Why we're running out of water

Susan Leal, author of "Running Out of Water," explains why we're in the midst of a global water crisis, what we can do about it and why the U.S. needs a cabinet-level position for water.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

The world is running out of water.

If you're sitting near an ocean, lake, river or stream, you may not believe it to be true. Surely, if it hasn't impacted your morning shower, daily cup of coffee and weekly load of laundry, how could it?

Rest assured, the world's supply of drinkable freshwater is depleting -- fast. Why? What's happening, and where? Why? And for Pete's sake, what can we do about it?

Susan Leal has an answer. The former general manager of San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission, Leal was part of the group that facilitated an upgrade of the Bay Area's unsafe water system and San Francisco's outdated wastewater system.

Now, she's pounding the pavement to sound the alarm that it's time for cities and states to get real about H2O -- before it's too late.

That's why Leal co-authored a book with Harvard professor Peter Rogers called Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource.

I spoke with her last month about the global water crisis, what can be done and the hurdles involved. Plus, Leal's argument for a cabinet-level position for water.

SmartPlanet: Why did you feel compelled to write this book?

SL: We wrote the book because we're on a collision course between a very finite supply of water.

We've had the same amount of water on our planet since the beginning of time. Even though 70 percent of the globe is covered in water, less than 1 percent is accessible to us.

But now there is 6.7 billion people using that water. We're on track to be up to 8 billion people in 15 years. With our current population, there is already water stress.

At least 30 states have had some type of water stress: in supply, or disposal....and then you add into that climate change, which on the West Coast is decreasing supply and on the East Coast is posing problems -- storms overwhelm wastewater systems, for example.

It's not just the amount of water you have, it's what you do with the water you do have, and how you dispose of it.

You have to think about the fact that there is no substitute for water. There are substitutes for energy and oil, whether it's for basic hygeine or in the food we eat.

It comes with affluence. Eight ounces of beef is 630 gallons of water. And the U.S. uses twice as much as anybody else. Everything we use has some part of water in it.

We wanted to put this book into everyday terms so that people would get it, and we felt we should and could scare them. But we didn't want doom and gloom, because people get excited and then they say "Oh, there's nothing I can do." We wanted to celebrate and highlight smarter use of water.

Where people come to the point of, "Oh hey, I hadn't thought of that."

SmartPlanet: Who uses the most water?

SL: Globally, agriculture is about 70 percent. In the U.S., it's about 50 percent -- closer to 60 percent.

When you go to that [concept of] "I hadn't thought of that" -- smarter use -- we're writing about the technologies available. The technology is there. We write about cases that people should and could replicate solutions.

It is very easy to have a 10 percent improvement to water use in agriculture. There are fairly low cost innovations using available technology that can have a significant improvement.

Unfortunately, it's business as usual. People don't get it until the water is gone. How we dispose of water will have a direct impact on our future supplies of water, the food we eat and our environment.

For every drop we use, we have to dispose of water. And often we pollute. With the exception of San Francisco, Boston and New York, almost all water is coming from a supply that's been used before. Take the Great Lakes -- wastewater goes back into the lakes eventually. It's sort of indirect recycling.

In Cape Cod, there are several towns, Barnstable, Salem, Orleans, who delayed on installing water treatment plants and relied on outdated and overwhelmed septic systems. The result was that surrounding ponds and bays were contaminated. We basically poisoned ourselves. And some areas are used by shellfishing.

It's the same amount of water [on Earth] since the beginning of time.

SmartPlanet: How do you create the leverage necessary to spur action?

SL: Without some incentives, people don't stop business-as-usual.

For example, one case we write about in Nebraska. The farmers came to a smarter use of water -- the large aquifer that runs from the Midwest to Texas -- and they made better use [decisions] when energy prices spiked. They just kept pumping down [into the ground for water], more than was recharged by nature by rain.

Because they pumped lower and lower, it took more energy -- diesel for their pumps, whatever they used -- and that caused the light to go on for a few farmers to say "Gee, there are gadgets and devices I could use that would increase my productivity and markedly decrease my water use." They thought "Oh, I don't need to do that, to pump all that water."

That, to me, is the tough one: how do you get people to do that? How do you get people to flip that lever? Does that come from people speaking out about it? Maybe you need people to start coming up with a political will. Maybe you need more business leaders and captains of industry to say, "Gee, we're not making sense here." IBM has started discussions about this. There has to be some sort of incentive.

In Australia, the government said, "We will let you buy and sell water." Trading it is what saved them -- putting a monetary value on water. When you're able to properly value it...you're not going to just grow rice and flood the fields.

SmartPlanet: Captains of industry are calling for a price on carbon. Do we need a price on water?

SL: Yes, but you need to walk a very fine line, because if you raise it too high, the price of food will go up.

Food is still relatively cheap, and we want food to stay relatively cheap. If you really drive the price of water up...yes, you need to put a value on water, and there needs to be a price, but you have to be careful of driving up the cost of other goods.

For example, right now, you pay much less for water than your cable or cell phone or anything else -- yet it's the most essential. In Cape Cod, people didn't want to pay for a wastewater treatment plant. "Not in my backyard."

In Boston, that whole thing with the Boston Harbor was because they didn't make the improvements when they were supposed to when the Clean Water Act was passed 40 years ago, and then had to do it all at once in a short time without federal dollars, on their own ratepayers' nickel.

The result was the cost went up and the water use went down. It was this classic Econ 1A chart.

It needs to be a consciousness-raising. I know that sounds very '60s, but what we found is that where you have public involvement and your consumers, when those people were educated and involved, you could do almost anything. You could raise rates, people to accept things, contribute sweat equity -- and they're feeling good about it. Where you had public engagement, public involvement, the ball can be moved down the field.

Everybody's getting signals, but they're not connecting the dots. For people who have wells, they know they have to go deeper to get water. They're seeing it all over this country. We have a Secretary of Energy [Steven Chu --Ed.], but we don't have some high level position dealing with water, and water is a much more significant crisis.

The [American] West is in the grip of a really serious water crisis. But we're in la-la land.

SmartPlanet: How do you mobilize corporate leaders whose own products are impacted?

SL: Right now, some of these groups are coming together, but there has to be more of a connection between them. A lot of tech industry companies are coming up with different devices and things to solve the crisis. But they're all talking to each other.

How do we move this from talking to each other to actually talking to the broader public and some of the policy leaders to start policy change?

You need to connect the dots. You have to somehow get that farmer to connect with that person who says "Gosh, we use all this food and waste all this food and that's a lot of water wasted."

I don't even think it needs to be a tax. If you said to farmers, "I have a way for you to be more productive and use less water." That's where you need an economic incentive.

Water's still money. Even if it's cheap, it's still money. And it's not going to get cheaper.

You look at the GAO reports, and every year we fall short $20 billion in water and waste infrastructure that we're not making back. These things pile up.

SmartPlanet: Do you need to let it get bad to get people to take action?

SL: That's why we elect people. They should be pushing us. We're on a collision course. This is a crisis.

When that BP [Gulf of Mexico oil spill] disaster happened -- arguably the worst environmental and economic disaster that's happened in awhile -- one of the symbols of that were the "Beach Closed" signs all the way down the coast.

At the same time, there were "Beach Closed" signs all over this country -- in Rhode Island, New Jersey, the Great Lakes, California -- mainly because we were poisoning ourselves with wastewater.

We haven't kept pace with the infrastructure. The result is, both urban and rural, that you get to that point when it gets really bad and someone gets sick and people say, "Oh, I guess we have a problem."

This is a national problem.

This EPA is, as I understand it, much more aggressive in making sure the Clean Water Act is met. But there's no way of knowing that those "Beach Closed" signs all over the country are from polluted water, pharmaceuticals and water.

But it's there, and we're actually getting worse. It may take business leaders, because I don't see a high-level policy focus on water, even though there is no substitute.

Every company is using lots of water. It's still money. They're concerned about cost and about availability. That's tourism. That's food.

Companies that are producing waste...take the largest chicken producer in California. They actually found a way to hook up with a water utility and turn that waste into energy. There are 150-some anaerobic digesters in California that could do that. Gee, why didn't I think of that?

SmartPlanet: Is that what it takes? Just letting it work its way through industry?

SL: But we don't have a lot of time.

Water security to me is more important than energy security. Where the public gets tuned in, they are extremely great advocates. And if you give people a way to solve it, they'll solve it.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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