Written by Alison Hewitt
“It’s just unimaginable that in California we have people without access to clean drinking water,” says UCLA engineering professor Yoram Cohen.
Drought, climate change and intensive farming have all increased the amount of nitrates and pesticides in groundwater, making tap water undrinkable for tens of thousands of Californians. But Cohen, who is the director of UCLA’s Water Technology Research Center, is devoted to correcting the problem.
“This isn’t a developing country. We must demonstrate that there are solutions, and that in a state like California, we can all have equal access to clean water,” he says. “The university has an obligation not just to develop new knowledge but also work with stakeholders to put that knowledge into solutions that make a real difference in people’s lives.”
A groundbreaking technology he invented for desalinating water is already being used in the San Joaquin Valley. Each day, it turns 60,000 gallons of brackish agricultural drain-off into safe, clean drinking water for 80,000 people. The Smart Integrated Membrane System, which fits in a container the size of a big-rig trailer, can be operated by UCLA personnel using their smartphones — an important feature because most small communities can’t afford an on-site technician.
Now, with the San Joaquin station up and running, he has turned his attention to a new initiative: installing compact, mobile water-treatment systems in a handful of the 700 small communities across California whose water is undrinkable because of groundwater pollution. Cohen’s Flexible Low Energy Reverse Osmosis device, or FLERO, is powered by solar energy and uses filtration and reverse osmosis to clean any type of contaminated water so that 90 percent of it can be drinkable.
The new project is funded in part by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources. If it succeeds, UCLA scholars will have brought potable water to people whose only other option has been bottled water — and, perhaps, created a model that can be used in remote communities around the world.
“Bottled water is not a solution; it’s a coping strategy,” Cohen says. “We believe FLERO will have a big impact on water purification for remote communities, and not just in California. This is an approach that can be adopted around the world.”