“We Are Not Making New Water”

April 10, 2013

By Elizabeth Cutright

In a recent blog post (“Water . . . Right Here All Along“), I asked, “what if we already had enough water to meet our needs?”

The answer to that question, according to panelists who participated in a discussion hosted by New York Academy of Sciences in February, is that we do have enough water–we just don’t have enough conservation.

The panelists, including Brian Richter (director of global freshwater strategies for The Nature Conservancy), Peter Gleick (co-founder of the nonprofit, Pacific Institute), Adam Freed (director of the Nature Conservancy’s Global Security Water Program), and Brooke Barton (Water Program Leader for Ceres) came together to discuss water resource management and water conservation strategies. Overall, the participants reiterated the notion that smarter, more efficient water use makes sense both economically and environmentally. As Richter explained, it’s always cheaper to use the water we have rather than attempting to create new sources via large-scale infrastructure projects (like reservoirs, pipelines, and desalination plants).

“I related it to my personal banking account,” Richter told LiveScience. “If I am over-drafting my personal bank account, it is going to do me no good to open up another account. You can’t build your way out of the problem. We are not making any new water.”

In order for conservation to work, the panelists agreed that a consortium of advocates must be tapped, including the agricultural community and the corporate world. And while irrigation has continued to increase in efficiency, a study conducted by Ceres last year revealed “many large companies were far behind the curve with regard to water conservation.”

The price of water must also be recalculated to reflect its true cost, said Richter, who also warned, “We do have to be careful not to raise the price out of the [range of] affordability of the poor.”

Maybe most importantly, Gleick believes we must wean ourselves from a tendency to use that past as a barometer for the future.

“Our water systems were designed for yesterday’s climate, and managed for yesterday’s climate,” he explained in an interview with LiveScience. “But climate change may also impose unexpected problems that our past experience isn’t sufficient to deal with.”

Regardless of the resources you’re responsible for, more often than not, it all comes down to asset management: What do you have; what can you cobble together; how can you make it all work in the most efficient, and cost-effective, manner?

The answer, according to “The Water Resources Utility of the Future: A Blueprint for Action,” (jointly compiled and released by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies the Water Environment Research Foundation, and the Water Environment Federation) involves a new future for water utilities. As the report states, the Utility of the Future (UOTF) will no longer operate in a silo, but instead will transform itself “into a manager of valuable resources, a partner in local economic development, and a member of the watershed community seeking to deliver maximum environmental benefits at the least cost to society.”

Although the report is focused on wastewater utilities, there’s plenty of content applicable to potable water resource management, especially the call to action for “a sustainable future that minimizes waste, maximizes resources, protects the ratepayer, improves the community, and embraces innovation in an unprecedented manner.”

This transformation includes a strong commitment to water reuse, as well as “extracting and finding commercial uses for nutrients and other constituents, capturing waste heat and latent energy in biosolids and liquid streams, generating renewable energy using its land and other horizontal assets.”

If this all sounds like a tall order, it is, but the benefits of successful implementation of these UOTF strategies are far reaching and, in many ways, incalculable.

Author’s Bio: Elizabeth Cutright is a previous editor of Water Efficiency and Distributed Energy magazines, and All One Water.

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