Conserving Earth's Most Valuable Resource
"Water, water everywhere -- much of it going to waste"
Water is a precious natural resource, part of the common heritage of all humanity. But artificial subsidies make it easy to waste water -- some of the biggest wasters are businesses such as golf courses and giant inefficient agribusiness corporations.
If water's price reflected its true cost to society, those big wasters would be motivated to become more efficient, as millions of individuals already have done.
by Peter H. GleickYour mother was right: Waste not, want not. The largest, least expensive and most environmentally sound source of water to meet California's future needs isn't "new" water at all, but the water being wasted in every sector of our economy. So concludes a new report, three years in the making, published this week by the Pacific Institute of Oakland.
What this means for California is simple: We can meet the needs of a growing population and economy, and still have water left over to protect our state's natural beauty without expensive and environmentally destructive dams or reservoirs, by improving how efficiently we use water.
The good news is these improvements are well within our reach. We can save a huge amount of water with currently available technologies and policies, smarter pricing and economics, appropriate state and local regulations and public education.
Another bit of good news: Water conservation does not mean brown lawns, short showers or cutbacks in the state's economy. With today's technology we can do all the things we want to do, but with less water, by improving efficiency and reducing waste.
While this new report focused on urban water use, farmers can also conserve vast quantities of water while maintaining a strong agricultural economy through improved irrigation practices and continuing the trend toward less water-intensive crops.
Saving water also saves energy and money for water providers, consumers, and the state as a whole -- two other resources in short supply. Our best estimate is that one-third of California's urban water use -- more than 2.3 million acre-feet -- can be saved with existing technology. At least 85 percent of that water can be saved at less than what it would cost to tap into new sources without the many social, environmental and economic consequences that any major water project would bring.
How is this possible? Aren't we already conserving water? Indeed, California often leads much of the rest of the country in innovative water conservation efforts. Los Angeles has added 700,000 people in the past two decades, yet it has not increased its water demand because of efforts to improve efficiency. In 1975, California's economy produced around $30 in goods and services for every thousand gallons of water used; by 2000, this had tripled to $90 per thousand gallons. Yet, during this same period, total statewide water use decreased, despite the fact that our population grew from 21.5 million to more than 34 million. This is an astounding accomplishment.
Yet far more can be done. To give a mundane, yet telling example: the largest single user of water inside our homes is the toilet. Old toilets use six gallons every time we flush. New ones use only 1.6 gallons per flush, a 70 percent savings. While many old toilets have been replaced, it turns out that millions of inefficient ones remain.
If all those old toilets were replaced, the state would save another 420,000 acre-feet of high-quality water that now goes down the drain, and consumers will save money at the same time.
Forget those old jokes about having to flush twice -- the current generation of efficient toilets does a better job than that old one still in your home. The amount of water being wasted by inefficient toilets is greater than any new dam could hope to supply, even if we could find a place to build one that was environmentally, economically and politically acceptable (which we can't).
Another "reservoir" of potential savings is replacing inefficient washing machines in our homes, which could save more than 100,000 acre-feet of water, reduce energy and detergent use -- as well as save consumers money. Outdoor water use can also be made far more efficient with simple changes such as adding irrigation timers or using computer-controlled sprinklers that automatically respond to changing weather conditions. Similar examples of efficiency improvements can be found in every sector of our economy: New digital x-ray machines in hospitals, for instance, provide better images for doctors and replace the old water-intensive film process.
Capturing all of the water we now waste will require new commitments on the part of individuals, government agencies, public-interest groups and others with vested, often conflicting interests in California's water policy. Some of these efforts will be easy; some will be hard. But becoming more efficient is faster, cheaper and better for the environment than building more mega water projects.
There is one last benefit of not wasting water: Your mother would approve.
Peter Gleick, a 2003 MacArthur Fellow, is president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland.
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