California’s “hydro cannons” and other predictions from the past about the future of water

Many of the solutions of yesteryear now don’t seem so remote at all.
Many of the solutions of yesteryear now don’t seem so remote at all.
Image: AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen
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It’s one of the most valuable but under-appreciated substances on Earth, and it’s trickling through our fingers. For centuries, we’ve been trying to work out how to reuse our water and get it to those who need it most. Though we’re a ways off using colossal hydro-cannons as a means of water transportation, many of the solutions of yesteryear now don’t seem so remote after all.

As part of What Happens Next, our special project exploring the far-off future of the global economy, we looked at how the thinkers of the past thought we’d be solving water issues today. Their predictions remind us that the future is not as certain as we think.

Image for article titled California’s “hydro cannons” and other predictions from the past about the future of water
Image: AP Photo/Petar Petrov

1790 / Boiling point

Jacob Isaacks was an elderly resident of Rhode Island with an incredible secret. His technology, he wrote to George Washington, had the potential to be “highly beneficial to Mankind, and Particularly to those concerned in navigation.” Using a top-secret mixture of wood, Isaack evaporated seawater over a fire and distilled it into drinkable water. This, he said, was the only way to remove the salt from seawater—a particularly helpful trick for that era’s thirsty sailors sailing the globe.

But Isaacks’ dreams of fame and fortune were doused when Thomas Jefferson discovered that any fire would work, and that that were other desalination techniques that might be even more effective. Isaack, and his secret formula, faded into obscurity. It’s only in the last 30 years that we’ve developed large-scale desalination methods, which are now used in water-scarce regions around the world, such as Israel. Countries in Africa’s Western Cape, such as Algeria, Ghana, and Namibia, are also building desalination plants.

1891 / Make it rain

Engineer Louis Gathmann, the self-described “father of rain production,” suggested eliminating droughts by firing liquid carbon-dioxide shells into clouds, thus prompting nature to let it pour. “The result is blessings in the shape of showers,” he wrote. It’s not so different from the idea of cloud seeding, a technique that works remarkably well at clearing air pollution in China.

Image for article titled California’s “hydro cannons” and other predictions from the past about the future of water
Image: China Newsphoto via Reuters

1916 / Post-modern meteorology

San Diego, California had a drought problem, and former salesman Charles M. Hatfield thought he had the answer. The so-called “pluviculturist” (that’s “rainmaker” to the rest of us) used mysterious chemical formulas, wooden towers, and evaporating pans to bring rain to the city at a cost of $50 per inch. “My system is a purely scientific process,” he told the Los Angeles Evening Herald. “All I have to demand for success is that there shall be some humidity in the air.” Despite repeated success and contracts from the city for many thousands of dollars, he was eventually dismissed as a charlatan. Today, it’s not clear whether he was just an exceptional salesman or if he was doing a kind of proto-cloud seeding; his secret formula has never been revealed.

1950 / Water cannons

As Los Angeles’ population soared by nearly a third in the wake of World War II, its water supplies dwindled. Construction engineer Sidney Cornell had a splashy solution: hydro-cannons, shooting water into the air at 400 miles per hour. The plans for these super-soakers were published in the October 1951 issue of Mechanix Illustrated magazine. It was proposed that they would funnel water across the state via manmade geysers a mile apart, linking water-rich northern California to drier Los Angeles. Logistics aside, there were two reasons why this idea failed to take off: Cornell wanted $300,000 each for his 400 stations, and the state’s north had its own water-scarcity issues to deal with.

1991 / War-ter

“The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics,” predicted former United Nations secretary general Boutros Boutros Ghali. He was prompted by growing tensions over who had the rights to the waters of the Nile, where upstream countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania claimed Egypt was taking more than their fair share. In the quarter century since, there have been dozens of wars that have devastated the area. Most haven’t been about water, but a growing number are, including battles for control over water in Iraq. Denying civilians access to drinking water has also been used as a tool of political warfare. In the Israel-Palestine conflict, Israel controls Palestinian access to water, permitting its people about 30% less than the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum.

A dry pipe drips water on Gless Ranch in Kern County, California.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

2000 (for 2015) / Squeezed dry

At the turn of the 21st century, a CIA report posited that “nearly half the world’s population—more than 3 billion people—will live in countries that are ‘water-stressed.’” The consequences of this scarcity would range across mental and physical health, hunger, and sanitation. The report foresaw people in countries across Africa, the Middle East, south Asia, and northern China struggling to cope, and predicted that an unsustainable 80% of water would be used for agriculture.

Today in drought-stricken California, it’s about the same—and a whopping 10% of that water is used for almond farming. But it’s not as dire as the CIA feared: In 2014, about 1.2 billion people faced water shortages, less than half the projected figure.

What do the experts of today think we’ll be drinking tomorrow? Read more predictions about the Future of Water.