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Panel of UCI Faculty Discuss Realities of Water Shortage

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The School of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) held an event on Historic Drought and Critical Choices about Water on Nov. 7.

The panel was part of CEE Affiliates and focused on California’s ongoing drought. The event recognized the efforts of members of the School of Engineering, including three students who were also recognized during the event as scholarship recipients. These recipients were awarded $1,000 each. Eric Connor Pfautz, a civic engineering major, was awarded the Jan Scherfig Scholarship. Ronald P. Domholdt, a civil and environmental engineering major, was awarded the Gary Guymon Scholarship. Bridget Eckhardt, an environmental engineering major, was awarded the Robin Shepherd Scholarship.

The panel then continued with talks by two speakers. Dr. Amir AghaKouchak, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, opened the lecture.

AghaKouchak explained that the majority of the state is officially affected by the drought and that over 60 percent of California suffers from exceptional drought, a term used to declare water emergencies.

However, according to AghaKouchak, this does not necessarily mean that Southern California is in the most critical situation. The conditions in California this year are still better than in 1977, when California suffered its worst droughts. That being said, today’s situation is exacerbated by factors such as increasing population growth and energy consumption.

Another important factor is temperature, which can also affect droughts, and  2014 has been the warmest year in 120 years, according to AghaKouchak.

Scientists only started to weigh the effects of temperature on drought conditions a few years ago. AghaKouchak pointed out that when temperatures are high, soil moistures are low and that even when there is rainfall, the water merely replenishes soil moisture.

Furthermore, AghaKouchak pointed to the role of increased temperature in worsening the energy crisis, citing increased usage of air conditioning.

AghaKouchak revealed that much of his data analysis was done with the help of the Global Integration and Drought Monitoring Predictions System, which was created at UCI as a resource to use in drought forecasting and tracking.

This product can be found online at and, according to AghaKouchak, “it provides drought monitoring information for the past 34 years and also seasonal prediction. Seasonal means one to four months at this point. And this system, we have used the data the past 34 years and looking into trends looking into changes in precipitation and soil moisture.”

He also explained that new and previously unexpected sources can be adapted to gather information on present and future droughts.

“Satellite sensors that are already available. Satellites that are already in the orbit. Some of them are not even designed for drought monitoring but can potentially be used for drought monitoring.”

According to AghaKouchak, the future in collecting information is through new methods.

“We can now get soil moisture from space. We already have some estimates of groundwater from space. So basically we are moving toward a more multi-indicator job monitoring based on satellite observations.”

After AghaKouchak’s presentation concluded, the second part of the panel, “The Carlsbad Seawater Desalination Project – An Important Component of Southern California’s Water Portfolio” was presented by board-certified Environmental Engineer Joseph A. Lauria, Vice President of the Orange County chapter of MWH Americas, Inc.

“I suggest that all of us, as scientists and engineers, we all hold pieces of the puzzle solution in our hands,” Lauria said. “How to integrate those is the challenge. I think also the need for research is very significant, particularly in making the process technology better or more efficient, less energy consumption more sustainable.”

He explained that the Carlsbad Seawater Desalination Project began 20 years ago, and it aims to provide the San Diego County with water within the next couple of years.

“One of the things that’s important to consider when you’re looking at seawater desalination is where you get the water from, physically,” Lauria stated. “The ocean obviously is the source, but how do we get it to the facility which provides the treatment is always a challenge.”

He emphasized that “seawater desalination is a component, it’s a part, it’s not an overall solution. We look at the numbers from the past presentation, this facility all together, including its pipeline is pretty close to a billion dollars, we’re only adding approximately 50 million gallons a day.”

He explained, “It’s a reliable source; it’s totally sustainable [and] limitless but it is expensive.”

“Some of the technological challenges on how to make the process less expensive is to use different materials. Different materials of the future perhaps only exists in somebody’s research brain right now. We need to do that because you can’t keep building things for 500 million, 700 million dollars.”

When asked what everyday people can do, Lauria stated, “As citizens we need to pay attention to our water use, use the resource very wisely and make sure we don’t waste.”