March 29th, 2012


Former CEO, Veolia Water Americas

Water Policy Advisor, Planning and Conservation League

Program Director, Pacific Institute


Water. All life depends on it. Human populations and environmental ecosystems to be sure, but also private industry and government economies. Today, however, this precious resource is literally drying up. Right here in the Bay Area, we’re feeling the consequences of a diminished snowpack in the Sierras and an increasingly beleaguered Bay Delta estuary. What are the impacts? And where are the solutions?

According to Jason Morrison, Program Director at the Pacific Institute, in many parts of the world today, neither aquatic systems nor populations are getting their needs met. In 2010, the United Nations declared a human right to water. “Now we need to figure out how to fulfill it.” He envisions roles for a number of segments of society.

Laurent Auguste, President and CEO of Veolia Water Americas, spoke of the diversity of water stresses around the world. One challenge is that water is often managed in isolation, “according to political boundaries,” he said, “when actually this has nothing to do with the watershed, the natural boundaries.” But he pointed to Israel as an innovative example. Israel recycles about 70 percent of its water, compared to a global rate of 5 percent, turning a challenge into an economic opportunity.

Focusing on California, Jonas Minton, Water Policy Advisor to the Planning and Conservation League, stated that, in the past, the answer was to dam or drill. “We built over 1200 dams, we have hundreds of wells to the extent that we are over-drafting our groundwater. So we’re not talking about water development, not in California.” It’s about water management.

Corporations will have a role in motivating change. In siting facilities, they’re starting to wake up to water scarcity as a risk to business continuity. Morrison said, “Conversations are just beginning in many parts of the world where companies sit down with governments, and perhaps civil groups, to raise the the issue from the lowly water ministries up to the finance, trade, and energy ministries, “where the power really lies in many of these countries.” 

Turning to cities, Auguste spoke of competitive advantage in effective water management. By using best practices from around the world, he said, New York City expects to save $100-$200M/year out of $1B budget. Singapore is another example. They turned wastewater into what they call “new water,” highly pure. For Auguste, it’s about “connecting the drops” between people and data, water managers and best practices, and reliability and innovation.

In speaking of the practice in Australia, where people buy and trade rights to water access, Minton said, “One wants to encourage innovation, economic efficiency, however, you have to ensure that public trust values are maintained.” He pointed to the Bay Delta estuary, whose water is being diverted to entities that have major financial stakes. “It raises some significant questions as to transparency, public access, and whether the highest uses are being made of that water.”

Morrison suggested that as we look forward, more tools are going to be necessary to provide a buffer against the variability of water resources to assure supply. “If you can provide that assurance without building another dam in the Sierras, but through a market instrument that allows you to avail yourself of water in drought years on a temporary basis, that’s just clever water management and I think you’re going to see more of that, not just in California, but elsewhere.”


– Lucy Sanna
March 29, 2012
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California