Ideas

Watershed Protection? There’s an App for That

November 11, 2015

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The Watershed Conservation Screening Tool. Image © TNC

How can municipal water utilities know where conservation will have the best results in improving water quality? We can now answer with confidence: There’s an app for that!

In fact, I was recently testing that web app on the banks of the Dead Sea in Jordan. That might seem like an unusual location, but the complexity of water conservation in Jordan – with an influx of more than 1 million Syrian refugees – illustrates well the opportunities and limitations of this new app.

Honestly, I never thought developing a web app would lead me to the banks of the Dead Sea. I came to Jordan to launch The Nature Conservancy’s Watershed Conservation Screening Tool, developed over the past several months by staff from TNC, the Natural Capital Project, and Arizona State University.

The International Water Association, the membership organization of many of the world’s water utilities, was kind enough to invite us to launch the web app at their annual congress, and so I somewhat surprisingly found myself on a plane to Jordan. Hundreds of people from all over the world gathered for the congress on the shores of the Dead Sea. And these folks, representing bulk water users, are the target audience for the Watershed Conservation Screening Tool.

The tool provides large water users, like municipal water utilities and industrial facilities, a quick way to evaluate the opportunity for source watershed conservation to help improve water quality. It focuses on sediment and nutrient pollution to surface water sources from so-called non-point sources, such as from agriculture or other human land-uses.

The tool will instantly provide, for any medium to large-scale watershed (anything bigger than a roughly 6 mile by 6 mile area), located anywhere on the globe, estimates of water quality impairment. More importantly, it then provides estimates of opportunities to improve water quality through five different conservation activities.

The utilities I met with have been uniformly supportive of what the tool does. Many of them want to think more about source watershed conservation, and view the tool as a useful first datum that might help inspire their organization to act.

But as one utility employee said to me, to know is not enough. Many utilities talked about the barriers that could stop them from implementing a source watershed conservation plan. Many felt they didn’t have the funding or capacity to work on source watershed conservation, or that there were political or regulatory impediments in their way.

A view of the Dead Sea from Jordan. Photo © Rob McDonald
The Dead Sea as viewed from Jordan. Photo © Rob McDonald

More broadly, there was a sense of fatigue from the utilities with how complex the world is getting, from climate change to new sustainable development goals. There was so much they should be planning for.

The complexity that water utilities sometimes face was communicated by the Jordanians here. Jordan is dealing with an influx of more than a million Syrian refugees, and many of these are in Jordanian towns, drinking and using water.

This has led to what was anecdotally described as a 20% increase in water demand. All of the water utilities are in crisis mode, trying to find new water sources for more than a million refugees. Compared to the magnitude of that challenge, our little app seems tiny indeed.

I realize though that no model — which is all our screening tool is — can or should reflect all the realities of the world. Models are by their nature simplifications of reality.

A road map is a model of the actual road network but it has to leave a lot detail off to be useful: a road map that showed every stop sign or speed bump would be unreadable. In the same way, a global screening tool must leave a lot of reality out, capturing the key themes only, to be useful.

And just like a road map can show you where to go but not how to fix your car or pay for gas, our screening tool provides a useful way to point bulk water users to their destination. It is an important step, but there are many on-the-ground details conservationists will have to think through to help utilities negotiate the complex world of water conservation.

Rob McDonald

Dr. Robert McDonald is Lead Scientist for the Global Cities program at The Nature Conservancy. He researches the impact and dependences of cities on the natural world, and help direct the science behind much of the Conservancy’s urban conservation work. More from Rob

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