Drought Presents A Challenge That Only Integrated Solutions Can Overcome
Drought in many regions of the country has continued to be the subject of much recent news, covering every type of concern from the impact on agriculture, to infrastructure, to politics, to ecosystems, and on and on. Adding to the drought itself, we are up against challenges including climate change, reduced snow pack in many areas, and the historical record of water variation itself (the oldest ongoing documenting of rainfall is only about 150 years old). And while this is a serious problem for states as varied as California, Texas, and parts of the South East, it is not an insurmountable one.
When I wrote about the need for infrastructure updates amidst drought before, I touched upon how the concept of Total Water Management (TWM) is a major part of answering this problem. Also known as One Water Management and Integrated Water Resources Management, TWM is essentially the idea of water stewardship applying to all water services – supply, quality, agriculture, energy/hydropower, flow management, and security against floods. The expectation is that this will lead to a better use of resources for adapting to tightening economic resources, population growth, aging infrastructure and climate change.
The goal of meeting demand even amidst drought is certainly attainable and is a daily preoccupation of the water industry. Focusing on delivering viable services to various communities, the industry has developed a set of innovative solutions to supply water, including:
Water reuse is one solution, and in understanding its significance, consider first the break-down of water usage. In Southern California, for example, about 70 percent of water is used for agriculture, 20 percent for golf courses, and 10 percent for businesses and homes. While proportions will vary across states, the principle is the same. The majority of water is used for agricultural and commercial ends, and does not need to be equal to drinking water.
Furthermore, wastewater, long since considered a problem and pollutant, can be treated and reused to meet the needs of our largest consumers: those in the agriculture and commercial industries. This would significantly ease the strain on rivers, lakes, and aquifers that provide us with clean and safe drinking water.
Reclaimed water need not only be confined to wastewater; highly saline sources, such as ocean or deep groundwater can also be treated. The process of water reuse can involve desalination, where the salt content is removed, and membrane filtration, where contaminants are removed via a membrane process. Furthermore, these technologies are continuously being streamlined, becoming more cost effective and energy efficient. We’re currently seeing this put to work alongside partner groups in the Monterey Water Supply Project, a solution to the Monterey Peninsula’s water supply shortage.
In addition to water reuse, I can’t stress how important good-old planning can be as a solution. We’ve seen growing populations across the west that have built entire communities without fully taking water supply into consideration. Arizona, as an example, demonstrates the value of planning and has done better than other states in maintaining a steady water supply.
Developing a sophisticated infrastructure system and working with water industry experts on planning, Arizona has developed a more efficient method for meeting demand, as well as a method for anticipating it. By analyzing climate patterns it can provide water to residents during droughts and thus avoid severe water shortages. In this sense, Arizona demonstrates that even when a state has a less than adequate natural supply of water, successful management is still possible.
Smaller communities can also benefit from planning. The dozens, if not hundreds, of individual communities that have sprung up in the arid regions of the West and South West rely on their own water systems, to the detriment of water efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and quality. Often times, the solution is as simple as linking these small communities together to a common water system. By centralizing their services to a larger plant, people can benefit from lower costs, greater water conservation, and better service and quality.
Proper water management stems not simply from technology and planning but from linking opportunities together in ways that are innovative and effective. For example, leak detection technology, whereby an acoustic monitor attached to a pipe can “listen” to pipe sounds and transmit this information back to a service person, can be combined with meter reading technology so that both forms of information can be collected, transmitted, and processed at once, saving energy, time, and money.
Likewise, developments in solar energy can significantly reduce the energy needed to treat water and wastewater. In sunny states like Nevada, New Mexico, California, and Arizona, the incentives are even greater.
Before our known recorded climate history, it’s likely that California and other states have been through droughts for much longer periods of time than the last few year’s we’ve been experiencing, but obviously not with the populations and needs for quality and reliable water that exist today. We have the means and methods to prepare for and react to this type of climate change, but being proactive is the key element for successfully managing the issue, rather than waiting and reacting when a problem is at the door. By working together with partners and applying TWM solutions we can make sure that future water needs are met.