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Newsha Ajami: How engineers restored hope for our water supplies

An authority on water sustainability says that just as engineering once brought water to distant, desert cities, the field is now uniting to make sure the well never runs dry.

a California aqueduct

Water, water everywhere | Adobe Stock/angeldibilio

There was a time when all great cities were built near water.

Whether for agriculture, aesthetics, energy or just plain drinking, water was a life-affirming, life-sustaining resource. But with the advent of advanced engineering in the form of dams, pumps and pipes, cities like Los Angeles thrived in places with very little fresh water. Now, global climate change is leaving many of those cities in danger of running dry.

But there is hope on the horizon, says Newsha Ajami, senior research engineer at the Woods Institute for the Environment and director of urban water policy with Stanford University’s Water in the West program. Just as engineering made it possible to store and pump fresh water great distances, the field is developing new ways to use less water, to store more of this prized resource, to repurpose used “gray water” for non-potable uses like agriculture, and to inform inventive policy approaches to conserve fresh water.

It won’t be easy, she says. California alone has over 7,000 independent water agencies that must be wrangled into a cohesive team to make it real, but recent progress has people believing once again that our parched cities can be saved. It’s all here on this episode of Stanford Engineering’s The Future of Everything podcast. Listen here.