Freshwater Wave

Pacific Ocean
Photo: David Orias

Growing up in California, which has always been a place of regular droughts, one of the first things you learn is that water can be a precious commodity. One of the things you don’t always learn is how to use it wisely. There always seems to be either too much, too little, it’s just not in the right place at the right time, but ingrained habits of overuse are hard to put aside.

Water conflicts have been a part of life in California from the earliest days. The water from the northern lakes and reservoirs has been used to irrigate the agriculture industry, grow the cities and industry, provide power and drinking water. A state of over 30 million inhabitants, the 5th largest supplier of food in the world. Reclaimed water, i.e. treated wastewater, has already been in use for irrigation in some areas since the 1930s.

Over the past few decades, the water challenges have only increased as agricultural use pollutes groundwater, lakes run low, and the competition for the resource only becomes more fierce.

The state’s governor has just signed in a number of bills meant to address these problems, and has proposed consolidating all water issues under a single entity, a state Water Resources Board. One of the  keys to ensuring long-term water access, according to Brown, will be the efficient and affordable recycling of wastewater into drinkable water.

Technically, of course, all freshwater on Earth is recycled water. The terms recycled and reclaimed water refer to wastewater that has been treated in a facility to meet a certain standard and directed towards specific uses rather than simply discharged into surface waters like rivers or oceans to let the hydrosphere take care of things.

Even though direct recycling of sewage into potable water without the intermediate step of depositing that water in a lake or reservoir is already being test-run elsewhere, I imagine it will require overcoming both technical and psychological hurdles in the United States.

At the same time, given the long history of water challenges in California and throughout North America, it’s a little surprising it’s taken so long to start having this discussion in earnest.

 

Pulling Together

Image: SIWI

Image: SIWI

The World Water Week conference is taking place in Stockholm right now. In keeping with the United Nations water theme for 2013, the focus is on building partnerships and cooperation across traditional boundaries between “governments, civil society, and the science and business communities to find and implement solutions to growing water challenges”.

For me, the challenge is reaching across assumptions that because we see rain, or large bodies of water, or experience flooding, that we can’t also experience a shortage or absence of clean water in the very same place – or that fresh water is another resource that is so abundant that it can’t be depleted.

Experience has shown that breaking ingrained habits doesn’t have to take decades. From the personal habits of lawn-watering or inefficient appliances to the inefficient commercial use of water (fracking comes to mind), new approaches from various key players could turn the tide in a very short time.

Clean Water

One of the main assumptions to overcome is that some of us might, in some way, remain exempt from ever being included on the list of water have-nots.

More:

World Water Week official site. Many of the presentations can be viewed via live streaming.

The conference is organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), which you can visit here.