Space & Innovation

Texas Deluge Gives Hope for End of California Drought

While the west coast endures a long stretch of brutal dry weather, some see hope because the southwest is being inundated with rain.

If you're a Texan, the torrential rainfall that's inundating the state is pretty scary.

Just ask all the fans were stuck for hours in Houston's Toyota Center after the conclusion of Monday night's playoff game between NBA's Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Arena officials asked them not to leave because the violent downpour and flooding made local streets too dangerous.

In Houston, firefighters had to stage more than 500 rescues of people trapped by flooding, and two people drowned, according to TV station KHOU.

Follow the Storms With DNews Stormtracker

More than 10 inches of rain fell in some parts of the state on Monday night, according to the Weather Channel website. Coming on top of what has been a wet spring in the Lone Star State, the precipitation is causing waterways and reservoirs to overflow, forcing governments to take emergency action.

In Corpus Christi, 200 miles to the southwest of Houston, city officials actually are releasing millions of gallons of water per minute from Lake Corpus Christi into the Nueces River, in order to avoid damaging the Wesley Seale Dam. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has declared a state of emergency in many counties.

Amazingly, though, some Californians are watching the Texas deluge with envy, or perhaps hope. It's not that they relish being stranded in their cars or to having to flee flooded homes, as some Texans have. But they're desperate for heavy rainfall to help restore their reservoirs and end a prolonged drought that have forced California officials to demand that urban areas cut water consumption by 25 percent.

California Drought Looks Like Worst in 1,000 years

And conditions in Texas might presage a break for California.

The Texas rains are being driven by a developing El Niño in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, as NASA climatologist Bill Patzert explained to the Los Angeles Times. If a robust El Niño develops, it could bring heavy rain to southern and central California in the winter, Californians may be taking some comfort in Texas' recent emergence from a dry spell that, at its peak in 2011, had 97 percent of the state enduring drought conditions. Before the latest round of storms started, it was down to 15 percent, and some reservoirs are up to nearly 80 percent of capacity.

Video: How Much Water Do We Really Need To Drink?

But Patzert warned that El Niño is hardly a panacea. It won't bring rain to the northern portion of California, which is just as parched as the southern and central regions. And residents in those places might well find themselves imperiled by flooding, just as Texans now are.

Over 4 inches of rain hit Austin Memorial Day afternoon, flooding a downtown football stadium and sending the normally dry Shoal Creek raging and flooding dozens of homes and businesses.

Ongoing water shortages around the world, along with recent drought conditions in the western United States, have resulted in a flood of new research and proposals around water technology. We take a look at some concepts -- from simple to complex to rather ancient -- that are designed to help us collect, store, transport and even create water where it's needed most.

The severe drought in California -- now in its third year -- has triggered new interest in a relatively old technology. Desalination plants turn seawater into drinking water by way of high pressure valves and semi-permeable membranes. Traditionally an expensive and energy-intensive process, recent innovations have made desalination a more viable option. The city of Carlsbad, Calif., is set to open the biggest

ocean desalination plant

in the Western Hemisphere later this year.

Desalination plants are efficient, relatively speaking, but they're not very pretty. A couple years back, IBM and Airlight Energy turned heads with their

High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal

(HCPVT) system, designed to generate solar power and desalinate water at the same time. The sunflower-shaped solar collectors use a liquid cooling system that could potentially double as a small-scale desalination plant, providing both energy and water for apartment buildings, hotels or hospitals.

Water recycling is the umbrella term for reuse and reclamation systems that involve treating wastewater and returning it to underground aquifers or reservoirs. Along with desalination, it's among the existing technologies being optimized for large-scale use. San Diego's

Pure Water

project, for example, treats wastewater with three different techniques -- membrane filtration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet disinfection -- before piping the recycled water back into reservoirs.

One nice thing is that water generating systems tend to scale down nicely. This

Air Orchard

water-harvesting billboard in Lima, Peru, uses dehumidifiers to pull moisture out of the atmosphere. Then a drip irrigation system waters the adjacent garden, producing more than 2.500 heads of lettuce per week. The billboard was built by -- and advertises -- Lima's University of Engineering and Technology.

The Air Orchard is just one of several clever self-advertising projects the university has built to advocate engineering solutions to environmental issues. This

potable water generator

also pulls moisture from the air -- Lima's average humidity is around 80 percent year-round -- and turns it into drinkable water provided by a dispenser at the base.

Lima is the kind of town that doesn't mess around. As the second largest desert city in the world (behind Cairo), it has faced water problems for centuries. A new initiative by the city's water utility plans to

revive ancient stone canals

to bring water down from rivers in the Andes. It's something of a fixer-upper project: The canals were built by pre-Incan civilizations between 500 and 1,000 AD.

The concept of harvesting water with fog nets has been around a long time and some ambitious large-scale projects have been tested across the globe, most notably in

Chile

. A few years back, German design student Imke Hoehler proposed a design for portable and collapsible tent-like fog nets that could potentially harvest up to 20 liters of water per day under the right conditions.

Then there are the research projects that get

really, really small.

In March, a team of Japanese scientists proposed studying the microscopic workings of certain moisture-gathering plants to design the next generation of water collection systems. Electron microscope imagery reveals that such plants use cone shaped hairs to catch and store water, then change shape release the moisture in dry conditions. The team hopes advanced fiber technology could essentially replicate the process.

Global droughts and water shortages can seem like terrifying, insurmountable problems. But fear not. As with so many things in this world, William Shatner has our back. The actor and

sci-fi author

recently proposed a plan to pipe water from the Pacific Northwest to arid sections of California by way of -- well, the details are

still fuzzy

. But long-distance water pipelines have a

storied history

in the U.S. and several new projects are in various stages of proposal. And let it never be said that Shatner doesn't follow through: He recently launched the

Shatner Water

website, dedicated to exploring the issue.

Designed and built by the Washington-based engineering firm, Janicki Bioenergy, the very official-sounding Omniprocessor S100 uses heat from sludge to make water. A trial run is underway in Dakar, Senegal, where the machine -- which has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- is processing sewage from a community of about 100,000 people. The sewage is first heated intensely to dry it and then during the process, the water vapor is captured, heavily processed and turned into drinking water.