Across the United States, we hear the regulatory discussions about managing groundwater supplies. There are 20 year plans (which many think is the long-term perspective), 50 year plans and 100 year plans; no doubt a myriad of others. The concept of managing groundwater seems reasonable, but the query here is whether or not managing for a finite period demonstrates good leadership.
In most cases, the concept of managing aquifers for finite periods is associated with the need or desire by local and state officials to develop a certain region, and obtaining the necessary water to meet development projections. “Sustainability” for elected officials and developers is distinctly different than that of water resource professionals. The whole intent of elected officials and developers is to continue to build more, attract more people and business and, well, to use more water. This is in contrast to the fact that water supplies in most basins is relatively finite or fixed, which means that inevitably the supply will be exceeded by local demands, the opposite of “sustainability” from a water resource perspective. Compounding the problem is that water resource professionals are normally pretty creative in stretching finite supplies with reuse, conservation, use policies, restrictions and augmentation with other supplies, actions and programs which actually may work against their long-term goal of sustainability – there is a finite number of reasonable solutions that may work, each with increasing cost to the customers, which works against the goals for the elected officials to limit costs to customers. As a result, a conflict over the differing views of “sustainability” are inevitable. As solution requires leadership.
Leadership is understanding that there are constraints to the resources. Leadership is understanding that there is a limit to the reasonable solutions and a limit to development, or the type of development that can be accommodated. For example in Colorado, Denver Water, going back 100 years, built tunnels and reservoirs to transfer water from the west side of the Rockies to the east. This worked for 70 years or so, until the Denver area started to explode, exceeding the capacity of those transfer systems. As this occurred, groundwater was far less costly than tunnels, reservoirs and acquiring access to water supplies west of the Rockies (and the downstream water delivery contracts impacted this as well). A 100 year management plan was developed and approved by the State Legislature in 1985 to allow water to be withdrawn from the Denver Basin, despite very limited recharge. This is not to say that the plan for management was not a good leadership start (certainly it is an improvement over doing nothing), but what happens in 70 years? We assume some up with a solution to extend the life of the aquifer, but when will that occur and who will lead that charge? What will be the political backlash when the initial rumblings begin? The good news is that the major users are utilities, which have resources to pay for treatment, aquifer storage, indirect potable reuse, direct potable reuse and a host of other potential options, but not every basin is so lucky. If the major users are agriculture or ecosystems, who pays that bill? If the answer is no one, what happens to the industry? The jobs? Communities? People?
The query begs the question, how do we align competing definitions for sustainability, as defined by local officials, developers, water resource professional and others? And how do we educate the local officials and the populace of the perils of over-allocation of water supplies? This is a legacy leadership issue, and it requires hard and sometimes unpopular decisions that can change the course of history.
Legacy leadership is defined by what is left behind not by the current condition. It’s how we change our thinking and actions to adapt to the changed conditions. We look back as great water projects of the 20th century – Hoover Dam, the channels carrying water to Los Angeles from the Colorado River and central California that allowed southern California to develop, or the numerous dams across the west that permitted crops to grow in arid regions. You can search out who led those projects. That is their legacy. Those that came afterward reaps the rewards created from the efforts of these leaders. Now we face a changing condition in the 21st century. Who will take the 21st century leadership mantle? And how will we change our viewpoint to protect our resources? We can start by trying to change the perception of deeper groundwater, especially confined systems, as primary water sources, when they may better serve us in the long-term as back-up or emergency sources in many regions, with surface water as the primary sources. Where surface waters and surficial aquifers do not exist, perhaps development as desired by local officials is not the sustainable way to go? So who takes the lead in those areas where there are insufficient resources and tells the developers, no you can’t develop here? That will be leadership….
There is an interesting ethical issues that arises in this discussion also. Engineers are entrusted to protect the public health, safety and welfare. When there were few people, projects did not impact many so little thought was given to the “what could possible happen” question. We are still paying for that. Now that there are more people, conflicts become more likely and more frequent. Most times engineers are not asked to evaluate the unintended consequences of the projects they build. Only to build them to protect the public health safety and welfare while doing so, but from a specific vantage point. So if you know a project will create a long-term consequence, what action should you take? There are many water supply examples, where we have engineered solutions that have brought water or treated water to allow development. South Florida is a great example – we drained half a state. But no one asked if that development was good or appropriate – we drained off a lot of our water supply in the process and messed up the ecological system that provided a lot of the recharge. No one asked in the 1930 if this was a good idea. Designing/building cities in the desert, designing systems that pump groundwater that does not recharge, or design systems that cannot be paid for by the community – we know what will happen at some point. So the question is whether there is a conflict between engineers meeting their obligations to the public and economic interests in such cases?
And finally, when considering the ethical issue: