World Water Day is a great opportunity to raise awareness about the looming problem facing communities around the world – balancing the limited supply of freshwater with ever-increasing demands. The southwestern region of the United States is not immune from the dual problems of population growth and inevitable impacts of climate change on the water sources we currently rely on. While public awareness of the problem is certainly increasing with more media attention; we are left wondering if the problem is framed in a message that will drive necessary reform.
The majority of public messaging is about the water supply crisis we are facing. It is true that climate change and increasing demand will outstrip safe and reliable sources if we continue down the current path. However, the problem is not a “supply crisis,” but instead a “water management” crisis. One simple example that highlights the problem is California’s current statewide drought emergency declaration and simultaneous flood warnings in communities statewide.
World Water Day is a clarion call to everyone – from individuals to our highest-level decision-makers – to start asking basic questions about the way we manage our precious water resources. Where does the water in your home or region come from? How much do we use and for what? What happens to that water once we’ve used it – often just once? Most importantly, are we managing this life-sustaining resource in a way that results in avoidable waste, intractable adverse impacts on our natural environment, and unsustainable economic growth?
Crisis often drives important reform. Sadly, too often that reform is driven by short-term reactionary solutions, avoiding the need for holistic and long-term sustainable solutions.
The crisis we face is much broader than the narrow focus on increasing water supplies. The challenges facing the southwest, if not every region of the world, offer opportunities for holistic reform of water management. We can, and must, resolve our water supply challenges with integrated solutions that reduce pollution, restore ecosystem services and health to local watersheds, eliminate much of the “embedded energy” in our supply and wastewater disposal systems, and adapt to climate change and the multiple threats it poses.
Does this sound like a Herculean task? It does. But like any effort to reform institutional and complex regulatory problems, the public needs a thorough and honest assessment of the problems, and a clear picture of the solutions. World Water Day can and should be the platform to project this vision. The public will drive reform once we understand, and can visualize, the multiple benefits to our economy, environment and quality of life in our community from integrated water management reforms.
Fortunately progressive planners and individuals are already incorporating pieces of the puzzle, and these successful examples can lead the way to holistic reform. Homeowners are beginning to conserve water and redesign their landscapes to capture rainwater. Cities are implementing Low Impact Development ordinances, creating “green streets,” constructing networks of treatment wetlands and other efforts to restore natural watershed benefits to urban settings. We are taking the “waste” of water and energy out of our sewage treatment facilities through safe and reliable recycled water systems. All of these pieces can be incorporated into integrated management reform that provides a multitude of benefits through sound economic investments.
The predictions of a looming “water supply crisis” only seem dire until we embrace the notion that the coordinated and cooperative efforts by many public agencies who have some authority over managing water, as well as our own efforts at home, can result in reform that integrates solutions to multiple problems. Crisis drives reform – and World Water Day is an invaluable opportunity to illustrate what the reform looks like in our communities and how we end up with a sustainable economy, environment and better quality of life.
Joe Geever is the California Policy Coordinator at Surfrider Foundation. His duties include a broad array of policy education and advocacy, including development and management of Surfrider Foundation’s new program “Know Your H2O.”