Sunday, May 22, 2011

Solving the West's Water Woes

The Pacific Institute ( headquartered in Oakland, CA thinks a lot about water globally. The institute has recently opined on the solutions for the water woes of the West - in fact offering up four necessary strategies:

1. Rethink Water Supply. PI says we need to rethink “sources of water that were preciously ignored or unusable” - citing treated waste water and desalination of brackish water.

2. Rethink Water Demand. PI calls for significant strides in water use efficiency in all water uses - especially industry, agriculture and public water supplies. Cited is the steel industry which now uses 3 tons of water per ton of produced steel as opposed to 200 tons in the 1930s.

3. Improve institutional management. PI says we need “New arrangements, especially in terms of improved clarity of federal/state responsibilities..” which can reduce pressures on water.

4. Integrate climate change in all the above.

When thinking of the water woes of the entire West, the first two strategies - water supply and water demand - do not seem mutually exclusive issues to me. The “ignored and unusable” supplies PI cites are more expensive, so will never compete with normal water supplies for industry, ag or any use, which all desire (or worse yet, require) the cheapest water possible to be economically competitive, or, to even think about affording the efficiency upgrades called for. And it’s also quite possible that raising the price of water in order to force efficiency improvements on the demand side will not find all users equally poised to adopt the desired efficiency. Ag users come to mind first as the group least able to cope with such a rethinking strategy.

Strategy three has me perplexed. “New arrangements” in PI’s context sounds like political-speak for a change in who gets to decide on who gets to use whatever the available water supplies are redefined to be. This is plain scary when talking water from California to Kansas. Moreover, I hope everyone realizes that the water managers don’t have the authority to change the system, or craft "new arrangements", just because they like a new way to look at water use. Kansas has 60 years of water law built on the current way of looking at water use - be it right or wrong - and most western states have way more years than Kansas. The legislatures will be the only way “new arrangements” can be made. Or Congress….  

Strategy four I can’t argue with. Whomever is going to solve the water woes of the West, climate change is sure to be a wild card that is far more likely to make it more difficult than less so.

My closing thoughts? The solution to the West’s water woes will come from a small, discrete watershed or groundwater basin where the local users decide they want a new water paradigm. They’ll use these same strategies (more or less) but only within the constraints of their state water law and on a regional scale more manageable.  But I’m sure this is what PI means - even though the headline implies otherwise.  Thinking the entire West can implement these strategies drives me crazy.

But regardless of the scale, how do we know that nine times more steel won’t be produced when the industry improves its water use efficiency by nine times?  How do we know that agriculture won’t produce more acres of more crops when they increase water use efficiency?  How can we be comfortable that any “new arrangements” and increased water use efficiency (which agriculture is the least able to manage) aren’t back door attempts to reallocate western water for uses someone else feels are more important? 
Only the lawmakers can change the legal system in which water has evolved, and do they have the wide vision that PI does? 

Four simple strategies to solve the water woes of the West?  Not a chance - unless it’s done at the right scale, by the right people and for the right reasons.

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