What's the Single Biggest Misuse of Water in the US?
Go to your tap and turn it on. Most likely, the second you turn the faucet handle, water gushes out. That alone might make you think there's not a water crisis happening right now in America. Or at least that if there is, it's not that bad. But you'd be wrong. In fact, from our infrastructure that wastes water supplies and doesn't allow rainwater to soak back into the ground table, to our lack of measurement and management of our water use, we're on a fast track to having very little drinkable water in the very near future. Author Robert Glennon addresses this very issue in his new book Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It. We asked Glennon his thoughts on some of the most pertinent issues facing us right now, and he provided some insight into what has to change, and how we can do it, so that we can ensure supplies of water for everything from human consumption to agriculture to manufacturing in the decades to come.
TH What do you think is the SINGLE most dangerous use of our water right now in the United States? Is it the support of cities in deserts, or mismanagement in agriculture, or pollution? All are, of course, terrible; but if you had to pick one to eliminate this very second, which would it be?
Robert Glennon: The most dangerous "use" is the agricultural, industrial, and municipal pollution that threatens human health. Pollution is very insidious because it often happens out of sight and out of mind. The water that runs from farm fields, factories, or municipal wastewater treatment plants may enter rivers or groundwater. When draw that water from streams or pump it from the ground we also get those contaminants.
TH What is the biggest misuse you see of water on a global scale?
RG: The biggest misuse of water is the excessive pumping of groundwater. It is most scary in India and China, which rely on large-scale, industrialized agriculture to feed their huge populations. They withdraw more groundwater than Mother Nature provides reliably each year. The aquifers in both China and India, as well as in the United States, are declining. What on earth is going to happen when this water to grow food is no longer available?
TH We tend to take access to clean water for granted in the States, expecting to have cheap water at our taps at all times. Explain your vision of what might happen should we suddenly be faced with the true cost of water on our bills. What might happen?
RG: My vision is that, if water was not subsidized, individual citizens, businesses and farmers would pay the real costs, and water would become much more expensive. After the outrage, we'd see the prices drive conservation and push waste out of the system. Homeowners would landscape yards with plants that makes sense for their climates, businesses would recycle water, and farmers would install more efficient irrigation systems.
We Americans are spoiled. Turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want, for less than we pay for cell phone service or cable television. We must change this situation.
We must recognize a human right to water for life's necessities. The richest country in the history of the world can surely make that commitment to its citizens. Honoring that right does not involve a large quantity of water--only about 1% of the water that is used each day in the United States. For the other 99%, we need to encourage conservation and stewardship by pricing it appropriately: in general, the more you use the more you pay. Under this system, Americans, whether homeowners, farmers or industry would vote with their pocketbooks as to how they use water.
TH What do you think of more companies latching on to smart water technology? It's expected to be a multi-billion dollar industry in just a few years, and companies like IBM are already working on getting smart metering in place. Is there hope for better use of water if we have more smart metering technologies?
RG: The market viability of smart water technology depends in large measure on what we do with the price of water. As I travel around the United States, I meet many interesting engineers and inventors with creative, viable methods for saving water. Unfortunately, I find myself saying all too often that while the idea sounds great, its economic viability is highly problematic. A few years ago, General Electric embarked on its Eco-Imagination program, but this past year they signaled they might back away. The economics of water simply don't justify the kinds of expensive desalination programs that GE was hoping to advance. If it is cheap and easy to waste water, we will waste it before we conserve it.
TH We have a hard enough time as Americans transitioning everyone to conserving their energy use. What can we do to get people to conserve their water as well? And beyond the average citizen, what participants in the American economy need to cut down the most on their water consumption?
RG: There are three methods for getting people to conserve water: voluntary conservation, perhaps egged on by public educational programs; mandatory conservation with various rules that prohibit certain uses; and price signals to encourage citizens to conserve. There are familiar ways to reduce water, such as turning off the water while brushing one's teeth. But even things that we take for granted and seldom think about can involve substantial quantities of water. Running a kitchen food disposal just two minutes per day can use 150 gallons of water each month to get rid of food scraps that could just as easily be added to the trash or a compost pile. A single 60-watt incandescent bulb that burns 12 hours a day for a year, may consume as much as 6,300 gallons of water in the process of generating the electricity. If citizens want to save water, they should turn off the lights.
Beyond the average citizen's effort to conserve, what we most need in the United States is for farms to use less. Farms use between 70 and 80 percent of the water in the United States. This is a complicated problem, but the short answer is that we should require new developments that need water to purchase and retire agricultural water rights. Water conservation on farms is enormously expensive--well beyond the means of many farmers. If we want farmers to change, and after all, it is the non-farm sector that would like to obtain some of the farmers' water, then the non-farm sector must give farmers incentives to change. The most equitable way to do that is to insist that new development offset its demand on the public supply by persuading existing users to make do with less.
TH How about the carbon footprint of water--can you discuss a few of the key issues around carbon emissions of the transportation and treatment of water?
RG: The carbon footprint of water is gigantic. We can begin with the fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides that drive much of our food supply. Add to that, the costs associated with petroleum to run tractors and other farm equipment. Add further the water needs associated with energy production--whether ethanol or petroleum or natural gas--and with electric power generation, and you begin to realize just how intimately connected water and energy are.
To consider one example, 19 percent of all of the electricity used in California is for the purpose of pumping, treating, transporting, and delivering water.
TH When do you think we'll need to start moving people out of unsustainable cities and into areas where water has a smaller carbon footprint?
RG: I do not foresee moving people out of cities, but I do predict severe environmental damage. Unsustainable groundwater pumping and excessive diversions from our rivers will reduce the quality and quantity of water, and in many places we will see earth subsidence, saltwater intrusion, and earth fissures or sinkholes.
I hope it does not come to this. There is no doubt that the United States is facing a water crisis, but a crisis is a time of opportunity when there are still choices to be made. In Unquenchable, I offer options that can keep the crisis from becoming a catastrophe. Now, what we need is the moral courage and the political will to act.