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As Utah sweats through another drought, could technology help save the day?

New investment group is looking to fund tech startups with innovative ways to help conserve precious water.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Hite Marina boat ramp, center, sits idle hundreds of yards from the river’s edge where the Colorado River flows into Lake Powell on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. A new investment fund aims to finance technology startups focused on conserving water.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

With droughts persisting, reservoirs plunging and wildfires erupting, Utahns have more reasons than ever to worry about the future of water in one of the driest states in the country.

Gov. Spencer Cox’s recent emergency orders highlight the parched conditions by limiting the days state facilities can water lawns while calling on municipalities, businesses and residents to do the same.

But restrictions aren’t the only way to save water.

Technology could help ease shortages in Utah and six other states that get water from the Colorado River, a new investment group says.

The Colorado River Basin Fund, a Denver-based private equity firm that launched this spring, will invest $5 million in startups with technology-based solutions to water shortages in Utah and the wider region.

While this money will finance more local startups, other businesses around the world are already working on ways technology can help conserve water. For instance:

NEER, based in Missouri, taps artificial intelligence to monitor large water systems to identify leaks and potential breaking points in pipes.

Utilis, based in Israel, uses satellites to identify underground leaks in pipes.

Maskam Water, based in South Africa, develops ways for homeowners and businesses to clean wastewater on-site.

Similar technologies could be applied to address water shortages in Utah and its neighboring states.

How large and small water users can help

Of course, technology alone doesn’t give humans a pass.

Utahns and others across the Southwest will need to be more conscious of their own water use, especially as climate change continues to alter the landscape, said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

“We have experienced two decades or more of climate change,” Frankel said. “It has greatly reduced our water supply.”

Residents can help the conservation cause by cutting back on the time their faucets are running, replacing old fixtures with new water-saving models, and planting trees and vegetation that can withstand dry conditions.

Individuals, however, are not responsible for the majority of water use.

Cities, factories, farms and other big users can help by updating infrastructure, Frankel said. Leaky pipes and outdated irrigation systems, for starters, account for significant chunks of water lost before it is even used.

Private equity can bring public solutions

New technology could address many of those infrastructure issues, both in public utilities and private projects.

Enter the Colorado River Basin Fund. It will invest in startups that are creating ways to save water, CEO Will Sarni said.

The new venture hasn’t made any investments yet, but some of the ideas could include using artificial intelligence to track when crops or plants need water to prevent overwatering or employing satellite technology to track where water is falling and flowing.

“We’re focused on technologies that can be brought to market quickly, be scaled quickly commercially, and provide those companies with the ability to really develop proof points,” Sarni said, “and quantify their impact in a much broader phase.”

Cash isn’t the only boon the fund brings to these companies, Sarni said. The founders each have experience in business, sustainability and law. They can connect startups to a vast network of other technology operations and experienced workers.

Said Sarni: “It’s not like we’re writing a check and walking away and hoping for the best.”

Frankel welcomes technology as another weapon in the battle for increased conservation.

“It shouldn’t be looked at as a panacea,” he said. It needs to be paired with policies and educational campaigns.

The Legislature, eyeing its own initiatives, has set aside $100 million to upgrade water and sewage infrastructure. That money, coming from the federal coronavirus relief package, will be used mainly for public projects, not for startups.

“There’s going to undoubtedly be a drought declaration in the watershed,” Sarni said. “We believe that we can be part of the solution.”

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