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Nevada County man helps develop solar technology to combat water shortage

Bruce Marlow is a self-described "water junkie."

He's spent significant time researching water and water use, in California and beyond. He's quick with facts and trivia, from the gallons of water required to make a hamburger — 660 ­— to the gallons required to produce a pair of jeans — about 2,000.

The reason he's so passionate about the topic is simple.

"Water is life," said Marlow. "We've lived on the planet forever without electricity and iPhones and all these things we can't live without, but we've never lived a day here without clean water for hydration of our bodies and food."

As Californians grapple with more than four years of extreme drought that has dried up lakes and crippled farmland, Marlow, a Nevada City resident, is hard at work on a project he and his business partners believe could help alleviate the state's water problems.

Marlow is a board member of WaterFX. The company, co-founded by entrepreneur Aaron Mandell and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Matthew Stuber, is aiming to harness solar energy to clean agricultural wastewater.

The company's demonstration solar desalination plant converted salty irrigation runoff into usable, clean water in Fresno County's Panoche Water District for six months from summer 2013 to March 2014.

The plant was financed by $1 million in state funding granted to the water district.

Now, WaterFX has announced plans to expand on that plant and build a commercial solar desalination plant on 35 acres of land within the water district, with the potential to grow up to 70 acres.

The $30 million plant, which the company will finance through investor funding and loans, is expected to eventually generate up to 5,000 acre-feet, or about 1.6 billion gallons, of purified water per year, enough for 10,000 homes or 2,000 acres of cropland.

And that water will come relatively cheap.

The company estimates after a portion of its capital is paid down, it can sell the clean water back to farms for about $450 per acre-foot; by comparison, water cleaned by desalination plants that are powered by non-solar energy typically costs around $2,000 per acre-foot.

"We're going to be cleaning the water, cleaning the land, solving environmental issues and bringing new fresh water to the region," Marlow said.

Marlow grew up in the Bay Area before moving to Nevada County in 1999. He recently retired after more than four decades of developing technology to support the safe operation of nuclear power plants for Areva.

In 2006, Marlow was working with a group to develop a nuclear power plant in Fresno to create jobs, clean water and clean energy in the Central Valley. The project piqued his interest in the area's water supply. That eventually led him to the Panoche Water District, which was trying to find creative solutions to deal with both a lack of water and an excess of salt-laden irrigation runoff.

"I took on the challenge of seeing what I could do to come up with technology that would help them with challenges that they'd been dealing with for 20 years," Marlow said.

In early 2011, Marlow met Mandell, who was working for another water technology company at the time. He sent Mandell some water from the Panoche Water District to process, and the two began laying the foundations for what would become WaterFX.

The company's solar desalination plant takes in salty irrigation water that is collected by a French drain-style system under crops and distills it using solar energy, recovering out about 90 percent of the freshwater and separating out the salt, selenium and other minerals.

Those minerals can be recycled and used in a variety of ways, such as components for drywall and plaster or to make cement, Marlow said.

Other desalination plants — nearly a dozen exist in California and plans are pending to create more than a dozen more — typically operate using a reverse osmosis method in which water from oceans or bays is filtered through screens.

The process requires significantly more energy than solar desalination and recovers less usable water, making the clean water it produces more expensive.

Marlow believes WaterFX is at the forefront of a vital shift in the way people need to think about the state's water shortage. Californians are well-aware of the drought, Marlow said, but the overall response has been scattered.

Much of the focus has been on getting people to turn off their taps or water their lawn less. But those small-scale conservations won't really cut it, he said.

"We can try to be conservative but we can't conserve our way out of the water challenges," Marlow said. "We have to be more dynamic-thinking."

That means considering large-scale investments in infrastructure and more holistic, long-term strategies that utilize technology.

"A strategic plan for the state of California isn't, 'Pray for rain,'" Marlow said.

WaterFX in currently in the process of raising the money needed to construct the plant, advancing the plant's design and complying with the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires agencies to identify the environmental impacts of their actions.

The company is aiming to have the plant fully operational by June 2016; in the meantime, the company's efforts have drawn media attention from around the country and the globe.

Marlow sees the company not only building its plant in the Panoche Water District, but also innovating to continue to solve water challenges as they arise.

"If we want to survive on this planet, we need to be more conscious about balance, and that's energy and water and how we use everything," he said.

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email elavin@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.