Water shortages aren’t just for California. They might be coming to your town — unless you push your leaders to get smart about managing water.
That’s the message of Brian Richter’s new book Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Stability (Island Press), Richter’s guide to the causes of and solutions for water scarcity. Increasing demand for water and climate change, he says, are going to put mounting stress on water basins and water supplies — especially for cities — over the next two decades.
The answers, says Richter, chief scientist for water markets at The Nature Conservancy, lie in shifting water management decisions from technocrats to a stakeholder-driven process — even in places like Syria and China. He discusses his vision — and the nightmare scenarios we face if we don’t take steps to manage our water better now.
Q: Why don’t people understand how big the water problem is globally? What will it take?
The problem is that water shortages are quite local in nature, so it’s tough to grasp their potential impacts at a national or global scale. And like climate change, water scarcity is a slowly mounting crisis, building out of a gradual rise in water use — so our alarm bells don’t go off until we finally run out of water, and the damage scarcity does to freshwater species and ecosystems (much of which takes place underwater) becomes apparent too late.
But people are starting to understand that water shortages can severely disrupt local and even regional economies. When Texas lost $12 billion statewide in 2011 due to drought and water shortages, its legislature quickly responded with funding for water projects. Similarly, China is now losing nearly $40 billion every year due to water shortages, and China’s State Council is starting to take that seriously. Managing water from a crisis mode, though, seldom produces the most sustainable outcomes.
Q: Most places aren’t yet experiencing water stress, but you say in Chasing Water that many are heading toward the verge — and many already at the verge support large urban populations. If we don’t change the way we manage water, what might scarcity look like in these places over the next decade or two?
Let me paint an ugly but illustrative picture for you with the example of the Colorado River in the western United States.
If dry years persist in that region, or if water demands for cities and farms continue to grow, the water storage reservoirs and the river itself will continue to wither.
Then: When water levels in Lake Mead or Lake Powell drop to a certain point, we will no longer able to generate electricity from those dams. The water shortage will cause a massive electricity shortage.
Some of the biggest electricity users in that region are urban water delivery systems — the Central Arizona Project canal delivering water to Phoenix and Tucson, the California State Water Project delivering water to Los Angeles and San Diego — as well as huge groundwater pumps that irrigate farms. Water and electricity shortages in those states are beginning to force decisions of whether to keep the lights on, keep the grocery store stocked, or keep water flowing from our taps. Those decisions could easily become more common.
This tradeoff scenario isn’t a Hollywood horror movie. It’s a reality that people have faced in Australia, Syria, Kenya, China and many other countries just in the last decade. At least one-quarter of the planet is experiencing water shortages on a regular basis. Water, food, energy and the ecological health of freshwater ecosystems are inextricably linked, and failures in water often cause cascade effects on the other links. We’re going to see these cascades more and more unless we change our water management approaches.
Q: So what’s the first step?
For the Colorado River basin or any other water source that is being over-depleted, the highest priority is to substantially and permanently reduce current levels of consumptive water use.
As I explain in Chasing Water, managing water and managing money well are similar: you can increase your deposits or you can decrease expenditures. But because it can be very difficult or expensive to access more supplies of both money and water, reducing spending makes great sense.
Q: But wait. Aren’t the pressures to override even the best water budgets and allocation plans almost irresistible?
The widespread over-drafting of groundwater aquifers or lakes (which lowers their water levels over time) and drying of rivers should be taken as evidence that our governments are not managing our water accounts in a responsible and sustainable manner.
Local citizens and water users need to be made aware of these water problems, and we need to find ways to empower them with greater access and ability to participate in water planning and decision-making.
In the book I highlight places like Texas, where the water planning dialogue has been opened to local stakeholders. Their 50-year state water plan now calls for one-quarter of their water budget to be met with water conservation, and their legislature just authorized a sizable investment for that purpose.
But I do fear that their water demands are growing too fast to keep under control with water conservation alone, and they may not gain access to additional water supplies quickly enough, threatening to throw their water budgets dangerously out of balance.
Q: Yet you are fierce that “smart” water conservation is the best way for a community to balance its water budget – better than solutions such as desalination, water storage, or even watershed management. Why is that?
Because water conservation — both in cities and on farms — is by far the most cost-effective way to balance a water budget. Reducing demand is usually 3-10x less expensive than water-supply options such as building reservoirs or importing water from distant places. Conserving water also avoids the ecological and social impacts usually associated with efforts to increase supply.
Conserving water at larger scales could have great impact on blunting the risk of water scarcity. And urban and agriculture water needs can be reduced substantially without impacting our quality of life.
Australian cities use half the water cities of the same size in the American West do, for instance. Many farmers — here in the United States, in Australia, and in many other countries such as Israel — have found highly cost-effective ways to reduce water consumption by 20% or more. The Aussies have also shown how state and federal subsidies for improving irrigation efficiencies can be used to get water consumption down to a sustainable level.
Q: What do you mean by “smart” conservation?
Applying the conservation measures that best address the water problem you are trying to solve.
So: if you’re concerned that your local river is drying up because of too much water use, simply having everyone invest in water-efficient plumbing fixtures or practicing water conservation inside their homes may not do much to save the river. Much of the “wasted” water may be going down the household drains and flowing back into the river; simply using less water may not have much net benefit to the river. But reducing the amount of water being applied on lawns and outdoor landscaping— which doesn’t return to the river after use — may really do some good.
Q: But you also list in Chasing Water a number of reasons why the deck is stacked against water conservation — including that it’s easier to build pipelines than to change individual behaviors, and that conservation sends a message of scarcity that many communities don’t want to advertise. In addition, agriculture —not urban consumption — accounts for up to 90% of water consumption in most basins. So why are you optimistic communities — especially urban communities — will even bother?
I’ll suggest three reasons: (1) water shortages are spreading and intensifying in many regions of the world, making people more aware of the need to use less; (2) as governments become more comfortable with inviting stakeholders to participate in water planning, those stakeholders will see that conservation is the best deal available and hold their governments accountable for “doing the right thing”; and (3) as water becomes more expensive, people will use less.
As for urbanites, it’s really important that everyone participate in water-conserving activities because we all need to do our share to resolve water problems and protect freshwater ecosystems. But they can also be advocates for urban-ag partnerships to save water. In my book and in many other writings, I make the case that because irrigated agriculture uses such an enormous volume of water, a little bit of improved irrigation efficiency can add up to a very large amount of water savings.
That’s why city dwellers should encourage their water managers to form partnerships or water-saving agreements with farmers that share the same water source. Consumers can also help reduce the volume of water being used in agriculture by choosing foods that require less water to produce, or by wasting less food.
Q: Your vision of the way water management decisions should be made is highly democratic — in large part, you say, because past technocratic schemes failed to include local stakeholders. But how can water planning be democratic in places like China or Yemen that have little or no tradition of democratic institutions or dynamics? And won’t such schemes be outdone by the endemic corruption in a lot of these countries?
When people run out of water, they revolt. Syria is a case in point. A drought in that country — combined with the government’s inability to manage water well — helped ignite the social unrest that threatens to overthrow the government. Water revolts may not lead to democratic reform or lessened corruption, but the people will demand that water is better managed in the future.
I’m putting my bets on local community leaders and activists everywhere to become the change agents demanding sustainability. But we have to ensure that they are well-informed about the basic fundamentals of water management.
Q: You close the book by looking at the water plan of the Murray-Darling River Basin in Australia, which endured a horrific 12-year-long drought that ended in 2009. What are they doing right in the Murray-Darling?
The Aussies have put into place some really important water reforms. First, they recognized two decades ago that over-allocation of water was placing both their economies and their freshwater ecosystems at risk. They decided to institute a limit or “cap” on the total volume of consumptive water use in the basin. That cap was lower than the existing levels of use, so they needed to figure out some way to reduce their use, permanently.
Since 2002, the Australian Commonwealth (federal) government has allocated nearly US $14 billion dollars to reduce the volume of water being used on farms, where more than 90% of the water is used. More than two-thirds of this money has been directed into a Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program that helps farmers to install more efficient irrigation technologies like drip irrigation, or reduce water losses through infrastructure improvements such as concrete lining of earthen ditches. This program has been extremely well received, and farmers have lined up to take the government’s help in saving water on their farms.
The remainder of this federal funding support was directed at buying water rights from willing sellers. Some farmers sold their water and got out of farming altogether. But many others switched to growing crops that used less water, thereby freeing up some water for sale.
Now that they are getting close to reducing water use to the cap levels, water trading is proving to be extremely beneficial. Australia has a very well-designed water market that enables those that need more water to access it from those willing to give some up, on a permanent or temporary basis. Both parties win: some get water, others get a new source of revenue.
Q: “Chasing Water” presents a comprehensive vision of where you think we need to go with water management. It also feels like a manifesto, a summing up for you. What do you want it to accomplish, and with whom?
25 years of traipsing around the world witnessing bad water management and its horrific consequences could have caused me to throw up my hands in despair. But I have enjoyed the privilege of a good education, the insights gained from observation, and from the mentorship of really smart and visionary individuals. They have instilled in me a lifelong mantra: when you observe something wrong in the world, it is your moral duty to do something about it.
Only a very small fraction of the global population understands how the water cycle works, where their water comes from, or what we can do to prevent water shortages. Yet I have not been able to find educational material about water that is written at a simple, foundational level. Too often, water experts assume too much about their audiences. If this book proves to be useful, I’m going to do everything I can to help spread it around — getting it translated into multiple languages, and subsidizing its purchase by those that cannot afford to buy it.