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How can the United States most effectively prepare for, prevent and respond to water supply crises?

Discussion Leader: 
Benjamin L. Ruddell, Ph.D., P.E.
Posted Date: 01/04/2016

This week's question is based on the HDIAC Webinar “A Detailed Global Map of the Hydro-Economy: Water Footprints, Teleconnections, and Indirect Security Risk of Drought,” presented by Dr. Ruddell from Arizona State University. With drought, climate change and unsustainable water demands existing within our society, there is an increasingly urgent need to invest in security, anticipate water-induced conflict and manage the water supply.

Releases out of Beaver Dam. (Image Courtesy: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)


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BenRuddell's picture

Thanks for joining us. This is Ben Ruddell, the speaker at HDIAC's webinar on U.S. water footprints and teleconnections. Please comment with questions and join me in discussing water supply shocks and crises in the U.S. (or around the world)

We are particularly interested in considering what happens when a water supply crisis is unexpected- as opposed to one that has been anticipated decades in advance. I would argue that the current situation in California is not unexpected, for example; experts and government agencies have been aware of the detailed issues for decades. What if there is a major problem that happens quickly and without warning? How can we respond, and how could we prepare today for water supply shocks that cannot be precisely predicted at a specific place and time?

Ben Ruddell

Technologies that allow the consumption of water that would otherwise be unusable would reduce the impact of an unforeseen water crisis. Decontamination and desalination methods have the potential to expand the amount of water sources to draw from, such as a lake contaminated with chemical agents or salt-water reserves. Similar technology would also be useful in reusing water after processing, cleaning, filtering etc. Protecting water sources from further pollution or contamination prevent future complications with such systems as cleaner initial products will take less time and effort to turn into usable water.
Reusing water is not just beneficial for mitigating the effects of a water crisis, but can also assist in preventing one from occurring in the first place. Why do you think water recycling is not more widely practiced, especially in areas most vulnerable? May it have something to do with the perception of recycled water being unclean?

BenRuddell's picture

I think you've correctly identified the main barrier to water recycling in public drinking water applications: the "ick" factor. The other factor is cost. Of course, water recycling is already very common in some places for industrial and outdoor water use applications.

The most cost effective techniques are, of course, prevention-oriented, via environmental protection and also by limiting aggregate water demand to a fraction of the typical water availability. This reduces vulnerability. Environmental flow protections and EPA regulations are the most common expressions of this prevention mentality.

Water conservation is important, but doesn't help much with the vulnerability or resilience problem. Usually when we conserve it is because we're already over-utilizing a water resource, and we conserve to make room for even more users. The cap needs to be set at a lower level if we want to prevent water stress in the first place. By water stress, I mean that our aggregate demands on a water resources are close to the limits of quantity or quality that can be supported by the water resource.

My initial impression is that maintaining standby water treatment and recycling capacity (perhaps mobile?) would be extremely expensive, albeit potentially very effective, as a water crisis management option. An interesting idea.

Here's a question for the readers: does lower water stress necessarily reduce our direct (local) vulnerability to water shocks affecting our local water resources?

Ben Ruddell

Conservation on the individual level is unlikely to reduce vulnerability. However, on a large scale there is potential. There are a number of water uses which do not require "clean" water. In these instances, such as watering a lawn for example, enforcing a recycled water only mandate would reduce the impact on the local water resources. The "ick" factor becomes less of a concern in cases where the water is not being consumed or used to prepare food. This would increase reliance on recycled water while reducing the impact on local water sources.

It seems, to me, that as new technologies are developed to recycle water and we are better able to predict and plan for water crises, education is still key. I don't know that the majority of people see conservation as a way to make room for more people to use the resource. In addition, we need to educate beyond the "ick" factor. People take water for granted and act as if it is a neverending resource, so educating the general public with a basic understanding of how this resource works is essential.

If there were a water supply crisis, the best preparation and solution would include widespread acceptance of using treated water. Conservation of water will not necessarily prevent a crisis and the best outcome would be public support or acceptance of using treated water for everyday needs. The perception of recycled water is negatively viewed in today’s society. The education of the general population will go a long way in preparing for a water crisis.