July 21st, 2015


Executive Manager for Policy Development, Inland Empire Utilities Agency

Reporter, ProPublica

Faculty Member, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science

CEO, Banyan Water and Chairman, Imagine H2O

Professor of Mineral Engineering and Co-director of Berkeley Water Center, UC Berkeley


The drought in the American west is making people painfully aware of the food-water-energy nexus. Will this crisis finally drive fundamental change in the understanding and use of water? What are the urban and rural changes the state needs to make to slake the thirst of a growing population and economy?

Those were some of the questions being asked at a recent Climate One discussion on managing our water– from using it and reusing it to storing, transporting, sharing and selling it.

News stories trumpeting severe drought might lead one to believe our planet is drying up. But as global ecology expert Anna Michalak points out, it’s not a matter of quantity – it’s a matter of distribution.

“The amount of water overall on earth is not changing,” she explains. “There's only so much water and it cycles through different phases, through different forms, different areas, different locations.

“The amount of water that we can actually use year-to-year is a very small fraction of a very small fraction of that total. And any changes in where that water is, what quality that water is and what form it takes, has a huge impact on our ability to use it in a manageable way.”

Californians have become very conscious of the water that they’re using in their kitchens, bathrooms and gardens. But it’s important to be mindful of indirect water use as well. We should think about our water footprint in the same way that we think about our carbon footprint, says Michalak. “By choosing where we eat on the food chain, we are making choices about how much water we are personally responsible for, in the same way as whether we choose to have a cactus garden or a green lawn in our house.”

Martha Davis of the Inland Empire Utilities Agency agrees. “The same way that we think about recycling of products and trying to keep them out of the garbage dumps and making sure we're recycling them -- the same mentality needs to come with the way in which we use water, and the choices that make sure that we're really thoughtful about where these water resources are coming from and how efficiently they're being used.”

One of the resources that has long been taken for granted is the Colorado River, which supplies 40 million Americans across seven states and waters 15% of the nation’s food crops, according to Pro Publica writer Abrahm Lustgarten. His research raises issues about whether our water woes are the result of environmental impacts or fundamental mismanagement. Over the last century, he reports, the amount of water flowing through the Colorado has dropped by about 2 million acre-feet, yet we’ve continued to portion it out at the same rate as ever.

“So right away…we are starting with a phenomenally large deficit of water,” says Lustgarten. “We’re essentially managing an amount of water that doesn't exist.”

This disconnect is typical of many regions that have a scarcity of water, says Lustgarten. “You have to start by attaining an honest estimate of the water supply that you're working with, and then allocate that to agricultural use, to urban use, to meet its many demands in a way that's realistic and matches our budget.  

“I mean, it's really no different than any of us going out with a credit card and spending freely when we don't have the money to support our purchases.”

Draining our lakes and rivers to feed a thirsty region is no solution. So what are our options? Tamin Pechet of Banyan Water and Imagine H20 thinks we can do better with what we have. “Water recycling and reuse is one of the fastest-growing segments within the water industry, and it makes sense,” he says. “We treat water to drinking water quality standards, and then use it for things like watering our lawns. It is growing and it makes sense that it is growing.” It helps to avoid the unpleasant associations generated by the media, he adds. “Really what they need is a little bit better marketing spin than ‘toilet-to-tap.’”

So should water be seen as a natural human right or as an investment opportunity? Many have mixed feelings about for-profit companies dipping into the water market. But Lustgarten points out that, where public policy has dropped the ball, it might be a necessary next step.

“First of all, it's sort of obvious that that capital investment flows towards anything that's becoming increasingly scarce,” he says. “And so it makes sense on that level.  

“But one of the things that I observed is really a largely government-driven failure to implement other solutions that might help the water dynamic; to oversimplify the tension between the agricultural water holders and the urban interest. So if government can't revise its policies, enact incentives, change its management plans in a way that solves some of the water tensions and scarcity problems that we're seeing, then market solutions can come in and fill a vacuum.”

“I think the world is moving in that direction where there's going to be some sort of market-based solution that tries to alleviate this water scarcity tension,” Lustgarten continues. One idea is for agricultural interests to strike a bargain with their urban neighbors, in a “shared economy” model similar to Airbnb. “There is a new trend towards leasing some of that water on a temporary basis which allows the water to stay attached to the land, but move towards the cities in those years when they need it most, and those kind of solutions seem like they have a lot of potential.”  


Related Links:

AAAS: Water, Climate, Energy, Food

Pro Publica’s “Killing the Colorado” series

Pacific Institute: The World’s Water

NY Times: How has the drought affected California’s water use?


- Anny Celsi
July 21, 2015
The Commonwealth Club of California
Photos by Ellen Cohan