Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Confronting the West’s Water Crisis

A new report highlights opportunities to improve water management in drought-stricken Western states.

California's Folsom Lake, a strategic state reservoir, was at one point less than 20 percent full this year. FlickrCC/sjrankin

The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment released a new report Oct. 20 that addresses how Western states can confront the crippling drought that threatens the nation’s entire water system.

The report is comprised of three papers, each of which examines particular strategies for coping with ongoing drought conditions. The first paper, Shopping for Water, advocates using market forces to manage water resources and lessen the impact and frequency of water shortages. The second paper, The Path to Water Innovation, highlights the need for innovative new technologies for promoting efficiency and conservation and suggests reviews of regulatory practices and creating statewide offices for water innovation. The third paper looks at nine economic facts about water in the United States with “the aim of providing an objective framing of America's complex relationship with water.”

In conjunction with the release of the papers, a forum was hosted on Oct. 20 at Stanford University to discuss the topics and issues within the report. Authors of the paper were joined by other water experts, as well as California Gov. Jerry Brown, who opened the forum with his vision of the landscape of water in the west.

“Water is going to be a major issue that is going be addressed in the California Legislature, in Congress – water issues don’t get solved in one place. It’s a complicated interplay of governmental jurisdiction at every level,” Brown said.

The governor made frequent reference to the California Water Action Plan. Part of his 2014-15 budget allocates $618.7 million in funding priorities for water efficiency projects, wetland and watershed restoration, groundwater programs, conservation, flood control, and integrated water management.

“The number one priority for the California Water Action Plan is conservation. In both urban areas and in agriculture we have to find ways to conserve. There’s millions of acre feet to be derived from conservation and water recycling,” Brown said. “We have to prepare for dry periods. We need a longer term understanding and plan to be able to use water and at the same time save water.”

Brown admitted the state has taken too long, in some respects, to plan for water scarcity. He specifically called out the fact that efforts to create a statewide groundwater plan first began in 1978 and were only recently completed. The governor did not shy away from the reality that there is a significant amount of work that remains if the state is going to be able to meet the ever-growing demand for water.

“There’s a lot to do. We have a lot of ideas. This is longstanding, it takes perseverance, and it takes a lot of collaboration across a broad political system,” he said. “We’ve got to manage what we have. It’s going to take money, it’s going to take brains, and it’s going to take imagination."

Water Markets

In Shopping for Water the authors argue for “sensible water policy” that will “allow someone who needs water to pay someone else to forgo her use of water or to invest in water conservation and, in return, to obtain access to the saved water.”

The authors recommend state and local governments enable easier water transfers by “establishing essential market institutions, such as water banks, that can serve as brokers, clearinghouses, and facilitators of trade.”

Robert Glennon, professor of law and public policy at the University of Arizona and a co-author of the paper, likened the situation to a milkshake during a forum panel. “If someone wants to put their straw into the glass they need to convince someone else to take their straw out.

Glennon also said the nation’s water crisis commands serious thinking and a fresh response. Most of the water systems that operate in the United States, he said, were setup under the belief that the past would be a reliable predictor of the future. Worse still, he said, is that generally there is almost no incentive for people to use less water. In fact, those who conserve are often penalized for doing so.

“We need to reform water law,” Glennon said. “It’s archaic and complicated but basically it’s this – use it or lose it. To conserve water exposes the water rights holder to loss of those rights. We need to create incentives for people to use less water, not penalize them if they do.”  

Innovation ... at a price

In The Path to Water Innovation abstract, it is stated that solutions to the country’s growing water challenges lie, in part, with the development and adoption of new innovative technologies. Yet, in comparison to the electric power sector, investment in water innovation is extremely low.

Solutions such as desalination and water recycling are being seen as increasingly viable. Water recycling, in particular, is poised to mesh well with the movement toward water decentralization. And desalination is, thanks to better technology, a solution that at one time was prohibitively expensive and is now less so.

“Water is going to be the critical issue of the 21st century. One of the most important things we’re going to have to do is get along with less. Technology is going to be a crucial element in addressing that oncoming water shortage,” said panelist Barton H. Thompson, professor of natural resources at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and co-author of The Path to Water Innovation.

At the forum, water innovation panelists advocated for a greatly enhanced role for water recycling technology. Between 30 and 60 percent of the energy demands for most municipalities, it was noted, is for wastewater treatment. New technological advancements are helping not only reduce that number but are also allowing recycling facilities to extract energy from the water as it’s recycled.

Desalination, meanwhile, costs on average $2,000 per acre-foot due to the immense amount of energy required. In addition to the cost, such facilities have huge environmental footprints in the worst possible places – ecologically fragile coastlines. But new technologies, such as graphene filtration membranes, could reduce operating costs by 15 percent.

“The problem is that we’re not investing enough in water innovation,” Thompson said. “No matter how you measure investment in water innovation – water technology is getting only a fraction of the money new energy technology is getting.”

Consensus among the panelists was that water prices are far lower than the prices for any other comparable resource and as a result the demand for new water technologies is not as high as it should be. Overall, they argued, water is not priced properly and that if it were it would drive demand for more innovation in water technology.

“We actually give away water in the United States,” Thompson said. “What we actually pay for is the cost of transporting water and purifying it.”

While it may be true that water in the U.S. is underpriced and as such doesn’t support investment in innovation, that’s likely not a compelling message for consumers nor elected officials. 

But Thompson said he believes that with better education, consumers would be willing to accept higher rates.

“Water agencies haven’t done a good enough job of making the case for water investment,” he said. “Most people don’t know where their water comes from. When you better educate consumers it’s easier to make the case for raising rates to fund investment on water technology innovation.”

The challenge of funding innovation, particularly in water, has historically been financed through bonds. Panelist Michael Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District, said such bonds are becoming increasingly limited and that it makes sense to try new funding strategies.  

“This is an area where I think the private sector can have a major role through public-private partnerships,” Markus said.

In addition to public-private partnerships, Markus said there should be some consideration given to perhaps consolidating some of the water systems that exist in the U.S. because many of the smaller ones – there are 55,000 water systems in the country – simply can’t afford to do anything other than maintain the status quo.

“There are far too many special districts and we need to consolidate,” he said. “We need to start looking holistically at water, whether it’s wastewater, groundwater and wastewater.”

This article was originally published by FutureStructure.

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