Water, Water, Everywhere—But Not a Drop to Drink?

The thirst on Earth is building. Is there enough water to go around?

With the planet getting warmer and more populated, the trend lines seem clear: the thirst on Earth is building. Is there enough water to go around, and if so, for how long? We spoke with water and climate expert Peter Gleick, Ph.D. in an attempt to find out.

You’ve talked about “peak water” in the American West. Can you explain?
The concept of “peak water” tells us that even though water is (mostly) a renewable resource, there are limits to how much water humans can use, and we are finding ourselves up against those peak limits in the western United States (and many other places around the world). For example, our cities and farms now use the entire flow of the Colorado River. While that is a renewable resource, we can’t get more out than nature provides, and in fact, we’re now realizing that we should have left some in the river for the natural ecosystems. Another example of “peak water” is the unsustainable overpumping of our groundwater and levels are falling in many parts of California—just like overpumping oil.

Will building more storage systems like dams solve our water problems?
The massive water storage systems we’ve built in the West help us get through droughts and reduce the risks of floods, but they have also caused serious economic, environmental, and social problems that we are only now starting to address. Moreover, there are very few acceptable places for new, traditional storage reservoirs and dams in California. As a result, a water strategy that just relies on new dams and traditional storage ideas is doomed to failure. A few more dams—even if we could find a place (and the money) to build them—would not eliminate or solve the water problems we face. The good news is that there are alternative ideas for “storage” that may prove very useful, including using overpumped groundwater systems to store water in wet years to use in dry years—so-called “conjunctive use.” Let’s stop looking to old thinking about storage, and look to new ideas.

Speaking of those overpumped groundwater resources, who can we better manage them?
The first step is to begin to comprehensively monitor actual groundwater use. Hard as it is to believe, we don’t monitor or measure all groundwater uses, and as a result, we do not know who is using water, to do what, and we do not sustainably use our groundwater—overdraft is a serious challenge.

How much can be gained from water recycling?
Another potential new “source” of water is to make far better use of wastewater for different purposes. We can, and often do, treat wastewater to very high standards, and indeed, could produce the highest quality potable water if we wanted, as they are doing today in Singapore and elsewhere. But even lower quality treated wastewater could be considered an asset and used for restoring ecosystems, landscaping, industrial uses, or other purposes.

Ecosystems have taken huge hits as users divert more and more water from rivers. What tools do we have to make sure that the life of streams is protected?
We must do a better job of understanding the water needs of ecosystems, and then we must develop the laws and institutional tools to guarantee those basic needs, just as we now recognize the human right to water for basic needs. Some progress has been made in this direction in the past few years, but ecosystems are still on the short end of the stick when it comes to water rights and allocations, and all of us suffer as a result.

Some 80 percent of water in California is used by agriculture, and half of that to grow low-value crops. How can this be changed without seriously compromising an industry that makes up a large portion of the state’s economy?
California is a wonderful place to grow food, and a healthy agricultural industry and communities are vital for the state. In the coming years, one of the most important challenges will be figuring out how to grow more food with less water, by improving the efficiency of irrigation, expanding modern irrigation technologies, better monitoring of water applications, and shifts in the kinds of crops farmers grow and where they grow them. We already see progress with innovative farmers and water districts increasing production with less water.

Everyone has heard of Chinatown and knows the basic story behind the Owens Valley. How can the mostly rural areas of California, where much of our water comes, from avoid the same fate—seeing their water diverted away to wealthier, more politically-powerful areas?
There is still a major imbalance in political and economic strength that favors large, politically powerful urban areas and irrigation districts at the expense of smaller, more rural areas. Our water institutions must find better ways of recognizing, listening to, and protecting rural areas and the headwaters of our watersheds in order to guarantee reliable and sustainable water supplies in the future.

Should the way water is allocated—mostly its rights were handed out generations ago—be changed as we go forward into a different economy, demography, and climate scenario in California? And if so, how?
Among the institutional challenges facing California—and much of the rest of the world—are old water laws, institutions, and policies. These are often very hard to change, including, for example, the water rights allocations given out a century ago. Nevertheless, we cannot continue to do business as usual, especially in a world with a rapidly changing climate. We must look to better technologies, proper water pricing, and even limited water markets, ecosystems protections, and the greater involvement of local communities in planning and managing water systems. There are signs that innovative cities and farms are moving in the right direction. The risk is we may not move quickly enough to avoid the coming crisis.

theessentials_masa_tA member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a MacArthur “genius” Fellow, Peter Gleick is the president and cofounder of the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan organization devoted to finding solutions to such pressing issues as water shortages and habitat destruction. Photograph by Sarah Frankie Linder

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