Among the world’s most daunting challenges, including war, poverty, and climate change, is water scarcity. For California
, water scarcity ranks as one of the top priorities for government officials.
During winters with reduced precipitation, depleted snow pack produces less fresh water melt to fill the state’s rivers. The state has enacted state legislation that requires maintenance of water levels in some rivers for endangered and threatened aquatic species like the Delta smelt and salmon.
Regulators and water agencies in the state now face a reduced water supply for the state’s competing needs: agriculture, a large of part of the state’s already failing economy, drinking water for more than 36.5 million citizens, and other industrial and environmental resources.
The World Water Forum held last week in Istanbul may provide some answers for California. More than 190 countries met in Istanbul including three princes, three presidents, five prime ministers, and more than 60 mayors, for a grand total of more than 23,000 participants. Clearly, water is a critical matter.
The world faces water scarcity challenges and at times, those challenges cross international borders contributing to battles and even wars. Citizens cannot gain access to clean water for survival, and some industries pollute water by dumping waste into streams, rivers and lakes.
As with so many of the world’s challenges, cooperation and collaboration is essential. Water travels from mountaintops toward lakes and ocean basins. Concerns about water levels do not stop -- regardless of the number of dams established -- within the borders of one country or state when others downstream depend on it. Water therefore must be addressed at regional watershed levels.
Mark Smith of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a leader in water conservation explains, “The problem with shared rivers is that if nations don’t cooperate; they can all end up trying to use the same water more than once…When they do, the environment loses out on the water it needs, and development fails when tensions rise. Cooperation on rivers means the reverse; the benefits of a healthy environment and development can be shared, while promoting peace."
So the lesson is to address water regionally and put the environment first. Some in California are realizing this and trying to do something about. For example, the state’s Department of Water Resources is now operating off of the California Water Plan that seeks to solve scarcity by creating a portfolio of water sources for the state and a plan on where and how to send that available water, which includes replacing some fresh water with recycled water. Moving the portfolio of water supplies around regions allows the state to provide fresh drinking water, recycled water for irrigation, and a variation of the two (in addition to pilot projects to generate desalinated water and emergency storage supplies for drought and other emergencies) while first meeting the environmental water needs of our friends that make their home in the state’s rivers.
For example, in California, the IUCN’s recommendations might look like this: fresh water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is divided up into various needs: environmental, drinking, and everything else. The amount of determined environmental water is either left in the Delta’s rivers, or shifted around via dams and stored water (reservoirs) to other parts of the Delta that need environmental water. The amount of drinking water available after those needs are met is then pumped by various water agencies and state projects.
Some of the water is pumped to nearby agricultural users and the San Francisco Bay Area for drinking water, and then some of that water is laboriously pumped hundreds of miles to southern California. If the state could find additional waters supplies for southern California through regional, interstate, and possibly, international (Mexico) cooperation efforts, the supply of more drinking water for citizens, recycled water for industry use, environmental water for habitat and species health, and even emergency supplies is expanded to better suit the region’s large population.
Doing so also would mean reducing the amount of time it takes for water to travel from the Delta to the region, and major energy and infrastructure reductions if water does not have to travel that far.
Water is such a vital issue because as global climate change occurs, fresh water is intruded by ocean water, making that water undrinkable and unusable for agriculture (without expensive mass desalination). Reduced precipitation, as California is already experiencing, means less available water from the outset of the year’s water planning. But, most importantly, water matters because it sustains life.
World water leaders that met in Istanbul face many more challenges than California, like getting fresh water to the “one billion people [that] lack access to water and 2.4 billion [that] lack access to sanitation,” according to a press release.
Again, water is life. That is why we celebrate World Water Day.
In America, we are doing so this year in cities like Boston, St. Paul, and Seattle, by focusing on what business can do to reduce their water impact, saving fresh water for drinking supplies. In addition to the regional and environmental answers from Istanbul, IBM has a few answers and is helping to achieve a smart, corporate solution to water consumption.
IBM created an energy efficient filtration system that more efficiently sifts out salt and heavy metals. For polluted America waterways and participants of the Istanbul conference, removing pollutants from water through filtration can provide a new supply that can be used for business, instead of using fresh and limited drinking water. IBM has also launched other related water systems that can measure water quality, and provide data on how water is used to better inform water efficiency planning. Without regional cooperation and technologies that save fresh water for the environment and drinking, the world will have only conflict and thirst. These are the answers for California and for the world.
Image courtesy David Seelig photography.