Let’s Rate the Dumbest Solutions to California’s Drought

Wired shares some ingenious, and other not-so-bright, water conservation ideas.

TWO DAYS AGO, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti released a final batch of so-called “shade balls” into the LA Reservoir. Now, 96 million small plastic balls float in the reservoir, blocking sunlight, which prevents evaporation and unwanted chemical reactions in the water. They will reportedly save the city 300 million gallons of water. At 36 cents a piece, city officials say they’re a steal compared to other water-saving technologies, and the only care that the balls need are the occasional rotation. Garcetti referred to this technique as “bold ingenuity” and “emblematic of the kind of the creative thinking” needed to conserve water during California’s epic drought.

So. Opaque balls are legit drought technology. Does that mean those absurdly simple water conservation methods that you come up over the dinner table could also (here come the puns) hold water? Nope—they are probably still dumb ideas. Let’s walk through the math on some of them.

Harvesting fog water

In April, California Governor Jerry Brown called for Californians to use 490 billion fewer gallons of water for the remaining nine months of the year. That’s 275 days of water reduction. San Francisco is swathed in fog, and scientists have developed some fog mesh onto which water droplets can condense. That mist should be good for drinking, right?

It turns out that you need about 20 square feet of fog mesh to harvest a gallon of water per day. To hit 490 billion gallons in nine months, you’d need the fog mesh to collect about 1.8 billion gallons a day. That amounts to an 800,000-acre fog mesh. To drive the point home, if your mesh was as high as the Empire State Building, it would need to be 4,500 miles long—more than twice the length of the continental Pacific coastline. What a beautiful view for a beautiful coast.

Rate this idea: Mist-ifyingly Terrible

Make the tourists do it

What if California just made their domestic tourists fill up some gallon milk jugs in the airport bathroom prior to boarding? (Californians, I hear, would be too hospitable to subject the international folks to this.)

Let’s take a look. In nine months, California gets about 40 million out-of-state tourists. Each tourist would have to lug about 12,000 gallons of water to hit the 490 billion gallon mark. That’s a swimming pool per person, not to mention about 100,000 more pounds. Imagine the baggage fees!

Rate this idea: Just Plane Awful

Piping water from the northwest

Back in April, William Shatner, of all people, proposed a $30 billion crowdfunding campaign to build an above-ground pipeline that delivers water from Seattle to California. If the water leaks, Shatner says, that’ll just serve as irrigation.

First of all, that $30 billion price tag is ridiculous: Those plastic balls in LA cost almost 1,000 times less.  Also, it turns out the government proposed an even more ambitious version in the 80s—diverting water from Alaska. That one fell through because it would cost more than $110 billion and take more than 15 years to build. Shatner still hasn’t made his Kickstarter, so we’re hoping nothing comes from this one.

Rate This Idea: We All Love You, Captain, But No

Deliver water via trucks from the northwest

Okay, so a pipeline won’t work. How about having trucks ship water from Seattle instead? A typical semi with one of those cement mixing trailers can hold about 10,000 gallons. In nine months, you’d need to make 49,000,000 shipments. That’s 180,000 shipments per day.

Rate This Idea: No Way Aquafina’s Getting Behind This One

Replacing toilets with portapotties

Drought-stricken places have taken to employing strict toilet rules: In San Francisco, you barely bat an eye when someone’s left the yellow to mellow in a restaurant commode. So why not take it to the next level and stop using toilets all together?

We’ll assume that, responsible citizen you are, you’re already declining to flush after number one. If the average person has one bowel movement a day and their toilet uses 2.6 gallons per flush (somewhere between the federally-regulated maximum volume for new toilets and the amount used in old potties), then you’d need to skip around 190 billion flushes. Over 275 days, that means denying toilets to 700 million or so people, more than twice the population of the US.

Rate This Idea: Sigh In Relief, California, Your Potty Rights Are Still Protected

Other drought-combating ideas that I pondered over my morning coffee: making showers illegal, saving the condensation on the outside of your cold drinks, and collecting your tears as you watch chick flicks. But my editors thought those were too stupid to include. Prove them wrong.

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