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To Save California, Read “Dune”—The fictional planet has a lesson for the drought-stricken state. Fifty years ago science-fiction author Frank Herbert seized the imagination of readers with his portrayal of a planet on which it never rained. Science fiction boasts a long history of influencing the course of scientific and technological development.
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The Consulting Adventurer is here to bring out the daredeviling, barnstorming, wavecrashing adventurer inside of you and equip him or her with the proper gear at non-adventurous prices. Good thing, too, because one of the many straps on your BC breaks, the clip worn out from a lifetime of adventure. The sea is a fickle creature, gorgeous and chaotic in equal measures, calm one moment and enraged the next. In the novel Dune, the scarcest resource is water, so much so that the mere act of shedding a tear or spitting on the floor takes on weighty cultural significance. The inventors of the submarine and the helicopter credited Jules Verne for dreaming up both their inventions. We deliver big-picture science by reporting on a single monthly topic from multiple perspectives. Or you’ve forgotten the lanyard for your expensive camera and face losing it in the deep, the breath-taking pictures inside enjoyed only by Davy Jones himself. To survive their permanent desert climate, the indigenous Fremen of Dune employ every possible technology.
Every piece of gear has been checked and double-checked, and you find yourself wrapped in a warm cocoon of preparation. But instead you laugh, push your damp hair out of your face, and unwind the Paracord Survival Bracelet on your wrist.
They build “windtraps” and “dew collectors” to grab the slightest precipitation out of the air.
On your wrist is a Paracord Survival Bracelet, strapped there not only for the rugged look it grants you but for the feeling of safety it instills. Your Octomask the perfect seat for your GoPro camera, recording memories you can truly share without a single hand to operate it. They construct vast underground cisterns and canals to store and transport their painstakingly gathered water.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that two innovative thinkers devising means to address drought in California should be talking about Dune. During each waking moment they dress in “stillsuits”—head-to-toe wetsuit-like body coverings that recycle sweat, urine, and feces back into drinking water.
As I visited with Yolles and Fernandez to learn about their work confronting drought, I realized the missions of both men embodied a deeper ecological message in Dune.

Described by Dune’s “planetary ecologist,” Liet-Kynes, as “a micro-sandwich—a high-efficiency filter and heat exchange system”—the stillsuit is a potent metaphor for reuse, reclamation, and conservation.
The novel’s ecologist Kynes is famous for teaching that “the highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.” The implicit lesson for society, as it marshals technology to address a waterless world, is that technological fixes work only in the context of an environmentally and socially connected vision. Powered by the wearer’s own breathing and movement, the stillsuit is the technical apotheosis of the principle of making do with what one has. It’s the vision that guided Herbert in creating Dune, and it owes as much to our ancient past as it is a speculation on the future.
Someday, sooner than we’d like, it’s not inconceivable that residents of California will be shopping on Amazon for the latest in stillsuit tech. Dune is set thousands of years in the future, but in California in 2015, the future is now.
Four years of drought have pummeled reservoirs and forced mandatory 25 percent water rationing cuts. The calendar year of 2014 was the driest (and hottest) since records started being kept in the 1800s. At the end of May, the Sierra Nevada snowpack—a crucial source of California’s water—hit its lowest point on record: zero.
Which brings us to Daniel Fernandez, a professor of science and environmental policy at California State University, Monterey Bay, and Peter Yolles, the co-founder of a San Francisco water startup, WaterSmart, that assists water utilities in encouraging conservation by crunching data on individual water consumption.
Fernandez spends his days building and monitoring fogcatchers, remarkably Dune-like devices that have the property of converting fog into potable water.
But one of the more remarkable things about Dune is how rooted its story is in the ancient past. According to Brian Herbert, his father spent five years researching desert cultures and “dry-land ecology” before writing the novel.
In the book, they revere water, and ask, what do we do?” Similarly, Yolles says, “I remember being fascinated by the stillsuits. There’s a reason why the Fremen language looks and sounds like Arabic, and the Fremen people bear more than a passing resemblance to Bedouin nomads. A civilization flourished in the Middle East 2,000 years ago that, by necessity, used every bit of available technology to maximize their access to water. Centered around the trading emporium of Petra, a major stop for caravans crossing the Negev desert, the Nabateans are celebrated by archaeologists for one thing above all others—their amazing waterworks. Charles Ortloff, a specialist in fluid dynamics and author of Water Engineering in the Ancient World, has studied the Nabatean waterworks in depth. He says the Nabateans consolidated their position at the center of the regional caravan trade by constructing an elaborate system of catchment basins, pipelines, and storage cisterns. The Nabateans utilized “all possible above- and below-ground water supply and storage methodologies simultaneously,” writes Orloff—enabling them to capture, transport, and stow away every bit of rain that did fall.
He still sounds slightly awed as he recalls walking across hills where the traces of 2,000-year-old Nabatean landscaping survive.
The Nabateans painstakingly cleared hillsides of stray rubble and sand so that only the bare bedrock was exposed, increasing the total run-off.
These would direct the flow of the water that came over the bare rock, and into the underground cisterns.

They captured every little drop that fell and ran off the sandstone hills.” Yolles grew up in Northern California in the 1970s and ’80s, at a time and in a place where the environmental movement was rapidly consolidating its hold on the hearts and minds of locals. Along with a dozen other interested parties, I have come to learn how to make a fogcatcher, a relatively low-tech device that siphons drinking water directly from Northern California’s notorious marine layer.
The visitors include a post-doc from the University of California, Santa Cruz, researching the intersection of fog and agriculture, a father and son from Fresno mulling a science fair project to catch the Central Valley’s interstate-clogging tule fog, and a Santa Clara Health Services official looking into low-cost water conservation methods.
In classic California DIY style, Fernandez puts us all to work on his front lawn, hacksawing galvanized pipe and cutting short sections of copper tubing, painstakingly sewing polypropylene mesh onto a square meter frame, and bolting the whole thing together into a structure about 10 feet high.
The model of fogcatcher we are building was invented by a Canadian, Robert Schemenauer, the founder of FogQuest, a nonprofit that specializes in setting up fogcatchers in rural areas in developing countries that have no access to drinking water. But the applicability of the technology to a water-starved region like California, which boasts, at least in its northern half, abundant fog, seemed at first glance quite obvious.
The miniscule droplets of water that make up fog adhere to the mesh, and then drip down into a steel trough.
Hoisted 10 feet above the ground, in a spot where offshore winds send Northern California’s mighty marine layer slamming into the coastal ridge, on a good day, a single fogcatcher can capture up to 8 gallons of potable water in 24 hours.Fernandez and his students have set up 20 fogcatchers around California, along with meters that measure the resulting accumulations.
Fernandez is testing out different meshes for efficiency (a cheap mesh made in Chile is the current cost-efficient standard, but researchers in Germany and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have devised high-tech meshes that supposedly significantly hike the percentage of fog that can be captured) and working with colleagues who are analyzing the chemical composition of the resulting fog.
But Fernandez quickly quashes any dreams that fog-catching will make a meaningful difference in California’s drought. While one can build larger-scale fogcatchers that ramp up the total catch, there are natural limits to just how much netting California can strap on to its ridgelines.
Fogcatchers can’t supply the demand created by the city of San Francisco or the almond farms of the Central Valley.
They’re not a comprehensive solution on their own, though they do serve as a useful reminder of how excessive our current consumption is. Schemenauer, the inventor of the fogcatching technology deployed by Fernandez, sketches out a provocative possibility, underscoring the Dune Fremen’s ecological mission. The redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest have evolved to become extraordinarily effective fogcatchers.
But it isn’t just the redwoods that benefit from their fog-catching facility, says Schemenauer.
Much of the fog that adheres to the redwood needles ends up dripping down to the ground where it eventually recharges the local aquifer, supplying the entire region with a store of water. The fog simply evaporates, and the aquifers remain depleted, leaving the land without enough moisture to support a new forest—or wells for drinking water. Schemenauer sketches out a situation in which you could use fogcatchers to reboot the forest. The first step would be to plant new redwood seedlings in a foggy region, along with manmade fogcatchers to provide for their sustenance during their crucial first few years. Once the seedlings have grown into trees capable of supporting themselves, you could move the artificial fogcatchers to a new region.

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