Sanjay Kumar, who learned growing up in Mumbai how a lack of sufficient access to clean water can impact lives, has become an evangelical messenger about the importance of developing alternative sources of water in anticipation of the water-availability crisis that the former tech executive sees looming ahead.
And Kumar, 49, who quietly made a mark as one of the Seattle area's most successful tech entrepreneurs, is likely to bring an increasingly visible presence to his current undertaking of spreading the message about the importance that recycled water will have in helping address future water shortages.
Kumar, who had key roles at Microsoft, and Teledesic before founding his own telecom services company after coming to the U.S. from his native India in 1983, points to an agreement this month between Kirkland and King County's Wastewater Treatment Division as a model that cities everywhere will eventually need to pursue.
The first-of-its-kind agreement between a city and the county will bring a drought-proof source of water to the Eastside city in the form of high-quality recycled water from the county's Brightwater Treatment Plant.
But Kumar, who pressed for the landmark arrangement, laments that "no other city is contemplating anything like this, largely due to King County being in no hurry and realizing it is a heavy lift so they want to wait and see with Kirkland. "
Kumar makes no apology for being the doomsayer about the water crisis he sees awaiting not just the water-starved regions of the west, but areas like the seemingly water-plentiful Northwest as well. The current efforts in the Puget Sound area to curtail water use suggest that Kumar is right on.
His advocacy, research and consulting organization, reuseH20, promotes the use of recycled/reclaimed water (which is known as "purple pipe" because it is delivered through a system of purple pipes) and has a goal of helping municipalities, industry, developers and communities "de-risk" their access to water.
"We help organizations understand the current and future cost of water, explore the available options to recycle water on site or access reclaimed water from a municipal or 3rd party source and ensure that each solution has long term financial and sustainability benefits," is the way he explains it.
He points to the water crisis playing out in California as "really a microcosm of all the problems." That state's reliance on its two water sources of mountains snow melt and groundwater, with both depleting, "is not sustainable for more than a couple of decades."
In fact, he makes the attention-grabbing comment that "the time will come when it will be less expensive to relocate a California resident to somewhere else in the country than to pay for them to continue getting water."
Kumar suggests: "It will be a different country when the water situation reaches the point where people are told 'no you can't move to that part of the country. Pick somewhere else.'"
His Twitter and LinkedIn sites carry regular messages on the topic, like "Reuse is a necessary and scalable concept including rainwater harvesting, stormwater capture and municipal reclamation." And he offers updates on developments, like reporting that a residential recycling water fill station had been opened in Sonoma by the area's sanitation district for residents to use to water their lawns, gardens and landscape areas.
A key part of Kumar's campaign is to paint municipal utilities as not just a key part of the problem, but as committed to a course contrary to what's best for the desired long-term outcome.
He makes the point, for which general awareness has not yet emerged, that the revenue model of utilities in Seattle and elsewhere is based on their ability to sell water and thus there is a built-in reluctance to embrace any program focused on reusable water, which as a less-expensive alternative would negatively impact the revenue model.
"Reclaimed water is the only workable answer since, if done with the right technology, it produces both clean water and energy," Kumar says.
Kumar came to the U.S. in 1983 at the age of 17 to study computer engineering at Carnegie Melon University and joined Microsoft in 1991 after getting his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. At Microsoft he worked first in the multimedia group helping develop video for Windows, then in the Advanced Technology group alongside Intellectual Ventures co-founder Nathan Myhrvold.
Then Kumar founded and grew VCustomer into one of the nation's fastest-growing private companies before three years ago selling the telecom outsourcing company, which had grown to more than 4,000 employees with call centers in India and three other countries.
Kumar first learned of the potential for reclaimed water when he invested in a water-cleaning technology company.
Now he is seeking investment opportunities in water reuse as a member of Element8, originally the Northwest Energy Angels, the first angel group in the nation to focus exclusively on clean technology and sustainability.
Kumar points to the restrictions on reclaimed water, and perhaps more absurd on rainwater as examples of the hold municipal entities have in protecting the revenue they derive from water sales.
"Those seeking to ban the collection of rainwater say it js a potential health hazard or that it's needed in their watershed," Kumar notes, then adds with an amused look "I need an exemption or a permit to collect rainwater and, most absurdly, you even need a special permit to use rainwater in your toilet."
But in what he views as an upside, there is ever-increasing pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency on urban communities to make their water cleaner before dumping it, "creating standards so high that it could well be reusable water."
"In this state, no matter how clean it has become, reclaimed water is not legally potable but in many states, there is no such absolute restriction," Kumar notes.