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Fifty years ago science-fiction author Frank Herbert seized the imagination of readers with his portrayal of a planet on which it never rained. 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.

To survive their permanent desert climate, the indigenous Fremen of Dune employ every possible technology. They build “windtraps” and “dew collectors” to grab the slightest precipitation out of the air. They construct vast underground cisterns and canals to store and transport their painstakingly gathered water. They harvest every drop of moisture from the corpses of the newly dead. 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.

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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. 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.

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. Climate models suggest an era of mega-droughts could be nigh.

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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. “I think about Dune a lot,” Fernandez says. “The ideas have really sat with me. In the book, they revere water, and ask, what do we do?” Similarly, Yolles says, “I remember being fascinated by the stillsuits. That was a striking technology, really poignant.” And inspiring. The fictional prospect of a dystopian future, Yolles says, “helped me see problems that we have, and where things might go.”

Science fiction boasts a long history of influencing the course of scientific and technological development. The inventors of the submarine and the helicopter credited Jules Verne for dreaming up both their inventions. Star Trek’s tricorder inspired generations of engineers to perfect the smartphone. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman credits a character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy for his motivation: “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behavior to save civilization.” “Anything one man can imagine, another man can make real,” wrote Verne in Around the World in 80 Days. The future is as malleable as the written word.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that two innovative thinkers devising means to address drought in California should be talking about Dune. 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. 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. 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.

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According to a biography of Herbert, Dreamer of Dune, written by his son Brian, the genesis of the novel came when Herbert, a long-time journalist who worked for a string of Northern California newspapers, landed an assignment in 1957 to write a story about a United States Department of Agriculture project to control spreading sand dunes with European beach grasses on the coast of Oregon. Surveying the highway-encroaching dunes from a low-flying aircraft, Herbert became fascinated by the implications of this clash between human and nature. The project, he later wrote, “fed my interest in how we inflict ourselves upon our planet. I could begin to see the shape of a global problem, no part of it separated from any other—social ecology, political ecology, economic ecology.” He chose the title Dune, he said, because of its onomatopoetic similarity to the word “doom.” He hoped Dune would serve as an “ecological awareness handbook.”

His wish came true. Along with Rachel Carson’s environmental call to arms, Silent Spring, published in 1962, Dune, says Robert France, a professor of watershed management at Dalhousie University, “played a very important role in increasing global consciousness about environmental concerns in general.” France says the massively popular reaction to Dune was a key part in the events that led up to the creation of Earth Day. Herbert frequently corresponded with the founder of Earth Day, Ira Einhorn, and was a featured speaker at the first Earth Day, in 1970.

The Dune Fremen are inspired by ancient Nabateans, celebrated by archaeologists for their amazing waterworks.

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Herbert’s role in the budding environmental movement is proof science fiction can and does play a role in how we live in the present. 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. 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. Herbert did his homework. 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. “The closest historic parallel to the Dune Fremen,” says France, “are the Nabateans, proto-Semitic Arabs who lived at the southern end of the Dead Sea.”

From around 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. the Nabateans flourished in the Middle East, in territory that now includes Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine. 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. In Arabic, the word “nabat” means for water “to percolate from underground to the surface.”

What made the Nabateans “outstanding,” says Ortloff, was their ability to comfortably support a population of 30,000 in Petra, “in an extremely dry area where the rain can only be measured in centimeters per year.”

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Yolles, co-founder of WaterSmart, visited Petra in 1994, while a graduate student in Yale’s department of forestry and environmental studies. 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.

“When the rain came,” says Yolles, “they would channel the flows with little rock fences, one or two inches high. 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. The incredible lengths that Dune’s Fremen went to in their conservation efforts is reflected in a comment Yolles likes to make to interviewers: “The cheapest water is the water we already have.”

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Individual users are not inspired to cut back on their water use by appeals to their economic bottom line. What works is shaming.

Sit down with Yolles and he’ll quickly start sketching out the economics of water: This is how much it costs to buy an acre-foot of water from a California desalination plant ($2,200); this is how much it costs to buy water directly from San Francisco’s Sierra Nevada reservoirs ($1,700). And this is how much it costs to hire WaterSmart to achieve an acre-foot of “demand reduction”—$250 to $500. The math is inescapable: It is far cheaper to use less water than to get more.

Like so many other business models popular in present-day Silicon Valley, WaterSmart’s strategy relies on data crunching and clever behavior modification. Yolles says numerous studies, and WaterSmart’s own experience, show individual users are not inspired to cut back on their water use by appeals to their economic bottom line (cheaper bills) or potential environmental impact. What does move the needle, however, is showing them how their use compares to their neighbors. In other words: water-shaming.

WaterSmart’s strategy is working. An independently funded study of a pilot program with one Northern California water utility showed consistent savings of about 5 percent after deployment of WaterSmart’s program. The implication of WaterSmart’s success is intriguing; while there’s plenty of technology involved in analyzing the water trends of millions of water utility customers, the key to making real change is cultural, in positioning water consumption within a social context. A Fremen tribal member who wasted water like a typical Californian does today would be harshly ostracized; likely left to die in the desert without the protection of a stillsuit. WaterSmart’s tactics are considerably less lethal, but the company has made a business out of exerting social pressure in the service of maximizing our existing resources.

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The entire state of California, Yolles hopes, will follow a similar path. He sees hopeful signs. Just a few years ago, California started loosening laws that restricted the use of treated wastewater for irrigation or recharging depleted aquifers. And in 2013 Californians were finally legally allowed to harvest rainwater and use it to flush their own toilets. This is a far cry from the world of Dune, but definitely one step closer. Drip by drip, Californians are acting more like Fremen.

On an unseasonably warm and sunny day in April, I drive to the Monterey Peninsula home of Fernandez. 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. It becomes quickly apparent that we are not here to just watch. 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.

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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 devices are simple, but effective. They are basically finely meshed nets that intercept fog. 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. The closer you get to the ocean, it appears, the larger the traces of salt and mercury one finds in the captured water.

FOG MAN: Daniel Fernandez (with Maddie) stands beneath a fogcatcher, an ingenious, Dune-like device that converts fog into water, in Marina, California. “Advection” fog, he explains, “you find near the ocean, more than ‘tule’ fog, which doesn’t have as much water, even though it can be thicker.”Bonnie Fernandez
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I’m transfixed by fogcatchers because they seem as close an analog to the dew collectors of Dune as one could expect to find. But Fernandez quickly quashes any dreams that fog-catching will make a meaningful difference in California’s drought. Californians simply consume too much water, he says. The average Californian gobbles around 100 gallons of water a day. 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. Fogcatchers, says Fernandez, only make sense at the margins. They’re not a comprehensive solution on their own, though they do serve as a useful reminder of how excessive our current consumption is. “Let’s look at how much water we are using, and how much water we could get back from fog,” he says. “That might give us another perspective on our own water use.”

But there’s another, more profound way to think about fogcatching. 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. Redwood needles serve the same function as Chilean polyprolene mesh. 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.

But in areas where the forests have been clear-cut, that process is short-circuited. 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.

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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. “If you build enough forest in foggy zones, they will start to provide water to aquifers in large amounts,” says Schemenauer.

Herbert, who grew up in Washington and Oregon and spent much of his life in California, would no doubt be delighted the Golden State is turning out to be a major test case for his ideas in Dune. Yolles and Fernandez are deploying technology in concert with an ecological vision that would make the Fremen proud. This world we have now is the only one we’ve got. And it’s getting hotter. When the protagonist of Dune, Paul Atreides, first learns of the existence of stillsuits shortly before he moves to the planet, the fact “that people could want so for water they had to recycle their body moisture struck him with a feeling of desolation.”

“ ‘Water’s precious there,’ he said.”

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Andrew Leonard is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, California, and trying to keep his showers short.

Lead illustration bt Gary Jamroz-Palma //

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