The recent severe drought in the Western United States — and California in particular — has shined a spotlight on a range of water-management practices that are outdated, unsustainable, or inappropriate for a modern 21st century water system. Unless these bad practices are fixed, no amount of rain will be enough to set things right. Just as bad, talking about many of these bad practices has been taboo for fear of igniting even more water conflict, but the risks of water conflicts here and around the world are already on the rise and no strategy that can reduce those risks should be off the table.
For urban and agricultural water agencies, the Western drought has highlighted how unprepared the region is for growing pressures from population growth and climate change. Among the most egregious of old management practices are the long-term failure to monitor and measure all water uses, price water properly, and manage water rights laws and allocations in a fair and equitable way. For example, the days when we could build anything, anywhere, with no regard to water availability or efficiency of use, should be over. Yet there is still no serious discussion of reining in poor economic development practices or factoring in water availability with land-use planning.
Equally disastrous in California, as well as in places like northern China and large parts of India, has been systematic massive overdraft of groundwater. As studies have repeatedly shown, groundwater basins around the world are being depleted and as much as a third of global food production comes from unsustainable groundwater overdraft. California over-pumps approximately 2 billion cubic meters (more than 500 billion gallons) of groundwater in normal years and this has tripled during the drought. Modest new groundwater management legislation has been put in place in California, but it perpetuates this imbalance for decades to come; other regions around the world similarly grossly mismanaging groundwater.
The collapse of several vital ecosystems and fisheries populations also shows the growing tensions between human and environmental uses of water. The extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin, a decline in the UK populations of wetland and riverine birds like the bittern, and the growing threat of extinction in California of a wide range of major species, such as the Delta Smelt are clear indications of water mismanagement. Another key species in California, winter-run Chinook salmon, lost 95% of the entire 2014 generation when temperatures in the Sacramento River exceeded lethal levels. The chances are high and growing that within a decade California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, will be an ecological disaster of staggering proportions, rivaling the destruction of the Aral Sea. And yet there has been little public discussion of these threats.
The private sector, too, has been struggling to figure out its role in a world of growing water shortages. As droughts have worsened, water bottling companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé are finding themselves under the microscope of public opinion for taking public water resources, packaging them for substantial profit, and then failing to adequately respond to public concerns about their local impacts, lack of transparency of data sharing, and their role in helping share the burdens imposed by water shortages and drought.
Companies with a big water footprint can, and should, actively engage in public discussions to help craft practical solutions to water problems. At a time when new global strategies and ideas are being developed for seriously improving corporate operational practices around resource management, disclosure, and the human right to water, the private sector must step up its game in real, transparent, and comprehensive ways. Until then, they shouldn’t be surprised if they continue to be a target for a worried and anxious public.
Similarly, the agricultural and livestock sectors are in the midst of a fundamental transition, whether they know it or not. The recent media focus on the amount of water that goes to grow almonds or raise cows is an example of both real public concern and the difficulties farmers will continue to face in explaining and justifying their water use. Ultimately there will be a reckoning about how much land farmers can irrigate in the arid western United States in the face of a changing climate and deteriorating ecosystem health. The answer is almost certainly less than is irrigated today. Yet almost no one is willing to discuss this. The good news is that innovation in water management, deployment of better water-using technologies, and a shift away from low-valued water-intensive crops to crops that produce more food or revenue per drop of water can help maintain a strong agricultural sector while reducing pressure on water resources.
There are still vast untapped opportunities in every water-using sector for improving water-use efficiency, widening use of high-quality recycled water, saving ecosystems, and recharging overdrafted aquifers. But until we challenge long-held beliefs, assumptions, and taboos, we will see more water conflict rather than progress toward a sustainable water future.