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Can We Ensure the Future of Water?


By Scott Fields

Published Oct 1, 2013 8:00 AM


Photo by: JB Fitts

The Solution from the Sea

Cohen and UCLA Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Panagiotis Christofides are overseeing projects involving desalination of ocean water, including a pilot project at the U.S. Naval Base at Port Hueneme. The UCLA-designed-and-constructed smart-water desalination system is producing approximately 12,000 gallons of drinking water per day, enough to satisfy the needs of 24,000 people.

“People forget that the first functional reverse-osmosis membranes were developed at UCLA back in the 1960s, specifically for treating brackish water,” Cohen says, citing the first-ever desalination plant in the world, installed in the Central Valley town of Coalinga. There, saline groundwater was treated to produce potable water.

“We’ve continued to address the provision of high-quality drinking water,” Cohen explains. “Those membranes used in Coalinga and the new generation of reverse-osmosis membranes are capable of rejecting organics, bacteria and viruses from impaired water. They accomplish multiple purposes at the same time.”

Cohen and his team have developed a smart mobile membrane system (SI MS) for treatment and desalination of agricultural drainage water. It can treat up to 60,000 gallons at a time and will be ready for demonstration by winter 2014 in the San Joaquin Valley.


Photo by: JB Fitts

Water and the Law

Madelyn Glickfeld ’70, M.A. ’76, director of the IoES Water Resources Group and assistant director for Outreach and Strategic Initiatives, facilitated the connection between Cohen and state policymakers.

“The governor was shocked to find out that a quarter-million people in the Central Valley have no safe drinking water because the wells they’re using draw on groundwater heavily contaminated with nitrates from agricultural fertilizer,” Glickfeld, a member of the Los Angeles Regional Water Board, explains. “I was able to bring Professor Cohen’s work on distributed water-treatment systems for rural areas to the attention of the State Water Board, the Department of Public Health, and the California Department of Agriculture. It was the right moment to bring them a good solution.”

Another important policy specialist in the Water Resources Group is Mark Gold ’84, M.A. ’86, D.Env. ’94, former president of Heal the Bay and now IoES associate director, who is considered a leading expert on coastal protection and water-pollution issues and has authored or co-authored numerous California coastal-protection bills in Sacramento. He participated in the development of Vision 2021 LA in conjunction with the UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Center, which offers an overall sustainability blueprint that includes objectives for water resources and has been endorsed by Mayor Eric Garcetti and several members of the L.A. City Council.

Under Gold’s leadership, the IoES is also working on a three-year project in partnership with the Colorado School of Mines. It focuses on providing Los Angeles with water-management alternatives that will lead to water-quality-standards compliance, increased local water supplies and other benefits such as flood control, recreational open space and habitat.


Photo by: JB Fitts

Water and the Campus

Cohen has been developing self-adaptive systems for treating wastewater from power plants, specifically the massive amount of “blown water” that is used to cool down machinery. The new procedure treats the wastewater to remove particulate matter and reduce salinity, and then places the treated water back into the cooling system. It was demonstrated at the UCLA Cogeneration Plant and is now under consideration for permanent deployment, saving the university approximately 60 percent of the 70,000 to 100,000 gallons a day that would otherwise be diverted to the sewer.

Along with Cohen and other UCLA colleagues, Gold is participating in a water-reuse feasibility study at the school in conjunction with the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and with the Bureau of Sanitation. The team will explore the feasibility of a satellite water plant that would pipe treated water to the UCLA Cogeneration Plant.

For watering the campus, planners are focused on climate-controlled and drip irrigation, drought-tolerant and native landscaping, and some artificial turf. There is also a discussion on the possibility of using laundry wastewater for irrigation at Tiverton House.

If the experts are right, tomorrow will be thirsty. But that rising threat can be quenched because of what happens today in labs and streams and oceans and communities across Southern California.

The challenge is large; the challengers are equally ambitious. As Luce says, “We want to change the paradigm of water in Los Angeles.”