Potential Solutions in Water Management
An Interview with David Beckman
David Beckman is Executive Director of the Pisces Foundation, an environmental philanthropy in San Francisco. The Foundation’s current areas of focus include environmental education, water resources, and climate and energy issues. David formerly was a Senior Attorney and the Director of the national Water Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School.
In many cases, more water is drawn from sources than can naturally be replaced, causing detrimental imbalances in the system. Water is key for all life and is especially crucial in agriculture, making this an important, yet complicated issue. Beckman explains some roots of the water issue, some complications, and some possible solutions as we look ahead to a future that necessitates more sustainable water us.
Douglas Gayeton: What are we doing when we’re “recharging the water supply”?
David Beckman: If we are using water in the city, on a farm, or in a business, that water is coming from somewhere. It’s coming from an aquifer, a lack, a river, or sometimes from rainfall. Keeping that supply recharged means that we’re keeping a balance between what we’re using and what the available supply is.
Sometimes, to recharge a water supply we physically bring water into an area and inject that water into the groundwater basic or put it in a reservoir.
Douglas Gayeton: Why do we have challenges in places like the Imperial Valley in Southern California, which draws its water from Lake Mead, without recharging the water supply?
David Beckman: We’re out of balance, taking more water than what is coming back into that source from rain or the hydrology in the area.
One interesting concept is called “Safe Yield.” The idea of Safe Yield is that you take no more from a water source than is naturally going back into that water source every year.
In order to do that, we have to recognize that we’re not able to use water in the same way that we did when population was smaller and when there was more available water in the West. We’re experiencing drought or experiencing the effects of climate change and the consequence for water is that in many of our communities water is, and will become, more scarce. If we’re going to keep things in balance, we have to find ways of doing things with water without using so much of it.
David Beckman: Water pricing is a very complicated piece of the equation. It certainly has a role to play. Without water, humans can’t live, animals can’t live, plants can’t live, for the most part. It is true that one of the reasons that water is wasted is because the price of water is out of balance with the value of water. It’s too cheap for the amount of time and effort it takes to create the water supply and bring it to a farm, business, or home.
On the other hand, since we need water, there has to be some amount of water that’s available to everybody that is not priced for profit or priced at unreasonable levels. We need to carefully look at the supply and the pricing question, but it’s a complicated issue because nobody can do without water.
Douglas Gayeton: People suggest greenhouses, cheap irrigation, sewage recycling, desalination, and better water pricing, but do you have other ideas about how to better steward this resource?
David Beckman: We need to focus on efficiency – creating the same product, doing the things we need to do, but doing it with less. Agriculture uses somewhere between 60% and 80% of all of the water that’s consumed in the country. You can’t solve the water supply problem if you take agriculture off the table.
Water recycling can also make a significant dent. That’s the idea of taking polluted water say, a waste stream from a sewage treatment plant and, instead of discharging that somewhat cleaned-up water into a river and experiencing the cost to do the clean-up, you clean it up and reuse it. Sometimes, you can reuse it for non-potable uses. For example, the water used for a green space in a town or a park does not have to be the same quality for consumption. With those approaches you’re reducing pollution, creating “new water supply,” and providing the opportunity to create the same products with less of the water input.
David Beckman: Local water systems are a wave of the future. When we talk about a local water system, what we’re really talking about is decentralizing the water supply and, in some cases, treatment. In other words, we’re not all going to be connected necessarily to the sewage treatment plant or get water from the water supplier. Or maybe we will be connected, but we’ll have resilient additional option.
It’s similar to solar power. Water is more complicated and it’s further behind, but it’s possible to capture rain-water and use it for at least some things around your house. Green buildings are doing this with large tanks that capture water and sometimes even clean it.