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Alfred and Audrey Vargas, a brother and sister team from Sweetwater High School, won top honors from the Water Authority for water-related projects at the regional Science and Engineering Fair. Their work is designed to provide low-cost fresh water to people in developing countries. Photo: SDCWA

Sweetwater High Students Aim To Avert World Water Crisis

Audrey and Alfred Vargas are trying to expand access to clean drinking water one drop at a time.

The brother and sister duo, who live in National City and attend Sweetwater High School, have been refining a portable, low-cost, easy-to-use, simple-to-construct system that efficiently desalinates brackish water.

“We see it as one of many possible solutions that can help solve the water crisis occurring throughout the world today,” said Audrey Vargas, 15.

Their endeavor is garnering growing attention. At the Greater San Diego Science & Engineering Fair, their project – Solar Desalination Using a Parabolic Trough – secured the top Senior Division award from the San Diego County Water Authority.

Water Authority promotes innovation in students

The Water Authority has sponsored the Science & Engineering Fair for decades, and the Water Authority’s Board of Directors recognized Audrey and Alfred at its April 12 meeting, along with five other top water-related projects from the science fair.

Board member Frank Hilliker interviewed the Vargas team at the science fair and was impressed with their work. “The fact that they were able to take such a complex challenge and find a solution that seems so easy and without having to spend a lot of money was remarkable,” he said. “There are no computers, no electronics, no fuel involved. It’s a fascinating way to provide clean, reliable drinking water for people who don’t have access to clean water.”

Besides the Water Authority award, the siblings also won a Scripps Institute of Oceanography Climate Science Award, and their work was honored by the WateReuse Association (San Diego Regional Chapter) and the California Environmental Health Association – Southwest Chapter/San Diego County, Department of Environmental Health. They compete in the California State Science & Engineering Fair competition on April 23 and 24 at Exposition Park in Los Angeles.

Students set sights on solving global problem

Audrey and Alfred aspire to see their device used in impoverished communities around the world that don’t have reliable sources of drinking water.

“My sister and I live in a very modest community, and we see people who are living in poverty every day,” said Alfred. “This is a cost-effective and simple solution that can help anyone have access to a basic necessity.”

Alfred and Audrey have been entering science fairs since they were middle schoolers and Alfred has been refining the desalination project for the past three years. Alfred and Audrey note that a pivotal manner of obtaining freshwater is by distilling seawater. But that can be a costly and time-consuming process. Their portable, parabolic desalination device, however, can efficiently purify brackish water through a simple yet complex process that uses PVC pipes, a copper tube, and the sun.

Sofia Sandoval, a chemistry teacher at Sweetwater High School who advised the students, said Alfred and Audrey are destined for greatness. Indeed, Alfred aspires to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology and work as a chemical engineer. Audrey is determined to gain acceptance to Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Stanford en route to a career enforcing environmental regulations.

“Alfred and Audrey are not the typical high school students who were interested in conducting a cookie cutter science fair project,” Sandoval said. “They have bigger dreams. They came to science fair orientation meeting with a firm belief that humans have a moral obligation to help humanity. They, themselves, feel obliged to enter careers that allow them to directly help humans.

“This conviction, along with Audrey’s environmental passion and Alfred’s engineering mind, drove them to their project topic selection. I think this project embodies exactly what our next generation scientists and innovators should focus on, namely a multi-dimensional approach to solving world problems.”



OPINION: Address State’s Drinking Water Crisis While Protecting Farming

Several years ago, California farmers, including many in the Valley, began receiving threatening letters from the State Water Resources Control Board. The demand? Provide clean drinking water to local residents with nitrate contaminated private wells or face punitive legal action. The logic? Years of fertilizer application by farmers led to excess nitrates in the drinking water supply for some residents in California’s agricultural regions, including our Tulare Lake Basin.

OPINION: More Water Storage Doesn’t Mean Build More Dams

The California Water Commission has been meeting this week to discuss how to invest $2.7 billion in water storage funds approved by voters under Proposition 1. The commission — and all Californians — should bear in mind that water storage doesn’t necessarily mean a dam with water behind it. The commission’s charge is not to fund the biggest new dam but to fund projects with the greatest net benefits to California cities, farms and wildlife.

Santa Clara Valley Water District Delays $650 Million Vote On Brown’s Delta Tunnels Project

After a five-hour packed public hearing, the board of Silicon Valley’s largest water provider late Wednesday night put off a closely watched vote until next week on whether to provide up to $650 million to support Gov. Jerry Brown’s $17 billion plan to build two giant tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to make it easier to move water south. Although it appeared there might be four votes on the seven-member Santa Clara Valley Water District board in favor of the project, which the Brown administration calls WaterFix, board members were divided and continued the issue until Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.

Ruling Slams SDG&E’s Plan For A New Gas Pipeline

California utility regulators seem to have little appetite for San Diego Gas & Electric’s $640 million plan to build a new natural gas pipeline across the county. A draft decision released Wednesday shows how regulators have begun analyzing major new projects through the lens of climate change. In that context, a California Public Utilities Commission judge said SDG&E’s plan makes no sense. The state is trying to reduce the use of natural gas, which is a major contributor to climate change.

The City’s Two Paths To Clean Power

One way or another, the city is about to rearrange a bunch of electrons. Right now, much of San Diego’s electricity comes from local power plants that burn natural gas to create electricity. City officials want to ditch that power and replace it with green energy to meet their goal of using only clean power by 2035. Don’t expect to see windmills or solar farms popping up all over the city just yet, though. So far, it’s unclear where all the new power will come from.

Rain Light But It Was Most In San Diego In 6 Weeks

The scattered showers that slickened roads across San Diego County Wednesday morning, though light as expected, brought the most rain the region has seen since mid March. Next up is a drying and warming trend. Temperatures, well below normal Tuesday and Wednesday, on Thursday should be near normal for early May. By Saturday, building high pressure should raise the highs to around 90 degrees in the inland valleys, the mid 70s at the coast and over 100 in the desert.

Pressure Mounts To Solve California’s Toxic Farmland Drainage Problem

Many Americans know the name Kesterson as the California site where thousands of birds and fish were discovered with gruesome deformities in 1983, a result of exposure to selenium-poisoned farm runoff. Thirty-five years later, it is one of the oldest unresolved water problems in the state. Selenium, a naturally occurring element, is essential to people and animals alike in small doses. But selenium continues pouring off many San Joaquin Valley farms in larger quantities, which can be toxic.

Three-Eyed Fish And Two-Headed Turtles? The Stench Of This River Spanning U.S.-Mexico Border Is Legendary

The river is so foul that rumors swirl about two-headed turtles and three-eyed fish. If you fall in, locals joke, you might sprout a third arm. So go the stories about the New River, whose putrid green water runs like a primordial stew from Mexico’s sprawling city of Mexicali through California’s Imperial Valley. The river, with skull-and-crossbone signs warning about the danger it poses, reminds Calexico resident Carlos Fernandez of a scene in “The Simpsons Movie” where Homer Simpson disposes of pig feces by dumping them into a lake.