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Water smarts for sale

It’s an engineering feat you don’t really think about: When you turn on your tap, water comes out. For that to happen, pressure has to be constantly applied across the entire water-delivery infrastructure, from water mains beneath the street to the pipes in your kitchen wall.

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What if, instead, there was a supercomputer connected to a bunch of sensors that could collect data from every faucet, garden hose and toilet in Las Vegas, and tell you in real time when and where the water flows? Then you’d be able to program the system to turn pressure on and off as needed, saving massive amounts of energy, money — and water.

This idea typifies the big-data utopia envisioned by people like Kumud Acharya, a research professor at the Desert Research Institute and the first scientist to get on board with a plan to brand Las Vegas as the center of the water technology universe.

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“We’re trying to attract companies that have expertise in water to come here,” Acharya says. “At the same time, there’s a lot of technology already being developed here. We have professors applying for patents all the time. We hope to also provide them with the opportunity for commercialization.”

The plan goes back to 2012, when DRI and IBM were working together on an environmental-data engineering project — one that could result in the type of targeted water-delivery control system described above. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval got involved in December of that year, asking his Office of Economic Development to see how DRI and IBM’s collaboration might help goose the state economy. They brought in the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, and by March of 2013 had hammered out a $3.8 million deal between the state agencies and IBM to fund the center. The Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, SNWA and the rest of the Nevada System of Higher Education (which DRI is part of) have also gotten involved.

The result is a Center of Excellence — somewhat amorphously named because water technology, it is hoped, will be only the first of several sectors that the center cultivates by bringing together public and private parties, academic institutions and commercial ventures. With so much institutional water wisdom here, good old H20 seemed like a good place to start. 

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Can the driest state succeed in selling itself as an international hydrological expert? The answer depends on convincing the world that the center has not only the right business model, but also the brainpower to solve tomorrow’s big water problems. Fortunately for those betting on the center, scientists like Acharya are already on it.

 

The science of money

A slight man with dark, serious eyes, Acharya settles into his chair at DRI’s Flamingo Road office to discuss his passion. Hints of it are all around. On his desk, a plaque reading “Save water, drink wine” and behind him, on the bookshelves, a collection of exotic beverages that graduate students have brought back to him from research trips abroad. Acharya is a hydrologist. Unlike most people, when he thinks about water in Nevada, he’s optimistic. Not because he knows something the rest of us don’t about the ongoing drought that’s slowly draining the Colorado River, our main water source, but because he sees a state on the cusp of benefiting from the dire circumstances it finds itself in.

DRI, he says, has more than 50 hydrologists between its two campuses in Las Vegas and Reno —- the greatest concentration of them in one American institution outside the U.S. Geological Service. Acharya has graduated a dozen students in the field; he’s a leading researcher on invasive species, including quagga mussels and salt cedars; he works with the Army Corps of Engineers to develop technologies for flood control; and he’s a visiting professor at Hohai University in Nanjing City, China, where he’s helped establish a joint international lab with DRI for hydrological research. And he’s just one of the 50.

“This is the piece that Las Vegas doesn’t do a good job of: We don’t brag about our talent very well,” says Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance’s president and CEO Tom Skancke. “I was at Singapore International Water Week with Kumud and (Center of Excellence interim director) Ken Ladd and (DRI president) Stephen Wells and (Brookings Mountain West senior fellow) Pat Mulroy in June, and people were stopping by our booth and asking Kumud and Pat for their autographs, and having their picture taken with her. This is someone we have the benefit of seeing every day.”

 “We don’t have enough water here,” Acharya says, modestly. “But that has given rise to a lot of innovation. An online magazine a month ago identified the top 12 cities as water hot spots, and Las Vegas was one. (The center is) trying to leverage that scarcity to the state’s economic benefit.”

How would this work? Acharya gives an example from his own research on quagga mussels, an invasive species discovered at Lake Mead in 2007. The little mollusk is highly reproductive (a single female can produce up to a million eggs in one spawning season) and destructive: They filter up to a liter of water a day, polluting the food chain of other, native species, and clog pipes, necessitating expensive repairs. And every time the water authority sucks on its straws in Lake Mead, it risks bringing quagga mussel larvae along for the ride to your tap.

“We understand their life history fairly well now,” Acharya says. “We know how long they live, what food they like, the environment they prefer, their production cycle. ... Now, we are also working on a number of technologies to deal with them. So, something like ultraviolet rays, ozonation, chlorination  — we know what amount would kill them, how much exposure is required. We have a good handle on that. The thing we don’t know is how to kill them in open water without killing anything else.”

In the past, Acharya has developed technology to solve this problem. Working with a company he can’t name, because of a non-disclosure agreement, he’s testing a product now. The Center of Excellence could do a few things in a case like this. It could offer the company funding for its research in exchange for a guarantee that resulting production facilities would be located in Las Vegas. It could market the product to other areas battling quagga mussel invasions. And, in cases where the developers are from outside Nevada, it could connect them with experts such as Acharya and resources such as his two quagga mussel labs to help boost their work to the next level.

Then, according to the standard center of excellence model, a self-reinforcing cycle begins. Researchers of quagga mussels the world over hear about what’s happening in Las Vegas and try to get fellowships to come here and train, bringing with them both new skills and grant money. Other companies and utilities with stakes in the quagga mussel fight invest in their work. As products hit the market, facilities are scaled up, employing people all along the supply chain. Everyone wins.

 

An excellent future?

All this is in the early stages right now. There are many promising technologies being developed locally; the big-data analytics project with IBM, for instance, or one by DRI scientist Mark Hausner, who uses fiber optic cable to measure underground soil and water temperatures on a much more massive scale than traditional methods, allowing him to extrapolate valuable information about how water moves, where it pools and in what quantities. The center hasn’t announced any specific projects yet, but officials say they’re on the cusp of making several announcements.

And they’re counting on other revenue sources as well. The board is considering a membership model, in which anybody with a business interest in water would pay dues based on their potential use of the center. In exchange, the center would provide the service of bringing buyers and sellers together. The new executive director, Nate Allen, hired in September, is expected to tackle the specifics of the subscription plan as one of his first duties.

In any case, commercialization of research is a defining component of the center. Skancke describes the role of his alliance strictly in these terms: “We’re a non-financial partner. Our role is support. They give us the leads, and we bring the business.”

The flow of money between business and academics, public and private entities may raise some eyebrows, and Dennis Perea, acting director of the Department of Employment Training and Rehabilitation says the public should expect accountability.

“This was a three-year agreement,” he says. “We need a return on the initial investment to continue after that. We have some interesting companies on the line that look promising and some already testing technologies with SNWA, but if we don’t get a return on it, we’ll look elsewhere. This is employers’ money we’re dealing with, and we want to make sure we get results for it.”

How would he measure that return? In terms of jobs. Perea says that, in an ideal scenario, five years from now there would be advanced manufacturing facilities creating products developed through the center. His agency would work with CSN and UNLV to develop curriculum for training people to staff these facilities — people who would come straight off DETR’s unemployed rolls. It may be a stretch for the water sector to scale up commercially, he admits, as it’s a little heavier on the research and development side.

“It made sense (to start with this) because of our location and unique situation, but it won’t be the last thing we do,” Perea says. “We don’t yet know the full potential of water component manufacturing, but we do know that water technology is taking a pretty small bite. It gives us a broader board to expand from in the future.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t believe in the potential of the water project; he does. Using a fishing metaphor without irony, Perea says, “There’s something about having a center of excellence that’s like a big shiny object. You dangle it in front of people and they can’t get off it. They want to know more.”

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.