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In Midst Of Drought, Why Not Harvest Water From The Air?


So that's water conservation. What about water production? Is there some way for us to harvest water?


SHELAGH FRASER: (As Aunt Beru) Luke...

CORNISH: There was in "Star Wars." Remember Luke Skywalker worked at his uncle's moisture farm on Tatooine? They had machines that pulled water right out of the desert air. That's why Uncle Owen bought C-3PO.


PHIL BROWN: (As Uncle Owen). What I really need is a droid who understands the binary language of moisture vaporators.

ANTHONY DANIELS: (As C-3PO) Vaporators? Sir, my first job was programming binary load lifters - very similar to your vaporators in most respects.

CORNISH: Moisture vaporators - that's a science-fictional name for something that does exist. Atmospheric water generation has been used in disaster relief situations to generate lots of drinking water. Abe Scher's company sent machines to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He is CEO of Aqua Sciences.

ABE SCHER: The user produces their own water from the supply they have above their heads.

CORNISH: Scher says his method doesn't rely on condensation like some methods do, but on a chemical desiccant.

SCHER: We strip the water molecules that are present in the atmosphere using natural salts. And those salts work to not only extract the water from the air, but they're a natural antiseptic, so they clean the water as well.

CORNISH: We caught Scher today at the airport as he headed to California to talk with state officials about using his machines to counter the drought. He says it could be scaled up to work on a farm. Another way to harvest water from the supply of above our heads? Fog fences.

BEN SPENCER: So it's almost like a large tennis net.

CORNISH: That's Ben Spencer, an assistant professor at the University of Washington. And he says they're also called fog collectors. Picture a big cloth mesh between two poles. Fog blows through and...

SPENCER: The water that's collecting on the mesh is dripping down into the gutter and then down into a storage tank from there.

CORNISH: Spencer is joining other researchers in the mountains of Peru next month where they're using this method to irrigate trees. Now, could it work in California? Spencer says yes, but...

SPENCER: Fog varies over the course of the year, and the density of that fog is going to vary based on the weather you're having at a certain period.

CORNISH: So it would work best in combination with other techniques. And at least in California, they're hearing all kinds of ideas. Max Gomberg is a senior environmental scientist at the state's California Water Resources Control Board.

MAX GOMBERG: It's been everything from, you know, towing icebergs down from Alaska to running a pipeline from the wetter parts of the country. There are many ideas out there that are technically feasible.

CORNISH: But Gomberg says the bottom line is, is the solution proven? Will it be cost-effective and environmentally sound?

GOMBERG: There's actually a lot of water that falls in California, even in a dry year. Our focus is really on bringing demand down to a more sustainable level.

CORNISH: And that means conservation, capturing storm water and recycling - not exactly "Star Wars," but tried and true. And if you have a crazy idea to solve the drought, you can always tweet it to us @npralltech. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.