Water innovation is a hot subject these days. It is one strand of the so-called "cleantech" movement. A driving force for water innovation, unfortunately, is environmental hazard (real or potential). For me, several water-related strands from recent days are pulled together below.

Strand 1) the recent Water Innovation Alliance meeting in Chicago;

Strand 2) visiting the Johnstown Flood Museums (in Western Pennsylvania);

Strand 3) updates on Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, including more and more ads on the subject for the Pennsylvania fall gubernatorial election.

Lets start with an ounce of history. For readers who are not aware, the hazards of water became real on May 31, 1889 in Johnstown Pennsylvania (about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh). On that fateful day, a large, aging, and poorly maintained dam holding back waters to a large lake burst under heavy rain. The lake furiously drained in less than an hour on anyone below. A wall of water flowed down a valley, turning corners, blowing out bridges, for about 15 miles; leveling anything in its path, until finally crashing into Johnstown, killing several thousand people. The horrific events were addressed in David McCullough’s book, The Johnstown Flood. Amazing fact: not a single dollar of liability money was paid due to court action. Today, one can tour both a museum in Johnstown and also a museum located at the broken dam, 15 miles away, which has been preserved. For anybody interested in cleantech and water, it is a compelling story. Clearly, we would say today there were legal problems, ranging from a lack of regulation to a lack of liability.

Today, western Pennyslvania faces a different kind of water problem: what to do about drilling natural gas from Marcellus Shale, using hydrofracking methods that consume large volumes of water and potentially upset delicate water balances and pollute precious drinking water? Should drilling companies be forced to disclose to the public and the government regulators their trade secrets for drilling compositions? What are the regulatory and liability issues today. The websites www.geology.com (under oil and gas/Marcellus Shale) and www.shaleblog.com provide useful sources to monitor these developments. One recent "documentary" movie, Gasland, (which I have not seen except for excerpts) seems to raise the hazards of the drilling to alarming levels (don’t forget Johnstown?). See, www.gaslandthemovie.com.

Also, hydrofracking is generating innovation as reflected in patent statistics. For example, only 6 published patent applications from 2002-2006 mention hydrofracking (or fracking). From 2007 to the present, 15 mention the technology. One major oil company recently announced a "frackwater evaporator" which should reduce the amount of water needed.

Where is the government in all of this? Is this more a federal or state issue? State government seems to be taking a stronger role at the moment. For example, at the Water Innovations Alliance conference on September 28, 2010, a representative from the EPA (Michael Shapiro, Office of Water) briefly noted in his talk their work on hydrofracking, but it seemed to be only one of many items on their busy agenda. My impression was the importance of the subject was underemphasized, considering the large issues facing Pennsylvania and adjacent states who need to consider how best to deal with Marcellus Shale drilling. The EPA did announce earlier this year that $1.9M would be set aside for reviewing fracking and any hazards to drinking water. See http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/side/6919758.html

So, water innovation and hazards: we need to look back and do things like remember Johnstown, I would suggest, as we look ahead. What will this look like in 100 years?