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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Wizard of H2O By Bruce Falconer

Spend any time with Robert Bisson, and conversation will eventually turn to the tiny island of Tobago. Bisson loves the place, and with the enthusiasm of a travel agent raves of its friendly people, its pristine beaches, and its lush tropical rain forest. But the real source of his boosterism runs deeper, down to the bedrock that underlies the tourist haven. There, a few years ago, Bisson demonstrated a discovery that he claims has the potential to solve the looming global water crisis—which according to the UN could leave 2.7 billion people facing severe shortages by 2025—by bringing forth a steady flow of untapped freshwater from the geologic depths.

Such was the case with Tobago, a 120-square-mile sliver of land in the southern Caribbean. By the summer of 1999, a historic drought had nearly exhausted the island's supply of freshwater. Hotels ran dry, turning on their pipes only a few hours a day. A new, $100 million Hilton resort sat empty for about six months as its owners debated whether to install a desalination plant. That June, a European firm, commissioned by the island's government to survey groundwater reserves, reported that no significant sources existed. Instead, it recommended damming a local river to create a reservoir—a major infrastructure project that would have cost an estimated $60 million and taken up to eight years to complete. In desperation, the government turned to Bisson, whose Virginia-based EarthWater Technology International (now called EarthWater Global) drilled a series of wells deep into the underlying bedrock. Within a year, at a cost of less than $20 million, the wells were drawing 5 million gallons a day of previously undiscovered groundwater, with the possibility of upping the sustainable yield to a daily 50 million gallons—10 times what the dam had been expected to produce. Eight years on, the wells are still flowing at capacity.


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