Awareness, the First Step to a Water Scarcity Solution
For more than a century, Americans have treated water like an infinite commodity, as free and abundant as sunlight. On June 1, when Governor Jerry Brown of California mandated statewide water-use restrictions, this house of cards came tumbling down. It became clear that we have overlooked and abused our access to one of the earth’s most precious resources.
This problem isn’t a California problem or isolated to the Western United States. Drought and water scarcity affect billions of people globally. How we manage water, and the amount we waste, has long-term ramifications.
First, to prevent irreversible damage, we must fundamentally change the way we value and price water. As we factor the strategic impact of water shortages into supply and demand, costs will rise naturally, and American consumers and businesses will have an incentive to conserve water resources. Second, we must use modern technology to make water consumption transparent and minimize our footprint. Consumers, businesses and policy makers must understand their water use and see the impact of investing in conservation.
We can split this strategy into three simple policies:
- Estimate supply based on the natural cycle and availability of water
Estimating our water supply is devilishly complex because water flows change with climate patterns, and groundwater sources are interconnected. State by state and source by source, we need to recalculate water supplies and then renegotiate yearly allocations.
We cannot treat rivers, aquifers and reservoirs as one monolithic source. They all have different limits. For instance, the USGS estimates that California accounts for 13 percent of all groundwater use in the US, but the state has overharvested interconnected wells, and the water table has dropped beneath the reach of pumps. California is now using 13 trillion gallons of water a year that is not replaced naturally, and geological shelves and soils are sinking throughout the state.
Thus, our supply calculations have to reflect the maximum amount of water we can use without jeopardizing each source. These new calculations should become the basis for revising century-old supply agreements that are detached from reality.
- Factor the true value of water into pricing
Today, regulations keeps water prices artificially low. To encourage conservation, we need to factor the true value of water into pricing. Specifically, we must use tiered pricing to penalize people who jeopardize our water supply and provide a disincentive to waste water.
According to the EPA, the national average cost of water is $2 per 1,000 gallons, or one fifth of a penny per gallon. The environmental data firm Trucost estimates that the actual cost of water should be as high as 5 cents per gallon in areas facing extreme water scarcity. A tiered approach would factor water scarcity into pricing and set thresholds for consumers and industries.
In California, for example, ranchers and farmers account for 80 percent of state water use, and different products have drastically different water footprints. By basing agricultural water thresholds on acreage (x gallons per acre), regulators could encourage farmers to optimize their land and stay within supply. Municipalities could adjust this threshold depending on the local crops or livestock and their water needs.
- Invest in smart water systems
At a government level, we need to invest in smart water infrastructure. At a business and consumer level, we must make water use transparent so that people choose to invest in smart irrigation technologies.
It pains me to see a mainline break in Los Angeles and spill millions of gallons of water into the streets. It’s even more painful to learn that it was an 80-year-old clay pipe that broke. There are flow sensors and systems available today that can detect and shut down those spills in seconds. It’s time to modernize our infrastructure and implement these technologies now.
Today, most water waste is invisible. Ask some friends what they pay for water, how much they use and how often they are charged. I guarantee no one will have answers. Here’s why: my water bill says I pay “$4.50 per unit,” which is meaningless to an average consumer. Calculated out, I really pay 6/10 of a penny for one gallon of water, so it costs me $6 to waste one thousand gallons of water in drought-stricken California.
With tiered pricing and smart meters that track water use, no one would waste 1,000 gallons of water. Moreover, Americans would see the value of sustainability technology. Modern systems can calculate precisely how much water a property needs. They know the difference between how much water an oak tree uses versus a fescue or grass. These controllers are plugged in to large weather databases, so they can automatically adjust watering to forecasts and actual rainfall. At scale, sustainability technology can make the difference between preserving and depleting the freshwater we need to thrive.
A New Cultural Norm
In dry climates, outdoor water use accounts for as much as 60 percent of total freshwater consumption, and as much as 50 percent of that water is wasted. If we combine market dynamics with modern technology, we can create the awareness, incentives and means to end this unsustainable pattern.
You will know we are winning the war for a sustainable future when your neighbors, family members and colleagues can tell you how much water they use and what it costs. We’ll know we’ve made a cultural shift when conservation technologies are embraced as tenants of responsibility and symbols that we care about the sustainability and the future generations that depend upon it.
Pat McIntyre is the chairman and CEO of ETwater, a position he has held since 2009. He leads the company’s market expansion through release of innovative new commercial irrigation products and services, along with its growth from regional to national sales and distribution. Previously, he was president and COO of Lauridsen Group, a privately owned holding company where he was involved in the acquisitions, capitalization and operating transitions of more than 15 companies in North America, Asia, Australia and Europe.
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