In the past week I have had the opportunity to experience the extremes with water – heavy rains/tropical weather in SE Florida, and dry weather in Denver at America Water Works Association’s Annual Conferences and Exposition. Two months ago with was snowing in Denver and there had been limited rain in SE Florida. Six months ago we were both dry and there was significant concern about drought in both places. How quickly fortunes change and the associated attitudes as well. It is part of a perception problem – looking at the near term – instant gratification, as opposed the long-term consequences. In truth neither set of conditions is historically different or should have created major panic or much shift in attitudes, but it is the potential to predict conditions that require the water manager’s scrutiny. We have all become risk managers.
Managing risk is not in the job description of most water and sewer personnel (risk managers aside, and they are focused on liability risks from incidents caused by or incurred by the utility like accidents, not water supply risks). We spend a lot of effort on the engineering, operation and business side, but less on planning or risk/vulnerability assessments. EPA has required vulnerability assessments in the past, but having seen some of those exercises, most are fairly superficial and many put on a shelf and forgotten. I have had clients ask me if I still had copies because they did not. Clearly we need a renewed commitment to vulnerability assessment.
Vulnerability starts with water supplies. Groundwater is particularly tricky. A new USGS study reports significant decreases in water levels in many aquifers across the US, especially confined aquifers in the west. That situation is not improving, and the situation will not correct itself. Loss of your water supply is a huge vulnerability for a community. Finding a new supply is not nearly as simple as it sounds or as many are led to believe. Confined aquifers do not recharge quickly and therefore have finite amounts of water in them. Remove too much water and all too often land subsidence occurs, which means the aquifer collapses and will never hold the same amount of water. USGS has mapped this and it matches up well with the drawn down aquifers. More data needs to be collected, but Congress is looking to cut USGS funds for such purposes, just when conditions suggest the data is needed most.
Many watershed basins and many aquifers are over allocated and overdrawn, and not just in the west. New England and the Carolinas have examples. Overallocation means competition for water will increase with time and it will be utilities that everyone will look at to solve the problem. Afterall the utilities have money as opposed to agriculture and other users, right? To protect themselves, water utility managers will need to look beyond their “slice of the pie” to start discussions on the holistic benefits to water users throughout the watershed, which will extend to understanding economic and social impacts of water use decisions. It is not just about us, and paradigm shift that is coming and one that we as an industry need to be the leading edge for. Our use impacts others and vice versa. Every basin wants to grow and prosper, but decisions today may reduce our future potential. Klamath River is a great example of misallocated water priorities. The biggest potential economy in the basin is Salmon ($5B/yr), followed by tourism ($750 M and growing), which relies on fishing and hiking. But agriculture ($0.2 B/yr) get the water first. Then power, which warms the water (salmon like cold water). Then a few people (a few 100,000 at the most in the basin). The result, the salmon industry gets reduced to $50 M/yr. Now how could we create more jobs, which would result in more income and a bigger economy? The easy answer is encourage the salmon industry, but that doesn’t sit well with the other, smaller users that will become more vulnerable to losses.
I suggest that to harden our water future in any given basin, we need to start looking a little more holistically at the future. This type of analysis is clearly not in the job description of the utility or its managers, utility managers may have the best access to technical expertise and information. As a result to protect their interests and manage risk, we may need to shift that paradigm and become holistic water managers.