The Next Big Short

Dr. Michael Burry is betting on water. This year's biographical comedy-drama The Big Short mentions at the end of the film that Dr. Michael Burry, the investment advisor who predicted the housing crisis of 2007, has turned his investing eye toward water. If that sounds strange, listen to his rationale:

"Water is a commodity whose demand is guaranteed. Fresh, clean water cannot be taken for granted."

If the man who saw the housing market crash and ensuing financial market meltdown is focusing his investments on fresh water, might that be one more reason for us to shift our thinking about the nature, socioeconomic, political and environmental, of water? Reviewing all global natural disasters between 1963-1992, drought was not the worst killer but it affected more people than any other disaster and was third in importance for substantial economic damage. In a recent interview with USA Today, Jay Famiglietti, a water scientist at NASA's JPL, reveals a set of studies whose results suggest that we are on path for global water inequality. In Famiglietti's words, "the implications of our study for the redistribution of water availability are staggering and point to an emerging class of 'haves' and 'have nots.'" He continued, "When combined with our previous work on groundwater depletion, we are revealing a global disaster in the making, yet we are seeing very little coordinated response."

Access to fresh clean water, especially in drought-jaded California, cannot be taken for granted. The clarion call of conservation has been sounded, rightly, each time we have another driest year on record. Conservation and planning are first order priorities, but they aren't enough. In order to simply sustain the populations we have here in California (leave growth aside as another debate), innovation is in order. San Diego's big Carslbad desalination project is big news, and offers an interesting example of public and private partnership, technology innovation and planning. Cal Poly is looking at revolutionizing desal tech, proposing to use printed membranes, which move seawater a million times faster than current desalination methods that utilize porous filters, but that technology is still 10 years out.

Even though the Sierras have some snow right now (February 2016), drought is a present and future part of California reality. Dry California sits right next to the largest reservoir in the world - the Pacific Ocean. Cautious optimists might hope that we will quickly find a way to optimize the technology to tap this reservoir while minimizing deleterious environmental effects, and while avoiding "industrializing" our oceans further. Researchers at the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration estimate 556,000 of the marine mammals live within 345 miles of the U.S. west coast, including this blue whale, pictured off a Southern California rig. Clearly, the ocean must be seen first as habitat and then as shared resource.

California's coastal waters are dotted with oil rigs, many of which are nearing the end of their useful lives. There are 27 offshore oil and gas platforms operating along the California coast. Ten are nearing the end of their productive lives and the U.S. Department of Interior, Minerals Management Service estimates that their decommissioning will be completed by 2025.

A high percentage of these platforms are deepwater structures in water depths of 300-1200 feet; their sizes make removal both technically challenging and costly to the industry. Initial estimates for complete removal of all remaining platforms ranged from $1.2 to $2 billion. However, since current technologies are inadequate to remove the deepest platforms, the actual costs will likely be substantially higher, with estimates reaching $1 billion per platform.

So here's an idea: what if we convert the existing offshore rigs from oil to water. Turning old oil platforms into our new water harvesting rigs using a reasonable source of power (i.e., solar, wind, wave), stacks up some key benefits:

It assures that we have a way to fulfill the basic human right to fresh water. It means agriculture in California (where our ag industry is twice the size of that of any other state) can keep growing what they grow. The oil and gas industry may be motivated to help, given tremendous cost savings compared to decommissioning. The ocean floor will be less disturbed than it would be by platform removal, and, if we use the right energy source, the carbon footprint goes down.

In taking a first look at the opportunity to recommission offshore oil rigs to offshore water rigs, the data looks good: we can generate a high volume of fresh clean water (at least 25 million gallons per day) for a reasonable cost ($1,578/acre foot) with significantly less greenhouse gas generation.

Let's invest in the commodity we can't live without, avoid the water market crash, and protect our planet's largest habitat. Let's convert our offshore oil rigs to alternative-energy driven desalination plants that ensure our basic human right to fresh water.