Water Panel on Water Management

Dec. 10, 2013

Water is the common denominator in most aspects of life–the climate, energy, food production, industry, and the health of humans and the ecosystem.

And yet, there are at least one billion people worldwide without access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion people without access to sanitation, leading to more than two million deaths each year due primarily to cholera and dysentery.

Two current targets set by the United Nations are water-related: to reduce by 2015 the proportion of humans without access to water, and sanitation by half.

That’s just three years away, and some industry experts predict those goals will not be met, though it may vary by region.

Water industry experts gathered for a panel discussion of these issues with members of the Society of Environmental Journalists. The water industry experts agree that the issues water managers face are critical and need immediate attention. They disagree on the approach and, in so doing, reflect the nature of the debate at large.

Bradley Udall is the director of the University of Colorado-NOAA Western Water Assessment, where he studies the impacts of climate change on the western US.

Udall frames the discussion of water management solutions in terms of “five rights.”

The first right is having the “right people” involved in the discussion.

“In the American West for 115 years, we had three types of people in the room: engineers, attorneys, and water users,” he points out. “We’ve not had physical scientists, social scientists, economists in particular–they’ve all been chased out. Those folks need to be brought into this discussion. The solutions so far have been in one realm, which is how do we increase supply, and we’re now beyond that.”

The second right is the “right priorities,” says Udall. Australians use the term “critical human water.”

“What is the absolute minimum amount of water our cities and economies need to function? What do you need to bathe, drink, and what do you need for industry? The minimal amount to run your states?” points out Udall. “Those entities come first, and all other entities come second–that means agriculture and all other uses that might seem excessive.”

Credit: iStock/AlexMcGuffie
Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, AZ

Flexibility is the third “right,” he says. Water managers can’t continue to stress systems in response to such factors as climate variabilities.

“We’re going to have to come up with flexible systems and the right prices,” he says. “Underpricing water means two things. Overconsumption is obvious. The unobvious one is underinvestment. Money can do a lot to solve this problem.”

A fourth “right” is the “right morality”, says Udall.

“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you,” he states.

The final “right” is that this is now the “right” time.

“If you like to solve really difficult, incredibly important problems, you were born at the right time,” says Udall.

He believes the most important issues going forward center on the water/energy nexus, climate and water, nitrogen and other biochemical cycles and water, and water quality, an “up-and-coming” issue.

Climate change and extreme weather events–such as the drought that hit Texas in 2011–deserve more attention going forward, water experts say.

There are lessons to be learned from around the globe. Consider Australia, which has served as a template for addressing water management in a time of draught. Islands in the South Pacific are suffering from drought-related water shortages for the same reasons as Texas. The pendulum swings the other way, too: some parts of Central America have had as much as 60 inches of rain in 10 days.

Udall states that climate change is water change.

He remembers the dirty looks he got in 2003 and 2004 from water managers for talking about the threat that climate change brings to water supplies.

He now sees an increasing acceptance of that notion accompanied by the sense that “this is a risk they have to manage.”

Valerie Nelson, director of Water Alliance, argues that to deal with water scarcity and climate change, “we need an entirely different approach than the one we relied on in the 20th century. The way we manage water is not working.”

One of the most important sources of water–groundwater–is also one of the most neglected, says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute. (At the time of this writing and after his appearance on the panel discussion, Gleick took a short-term leave of absence from his position as president after admitting to a lapse in judgment in the way in which he obtained information from the Heartland Institute about its climate program.)

“People, in general, don’t know where their water comes from,” says Gleick. “They’ll say, “˜the tap.’ But a lot of our water nationwide comes from groundwater that nature recharges over time. It’s another source of water, but it’s out of sight and out of mind and, typically, not managed very well. In the western United States, there are all sorts of weird laws, or no laws, governing groundwater withdrawals and use, and it leads to problems in two ways.”

In one way, when the use of water is faster than when nature recharges it, it’s not sustainable, Gleick says.

“And then, instead of a renewable water resource like the Colorado River, you get a nonrenewable resource like peak oil,” he says. “When you use it, the groundwater levels drop and it gets more expensive to pump, and then farmers go out of production. We’ve seen this in the Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains, in Central Valley California, northern China, and India.”

Contamination is another problem.

“This is one of the concerns of natural gas fracking,” says Gleick. “If you contaminate groundwater, it’s hard to uncontaminate it. A lot of the Superfund issues are groundwater contamination that we didn’t monitor and regulate.”

Udall sees a lot of potential for groundwater aquifer storage and recharge, such as Arizona is doing with the Colorado River.

“You’re going to see a lot of the aquifer recharge concept in the future as we need to store water in some places where we haven’t previously stored it,” he says. “Surface storage probably isn’t going to happen in this century, but with groundwater aquifer storage and recharge there are a lot of opportunities.”

The Pacific Institute released a report that examined populations in the Central Valley of California where they were drinking unsafe, nitrate-contaminated water because they didn’t have access to safe drinking water.

“There are rural communities–typically minority communities–where nitrates come from agricultural wastewater runoff, and nutrient-rich surface runoff goes into the groundwater or combined feeding operations for animals,” says Gleick.

That goes to the point of once groundwater is contaminated, it’s difficult to “uncontaminate” it, he says.

“In some of these communities, if the money were available–and it’s not at the moment–they could treat their groundwater to acceptable standards or link to other local water systems that are not contaminated,” he adds. “There are alternatives for them, but we haven’t provided them. In the long run, the first thing you have to do is stop the contamination. You have to prevent it.

“Treatment is so much more expensive later on,” he continues. “We have technology to solve these water problems, but we don’t do it, because we don’t have the money, or we don’t care about those communities. There’s a whole separate discussion going on about that right now.”

Water and infrastructure is a growing discussion among local municipalities, against the backdrop of dwindling financial resources.

Gleick points out that there’s an overall decrease in demand for water per person.

“But we also have a very serious infrastructure crisis, and we need to spend money differently,” he says. “Demand for water isn’t going down everywhere. It’s still going up in some regions.”

In the 20th century, the water management focus was on supply, Gleick points out.

“How do you find more water for your growing cities in the Southwest, growing industries, or growing agriculture?” he asks. “You build another dam; you tap another groundwater well; you move water from the next river basin over. If you can imagine it, an engineer can design it.”

But we’re realizing there are physical limits on how much available water can be used, Gleick says.

“Economically, it’s about how much money we have and are willing to spend on certain things. Environmental limits constrain what we’re allowed to do now. We didn’t care about salmon 50 years ago, or we didn’t know that we ought to care. What we cared about is how to build traditional water infrastructure, because we weren’t paying attention to the environment. So, what do you do?”

The Colorado River serves as an example. “The Colorado River is the biggest river in the southwestern US,” says Gleick. “It goes through seven states and Mexico. Water is allocated using a complex set of laws that have been built over decades. This gets to the issue of peak water. We’re using all of it. It’s a non-renewable resource. Whatever we use this year doesn’t take into account how much nature is going to give us next year. There’s a limit. You can’t use more water from the Colorado River than is in the Colorado River.”

Therefore, more supply can’t be the answer anymore, Gleick says.

“We’re beginning to think about demand, efficiency, and how we use water,” he says. “We’re growing more food with less water. We’re flushing our toilets with 1.6-gallon-per-flush toilets instead of six-gallon-per-flush toilets. Our showers have more low-flow showerheads.

“It’s a new way of thinking about water,” he adds. “We have to think about doing the things we want to do with less water. That’s efficiency, productivity. That’s one of the reasons why the demand for water in the US is starting to go down. We’re becoming more efficient, because there is no more easy supply.”

Ingrained water use habits would continue if the Colorado River were twice as big or if there was another similar big river, Gleick says.

“We would use the rest of it. Part of the reason we’re not is that we’re running up against physical, economic, and environmental limits.”

And Gleick contends that there is enough money for water funding.

“The federal government never paid for all of our water infrastructure,” he says. “Our water infrastructure is paid for mostly by our water bills and by the ability of our public agencies to sell municipal bonds, public bonds at lower interest rates than private bonds. That’s what drove investment in the water infrastructure in the US. I know there are money problems, but I think it’s a priority policy question, not an absolute shortage of money.”

Many municipalities throughout the United States, such as Toledo, OH, struggle with an aging infrastructure against the backdrop of an increasing number of people slipping below the middle class into the poverty line. That can become problematic in selling the public on the idea of fixing aging infrastructure, industry experts say.

But, Nelson sees the problem of degraded infrastructure as an opportunity for change. “China is building cities with whole new ideas. They won’t build those water and sewer systems in the way cities like Toledo did,” she says. “Why should America throw all this money at rebuilding the way it used to be done, when other countries are recognizing that’s not the way to do it? Maybe Toledo and other cities should think about new and better ways to get much more value for the community.”

Nelson cites Philadelphia as an example of using a natural systems–based approach to deal with stormwater, implementing green roofs, porous paving, rain barrels, rain gardens, and stormwater planters.

“That delivers huge benefits of air quality, recreation space, and kids learn more,” she says. “Green infrastructure is a great bonanza of community benefits. There are profit centers in wastewater. We’re throwing away the organic energy and the value of nutrients in wastewater.

“One of the biggest stories in the profession is the connection of water and energy,” she continues. “It’s not just how much use there is, but the capacity of resource recovery. In the water and wastewater field, there is huge potential for changing the economics completely, and those are being installed in the United States.”

Some in the industry may question why there isn’t more federal stimulus money being directed into water and sewer infrastructure projects.

In part, it’s because it’s a local issue funded by the users, Gleick points out. And while local elected officials may be reluctant to raise rates, it’s because they’ll likely be voted out for doing so, he adds.

There are instances where communities have successfully raised rates because the public was told what they’re getting for their money.

“All of us pay less money for water than we pay for the Internet, cell phones, landlines, cable TV, and energy separately,” says Gleick. “Water is the cheapest of our bills, and yet arguably a smart municipality would be able to explain that they don’t want the roof falling in on the treatment plant or bad water coming out of our taps, or the flushed toilet water ending up in Lake Erie untreated. If we’re willing to pay for the services we want, then it’s easier to do those things.”

Gleick agrees with Nelson that there are different ways of dealing with infrastructure challenges that are less expensive and have more benefits than the more traditional approaches.

“It’s hard to say abandon your old system and build a new one when there’s no immediate need,” says Gleick. “But, there are some opportunities and the innovative municipalities are looking at those.”

Another issue that arises in communities is one community pumping water from another, which some may criticize as taking from future demands.

Nelson says it speaks to the idea of getting away from the use of large pipes and reservoirs and moving toward natural-based systems, of which there are examples nationwide.

“The Charles River Watershed Association believes in a lot of recycling and reuse,” she says. “Littleton, Colorado, is looking at managing water locally with a lot more reuse of greywater, blackwater, and energy recovery. Can you capture rainwater locally? Shouldn’t you be infiltrating locally?

“Questions come up of how do we price a water rate, or can we use an aquifer for storage capacity,” she adds. “There’s still so much in, what I would call, the industrial big pipe, single-purpose siloed system. Water needs to be looked at as a complex system, and in referencing how nature manages water. Nature is localized and can be reused and be part of a natural system that generates huge amounts of value, like wastewater recovery.”

Nelson sees a problem in managing water and talking to the public about water rates, “when communities actually very much need to look at water in a new and more holistic way to understand what water used to do, and is doing, in their community, and attempt to mimic and use natural systems and high-tech science, as well to replicate a very abundant, clean, natural systems base. There’s far more value when you start using water in that way.”

Instead of building “these big concrete systems that break down”, the community gets cooling benefits, cleansing benefits, nutrient recovery, and energy recovery, Nelson says.

And, she maintains that the Clean Water Act, created in the 1970s, is not serving communities well these days.

“In Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City, and New York, the EPA is agreeing to consent decrees that are diverging quite a bit from past practices,” says Nelson. “They are allowing these communities to install green infrastructure with promises to monitor it, and if it works out OK, they do the whole city that way.”

Gleick says he promotes “soft path, non-traditional technology,” but adds that he doesn’t advocate getting rid of existing infrastructure.

“We built a system with centralized cities, massive generation, and concentrations of human and industrial waste,” he says. “Natural systems offer enormous cultural and social benefits, opening up rivers that have been tamped over. Smart technology–even centralized wastewater collection and treatment–is much more sophisticated today than it was 100 years ago.

“We need to replace the old centralized plants,” he says, “not with entirely decentralized systems, but sometimes with new centralized plants that are smaller, more energy-efficient, and remove the pharmaceuticals we now find in our water systems that we didn’t know were there before. I’m looking for a mix that builds on the systems we already have, but also takes advantage of the new, broader thinking.”

In the United States, water users are not paying for the true cost of water, which includes conveying and treating it, industry experts point out.

Consider the cost of a liter of bottled water in an upscale hotel room. In one Miami hotel, a liter of Evian goes for $8.50, which, when measuring the cost to the typical 1,000-gallon water measurement for water billing purposes, would rake in $27,000 for 1,000 gallons of that bottled water. That’s against the backdrop of property owners typically paying $3 for 1,000 gallons.

Udall contends that economists for years have been talking about getting water prices right. “There are clearly ways to get pricing involved in helping us decide what resources we should use to what purpose,” he says. “We use our markets all of the time, and, in almost every transaction, we do allocate resources, coming up with levels based on independent actors.

“What you have to be concerned about is if the environment is going to get a decent share in market-based system,” he adds.

Udall also says he disagrees with the belief that there is a basic human right to water, that it either should be free or at a very low cost.

“You need to deal with those two issues before you let your market turn loose,” he adds.

Australians have about 15 years of experience with markets, Udall says. “In 2010 in the Murray Darling basin, they did $3 billion of market-based transactions,” he says, adding that the reductions in agricultural output in the country’s unprecedented drought were less than 10%.

“We can learn from these lessons; we’re going to have to get the pricing right in water,” says Udall. “There’s no other way to get these problems solved than to get markets to help us solve them.”

Nelson disagrees. She says she’s worked with Australian institutes where they’re “still acting out of an old approach” that proves ineffective in addressing challenges.

“There are challenges at desalination plants that have the same old, very large industrial scale; are expensive; and have the side effects of the brine,” she says. “There’s a huge groundswell about green infrastructure and new subdivisions, including water efficiency in the home, reuse of rainwater, recycling of wastewater, and energy recovery.”

Nelson says she flinches at the idea of water markets, because “we are at a really interesting moment. It’s not just in the environmental system that the crisis is getting worse, it’s in the financial world, as well.”

Nelson offers Cape Cod, MA, as an example.

“They’re talking about a nutrient issue in estuaries requiring a sewer system–this is that old technology that could be $60,000 to $80,000 a home–when 60% of people there are earning under $20,000. There’s a huge revolt going on,” she says.

“The issue there is whether that amount of money is being spent at all in the right way for a host of objectives. It is a water industrial complex of engineers and construction companies who move in and out of the bureaucracies and are buttressed by this old Clean Water Act. They’re continuing to want to stamp out these very expensive systems that don’t deliver much at all and are not financially sustainable going forward.”

Nelson further argues that, “this is a time when we are all realizing that economists should not have been running the world the way they have, and that finance is not directed at the right things–it’s a highly unstable system that give all kinds of money to a few people and impoverishes communities. Ought we return to economists to ask them how can we respond to this water crisis–that they are full of ideas for making water markets, and they’re so efficient and work so well? That’s why I flinch.”

Nelson says there’s no evidence that water markets will bring about sustainable water management systems.

“It may bring a great deal of money, even to private utilities that build big systems that are on some compliance with some old law, but where would they ever push for recycling, or decentralized, or natural systems–based approach?” she asks. “The proposals for how to fix this crisis that come from economists need to be taken with a real grain of salt.”

Udall contends a market-based system does work.

“In Australia during the drought, the dairy farmers used large amounts of hay to feed their cows,” he says. “All of a sudden, they found themselves with less water, but it was incredibly valuable. So they sold that water, took the money from that sale, and bought grain for their cows.

“They were quite happy to do this. The people who purchased the water were short of it, and were quite happy. All of a sudden, you have an economic system that’s working quite efficiently, with a lot of people happier with the outcome. That’s the kind of substitutions and exchanges that markets can help us with.”

Udall adds that he doesn’t believe anyone would advocate unfettered markets.

“We utilize markets for everything we do, and to not utilize it in water and not allocate it in resources is fundamentally dumb. We can do it,” he says.

As part of its water reforms, Australia uses an independent price setter for water rates, which moves it out of the political sphere and treats it like electricity and other utilities, Udall notes.

Some question whether water utilities can raise rates and promote the use of less water at the expense of having to lay off employees and delay capital purchases. “For years, we’ve fooled our water customers into thinking they’re buying a unit price on widgets,” says Udall. “That’s not the case for water utilities. This is a business model no one would ever get into unless you had monopoly pricing power. You could go crazy with it.

“We don’t let utilities act like monopolies,” he continues. “We constrain their pricing. They present us this bill that looks like the costs they face are on a per unit basis, and nothing can be further from the truth.

“The marginal costs of a gallon of water is the price of chemicals and the energy in it, which is miniscule compared to the infrastructure costs,” he adds. “This is a public educational issue. To get away from this notion of how these costs are presented to people is not healthy.”

The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) has spent $250 million in the last several years building earthquake-resistant infrastructure for its water system to strengthen reservoirs, pipelines, and emergency equipment.

Before initiating the project, EBMUD reached out to the community to discuss why rates were being raised and where the money was going.

The community accepted the plan and was willing to pay for the infrastructure because residents knew in the case of an earthquake, they’d have access to water within a few days rather than a few weeks, Gleick says.

A significant focus going forward needs to be placed on the water-energy nexus, industry experts say. “It takes a huge amount of water to produce the energy this country requires, not only for cooling, but for other things such as production, fracking,” says Gleick. “It’s a big story, and it’s going to be a bigger story for the next year or two.”

Another issue of concern in the industry is providing water to a growing population.

Gleick says 80% of the world’s water used by humans goes to grow food, with only a small fraction used by commercial, industrial, and residential sectors. Additionally, there are estimates that 30 to 40% of food production water comes from unsustainable groundwater.

“It gets more expensive, you have to find other sources, and you raise rates, including in the High Plains, in California, China, and in India,” he says. “We’re running up against the limits in a lot of places.

“Water is critically important, so we have to get more efficient,” states Gleick. “We have to grow more food with less water. The good news is we’re doing that. In California, we grow a lot more food now than we used to with the same amount, or less, of water with efficient irrigation technology, soil moisture monitoring, and changing crop types.”

About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.

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