Water World

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Taking on the water crisis at home and abroad 

By Steven Boyd Saum

When it comes to water, the story of Cape Town, South Africa, is a cautionary tale for Southern California and other areas across the United States, says Adrian Hightower (BS ’95, PhD ’01). Cape Town, with a Mediterranean climate similar to the southern end of the West Coast, could soon be facing “Day Zero”—the day they run out of water. “The big difference between us and them is that we have a broader portfolio of resources,” says Hightower, who heads up the education division for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. But, he warns, “we have an infrastructure for water that was based on last century’s climate.”

Hightower is trying to change that. A few years ago, amid California’s historic drought, Hightower, who has a doctorate in materials science, moved from academia to the largest distributor of water in the United States, serving 19 million people. His role is twofold: He lobbies politicians and policymakers to shift the paradigm—helping them understand that building smart grids and resilient water infrastructure can take decades. And he prepares the next generation—who Hightower knows will play a major role in that paradigm shift—by working with school districts throughout the region posing questions for students to get them thinking in terms of solutions. 

Hightower knows that mindsets can change. He points to how recycling became second nature over a generation and how Californians use far less water per capita than a few decades ago. 

When it comes to water infrastructure, the problem is not with the engineers ... the problem is in policy. Who’s going to pay for it? How are we going to finance it? Who gets the rights to it?

Lessons from Africa loom large in Hightower’s work. Over the years, he has taken high school students to West Africa—Mali and Ghana—and, more recently, to Uganda in East Africa. Since 2014, he has served on the board of Aid Africa, a nonprofit that works in Uganda deploying efficient cookstoves, building sheltered springs, drilling wells, and helping plant trees for food and fuel. 

When it comes to water infrastructure, he says, the problem is not with the engineers—in the U.S. or in Africa. “The problem is in policy. Who’s going to pay for it? How are we going to finance it? Who gets rights to it? Why should I invest in something that I’m not directly benefiting from?”

Those are big questions that anyone tackling infrastructure has to help people answer. But when it comes to Southern California’s water solutions, Hightower points to a history of innovation as something that should inspire—as should younger generations approaching problems in a cross-disciplinary way that’s second nature. At the same time, that needs to be balanced with a much deeper sensitivity to human rights and environmental concerns if you’re solving problems on that scale. “Our responses are only going to have to be more extreme,” he says, “and more coordinated.”