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.