The Pineapple Express; Let’s Talk Water Management

Flat World Partners
5 min readFeb 9, 2023

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The series of unrelenting storms — called atmospheric rivers — that clobbered California over December and January brought unprecedented levels of rainfall. San Francisco saw 17 inches of rain from Dec. 26 to Jan. 15, and New Year’s Eve revealed to be the city’s 2nd wettest day since 1849. The rainstorms were caused by a “Pineapple Express:” a type of atmospheric river where the moisture is drawn from Hawaii, presumably from Larry Ellison’s pineapple plantations, and flows across the Pacific to discharge on Silicon Valley and the whole of California. The storms reportedly caused over $1B in damage and killed at least 20 people.

The intense rainfall uncovers failures in California’s water management and showcases the state’s need to adopt new strategies and technologies to conserve water. As the 1974 film Chinatown (starring Jack Nicolson as a private eye who uncovers corrupt water management in 1930s LA), reminds us: “Beneath this building, beneath every street, there’s a desert. Without water, the dust will rise up and cover us as though we’d never existed!”

The irony of suffering severe flooding at the same time as the State is in a drought reveals the central challenge of climate change in the West: climate volatility. California’s dry months are getting drier, while the wet months are getting wetter and the system of reservoirs spread across the State built decades ago isn’t designed for such extremes. Shasta and Oroville are California’s largest reservoirs and their levels as of Feb 7th still sit remarkably lower than their historical averages: 67% and 59% of their historical average capacities, respectively.

Surface water (reservoirs, lakes, rivers, etc.) is just one way water is stored in California. Groundwater is an increasingly important source as a drier and hotter average climate has diminished surface water resources. However, water consumption from an increasing share of groundwater has exacerbated overdrafting. Overdrafting occurs when groundwater use exceeds the amount of recharge into an aquifer, which leads to a decline in groundwater level. In a normal year, 40% of the state’s water supply comes from groundwater, but this share can jump to 60% in dry years.

A drier on average climate also means drier soil and weaker vegetation that is more susceptible to wildfires. Drier soil is also less efficient at absorbing water, and years of intense fires mean that mudslides are more frequent and likely.

California has made great strides to improve water management since the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act which requires local agencies to reach groundwater sustainability by 2042. While more must be done from a policy-stance plentiful opportunities also exist for innovative companies like Climate AI, applying their proprietary machine learning to create more accurate forecasts and actionable recommendations for their clients. Applying data and forecasting to reservoir management is a critical way to conserve water. Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations, allow reservoir and dam managers to release or save water depending on forecasted weather patterns. Other viable solutions include water banks, restoring floodplains, and better irrigation and agricultural practices.

Unlike the final line of Chinatown, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” revealing the futility of fighting against the injustices of businessmen corrupting water management in LA in the 1930s, there is hope for California. Despite being a dry state with limited water resources, measures to adopt a more data-driven approach to water management can help the state prepare for future weather events.

Benjamin Stevens, Intern

Xylem Inc., a leading water solutions and technology company, has agreed to acquire Evoqua Water Technologies in an all-stock transaction reflecting an enterprise value of $7.5 billion. The merger will combine Xylem’s water solutions and tech expertise with Evoqua’s expertise in wastewater treatment and filtration systems.

Nanotechnology is an interesting way to approach water filtration. Leading startups like Warranium Energy and Nanoseen capture impurities and contaminants in water with biological filtration (use of a bioreactor for micro-filtration) and nanocomposite membranes which capture water impurities and filter them out using only gravity and proprietary nanomembrane filters.

The fictional 1974 film Chinatown is set in 1930s LA but is loosely based on events from the 1910s as LA grew and fights over control of the water supply emerged. The film stars Jack Nicolson as Jake Gittes, a private eye, hired to investigate the murder of an LA politician. Gittes uncovers corruption in the LA Department of Water and Power and a shady businessman, Noah Cross, who profits from controlling and restricting LA’s water supply.

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