intersects with food, ag, and energy. So I am really excited about this phase of my journey in the world of water.

Jay Famiglietti: Yeah, I mean, from where I sit and watching you these last– I don’t know, maybe we’ve known each other for about 10 years or so now. But you’re in the sweet spot.

And the Venn diagram, I think, is a nice sort of image because you have not hesitated to kind of reach out into these different areas that are different for most hydrogeologists. So technology, investing, finance, and having a strong science background. You and I have had these discussions before. We’re both extremely action-oriented, and I think this is really the only way we’re going to get action.

So let me drill down into that a little bit. So I drove all the way down here from Saskatoon and started here at Arizona State in January. And you know the situation down here in the southwestern United States and the Colorado River Basin. There’s the great aridification that’s happening here in the southwest.

There are the eventual cutbacks of Colorado River water to Arizona. Arizona is sort of at the end of the line when it comes to water rights in the Colorado River Basin. So what technologies, any technologies would you put your money on in terms of contributing, moving the needle here in the Southwestern US and specifically in the lower basin here in Arizona?

Will Sarni: So on the technology side, there is a disconnect between the supply and demand side of the equation right now, clearly. Historically, we in the Colorado River Basin relied on surface water from the river, from the watersheds, and also groundwater. So we have much less surface water. We don’t want to mine groundwater in a way that damages that resource.

So we are very focused on technologies that reduce the demand side of the equation. So we’re in how to do more with less. In Arizona right now, some residential building construction has paused, if you will, because of the lack of water. So we’re very interested in technologies that drive efficiency and drive reuse.

And in particular, the home, the commercial properties that are out there that need water efficiency, leak detection, and reuse, in particular, gray water reuse. So the first investment we made was in a company called Hydroloop, a Dutch company that reuses gray water, both in the home and commercial properties and, you know, that will address the demand side of the equation.

We’re also interested in technologies that get us to a smart water home. I mean, we’re, we’re on the cusp of a smart energy home. We made a lot of progress, adoption of renewables, energy efficiency, fixtures, and so on. Well, why can’t we do that for water, Jay?

Jay Famiglietti: I don’t know, will. Why can’t we?

Will Sarni: Well, I think the status quo is the problem.

Jay Famiglietti: I know that it is. It’s great to hear that you are investing in those technologies and there’s just a little follow-up I want to do. Arizona is a great example. Any of these ag regions that are replacing agriculture with homes, actually that’s a net savings of water. And then what you’re doing on top of that is an additional savings.

If you make them water efficient homes, that’s like a, you know, we call it a positive feedback, right?

Will Sarni: Right.

Jay Famiglietti: In science.

Will Sarni: And we’re also interested in ag and also industrial applications. So, you know, smart precision ag, you know, irrigation, you know, a lot of promising technologies there are both, you know, sort of traditional drip irrigation, gravity drip irrigation technologies are very interesting.

The application of artificial intelligence solutions for industrial uses in particular are really interesting that drive vastly improved water use in food and beverage manufacturing, but also heavy manufacturing. So that’s how we think about the opportunities that are out there. There are also some really interesting opportunities right now at the intersection of energy and water.

So the use of renewables for brackish water treatment, brackish water desal, well carbon footprint, while also tapping into a new source of water. So I’ll go back to your initial question, Jay. It’s a very exciting time for technology and entrepreneurs.

Jay Famiglietti: Okay. So the technology is one part, but it’s not people like you and me, and it’s not the entrepreneurs and the tech community that makes the decisions.

It’s the politicians. What is it going to take to bring them on board? Or do you think they are on board? And I mean in a big and scalable way. So, Governor of California or one of these dry states, Arizona, Colorado says, "Listen, we’re going to invest however many billion dollars in water technologies and we’re going to talk to Will, of course, because he’s the guru."

Will Sarni: You’re kind, Jay. Well, boy, it’s a tough one. Are they on board? I would say it’s kind of lumpy in terms of who is, who doesn’t get it, who sort of kind of gets it, who wants to get it, and then those that do get it. My take is that I believe water is always a local issue. Great water reuse, I think, is a really good example.

We need to change public policy to promote residential water reuse at scale. I talked to a colleague a while ago and he said we need an Uber for water and I thought that was really well put and if you think about how ride-sharing got traction and scaled, they essentially showed up and they delivered convenience to us directly without asking for permission and trying to change public policy.

So public policy changed in response to them coming up with a business model that was appealing, wildly appealing, to the customer. So what would that look like in the world of water? And if I could deliver to you real-time water quality data at the tap, I would say you’d be really interested in that.

Jay Famiglietti: I would be super interested.

Can you do that? Can any of your investments, are they leading in that direction? Because I think that’s super important.

Will Sarni: Yeah.

Well, I’ll follow up with you.

Jay Famiglietti: So Will, it sounds to me like what you’re really saying is we need a disruptor. We need a disruptive technology. Someone, something that’s coming out from the outside, no one expected it, and boom, it has the potential to take over.

Will Sarni: Could also be Lyft, also. –

Jay Famiglietti: Could be Lyft, yeah. Don’t piss off the Lyft guys. When you go to San Francisco, man, you’ll never get a ride.

Will Sarni: Well, yeah. But yeah, I mean, there is a company out there right now, you know, a startup that is delivering that from a technology perspective. So I like to think about how an Uber for water would manifest itself and scale.

And I think that’s going to drag the public sector along because if we democratize access to data actionable information via innovative, you know, hardware software, then yeah, I believe the public sector will have to take note and have to respond faster than they have been right now. And I think public sector just moves slow.

Jay Famiglietti: It certainly does. And it seems that you are trying to help out that situation by focusing on the youngsters. I understand that you’ve written a new book for children about water. Congratulations. Can you tell us about it?

Will Sarni: Yeah, thank you. Well, you made me smile. Everyone feels like a youngster now, Jay.

But I would say that, you know, this phase of my career, I get really excited by working with students. During the onset of the pandemic, I did a webinar presentation to my sister’s fourth grade classes in Westchester County. And it was awesome. They had the best questions because, you know, they didn’t care like who I was.

They asked the best questions Jay, and it got me hooked. And right around that time, I met someone on LinkedIn who started to follow me. He told me he grew up in a rural setting and did not have access to safe drinking water and would periodically get sick from well water. So it was me getting hooked on being in front of fourth graders in New York in particular, Jay.

You know, they even had an edge in the fourth grade.

Jay Famiglietti: Yeah, I’m sure they do. They were born with an itch.

Will Sarni: Oh yeah. Yeah, it’s wired into your DNA. So anyways, I meet Tony Dunnigan, who’s this fabulous illustrator, and we published this book, "Water I Wonder." And it was really exciting and impactful and meaningful to me.

And we’re working on our second book –

Jay Famiglietti: wow, congratulations.

Will Sarni: – another "I Wonder" book. And it was great fun, Jay, not just because it had very few words and a lot of illustrations, but you choose the words carefully and you test it in front of students. So yeah, I get pretty good at it.

Jay Famiglietti: I just want to say it’s my kind of book.

But where can people get that? Is it out? Is it available? Can we go get it on Amazon?

Will Sarni: Yeah, you get it on Amazon.

Jay Famiglietti: Awesome, man. I’m looking forward to it. But I want to talk to you about your podcast, too, because you’ve got this podcast, which we’ve already decided, we could sub in for one week. We could have, this could be a What About Water podcast.

It could also be co-listed as The Stream with Will and Tom, and in parentheses, and Jay for this week. No, tell me about what kind of stuff you do. I understand it’s a little bit like what we’re doing now, a little bit freeform.

Will Sarni: Absolutely. It is, you know, unscripted, very freeform, very conversational. And we decided that we would be fun, engaging, informative, provocative, and optimistic.

Because we felt that humanity can solve, as I say, wicked problems, including water and climate change and biodiversity loss and everything else. So bringing people on that challenge the status quo, have a bias for action, are innovators. We actually tag them as water punks. You know, basically people that go against the grain.

So yeah, that’s The Stream with Will and Tom, and maybe now Jay.

Jay Famiglietti: Maybe, never know. That would be lots of fun. We always have a great time. And you know, we–

Will Sarni: Yes, we do, Jay.

Jay Famiglietti: We are like-minded, just coming at it from slightly– you know, I’m over here in the academic world working with students, doing the research, and trying to change the world that way.

But I think we both– we get to this place where it’s just hard to– you know, like with technology, how do you get policy makers and elected officials to latch onto it? Same thing with the science. Like how, what’s the tipping point? Here in Arizona, I think it’s just that we’re in the crosshairs now. And I think it’s finally time that there’s a, you know, it’s like the Hail Mary time.

It’s desperation time. –

Will Sarni: Yeah, well, you are at ground zero and scarcity drives innovation. So. –

Jay Famiglietti: And you mentioned this already. You have said, you’ve recently said, It’s easy to fall in love with technology, but technology in itself is not the answer. This is an underlying question we’ve been chipping away at all season long, whether we can tech our way out of these extremely complex water challenges.

From your quote, I’m betting that I can guess your answer, but let’s maybe have some closing thoughts around that.

Will Sarni: Well, tech is an important part of the puzzle. And I would say that tech alone is not going to make it happen. We need all stakeholders to engage on developing solutions and innovating solutions to the point where we can do more with less or do without.

And you’ve heard me talk about wicked problems and I’ll cite a dear friend of mine, Tom Higley, who started something called 10.10.10, 10 wicked problems, 10 entrepreneurs for 10 days. One of the things I love about framing water and climate and other issues as a wicked problem is that one of the attributes of a wicked problem lays out very clearly that all stakeholders need to engage in solving wicked problems.

And that is, you know, the entrepreneurs, the investors, multinationals, academics, tech transfer offices, NGOs in the public sector. And the reason for that is that they all have certain qualities that need to be brought to bear. So, you know, we were talking about the public sector. Well, the public sector moves slow.

They innovate very slowly, but they have scale. So if you can get them to that tipping point, it’s like turning a switch and they can scale solutions. Entrepreneurs and investors have speed, but no scale and everyone sits in between. So we can only tech our way out if we get everybody rowing together to solve whatever problem we’re focusing on half the time.

And, you know, increasingly I’m very interested in the human side of tech. So really an exciting time, Jay, in a lot of ways. And you know I’m an optimist, a stubborn optimist. So yeah, we’ll get there.

Jay Famiglietti: Really looking forward for our next get together, whether it’s me coming up to see you in Denver, you coming down here in Arizona.

Thanks for joining us.

Will Sarni: Well, thanks for the invitation. Always enjoy the conversation and yeah, let’s go do good things, Jay.

Jay Famiglietti: We have to, we have to change the world, man. Let’s go be disruptors, let’s go be water punks.

Will Sarni: I love it. Good to see you.

Jay Famiglietti: Thanks a lot.

Will Sarney is the CEO of Water Foundry and the founder and general partner of Water Foundry Ventures. He also hosts the podcast, The Stream with Will and Tom, and he’s the author of a recent children’s book, "Water, I Wonder."

Well, we know what that means. It means it’s time for Ask Jay. And as always, that’s when we bring in producer Erin Stephens. Hi, Erin.

Erin Stephens: Hi, Jay. So I’ve been going through the voice memos and the emails that our listeners have been sending to ideas@whataboutwater.org, and I want to play one for you. You might recognize this voice.

Wayne Giesbrecht: Hi, Jay. This is Wayne from the control room. I recently watched a clip of one of the late night talk show hosts where he compared the severe drought in the Western United States to the heavy rainfall in the Eastern States. He mentioned the idea of collecting rainfall in the East and sending it to the West via pipeline.

Could this be effectively done?

Jay Famiglietti: Thanks for that question, Wayne. And so it turns out that pipelines are really a political hot button issue. To start, we should recognize that we already move water around in pipelines and aqueducts, but over smaller scales. We move water all around California. We move water in and out of the Colorado River Basin.

But it’s those larger scale pipelines, say from the Eastern US to the Western US, that really get people riled up. Right now, it’s really not feasible for a couple of reasons. One is the cost, and the other is that it’s politically contentious. It costs a lot of money to transport water. It’s extremely heavy.

The politics of moving water from one basin to another are something that we really haven’t worked out yet in the United States. I guess the third thing we need to keep in mind is that if you look at this past summer, the Mississippi River was actually in terrible shape. And that’s the one that we most often hear about.

Why don’t we take water from the Mississippi River basin and move it to the Western United States? Well, that was a non-starter this year. So right now I’d say it’s a no-go. What it does point to though, I think, and this is pretty important, is that in countries like the United States and Canada, where we have wet areas and dry areas, there is a need for a national water policy, national level discussions about, you know what, should we be thinking about moving this water around?

Because in the United States, we grow a lot of our food in the southern part of the country, but a lot of water’s in the northern part of the country. So we have to have these conversations about moving water or moving agriculture because it is coming to a head. So thanks for that political hot button issue, and I’ll look forward to the responses that we get, and hopefully not too much hate mail.

Erin Stephens: Absolutely. Yes, shout out to Wayne for that question, and for his fantastic work as our sound engineer. And if you have a question for Jay, hit him up at ideas@whataboutwater.org. Whether you’d rather write, or maybe you want to send us a voice memo like he did, that’s ideas@whataboutwater.org.

Jay Famiglietti: Thanks a lot, Erin.

Erin Stephens: Thanks, Jay.

Jay Famiglietti: Erin Stephens is our producer at What About Water.

Well, that’s a wrap for this season of What About Water. I want to thank all of our amazing guests. I’ve learned so much about how these brilliant people are bringing technology to bear on critical water issues, and I hope that you did too. Hey, please check back with us over the summer as we prepare four firecracker episodes on the full-on water crisis unfolding in real time in the lower Colorado River Basin.

Watch your social media and check back with us at whataboutwater.org for updates. Until then, my friends, please spread the word about What About Water and help us make our world a much more water-aware place. We record this podcast at Arizona State University, which sits on the Homeland of the Akimel O’odham and Pee Posh Tribal Nations.

And we produce this podcast in Saskatchewan, on Treaty 6 territory, the Homeland of First Nations and Métis people. What About Water is a collaboration between The Walrus Lab and the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. This podcast is a production of Cascade Communications.

Our producer is Erin Stephens. Our fact checker is Taisha Garby. We’d like to thank our studio crew here at Central Sound at Arizona PBS. Our crew at GIWS is Mark Ferguson, Shawn Ahmed, Fred Reibin, Andrea Rowe, and Jesse Witow. I’m Jay Famiglietti. Thanks for listening.