Kai Olson-Sawyer is a Senior Research and Policy Analyst in GRACE’s Water and Energy Programs. Kai works on numerous issues including the food-water-energy nexus, water footprinting, surface and groundwater resource protection and management, among others. Prior to joining GRACE, Kai was employed at the World Forestry Center in Portland, Oregon and conducted research with NYC Apollo Alliance. Kai received a Masters in sociology with an environmental focus from The New School for Social Research, and a B.A. from Earlham College.
Water is an essential resource that many people fail to think about. Kai Olson-Sawyer explains many ways that water use can be made more efficient and suggests that a first step is increased awareness of how much water is used. He points out that consumers will feel more empowered to use water carefully once they realize how big of an impact their actions have on their water resource.
Douglas Gayeton: At GRACE, how do you draw people into a conversation, making them understand that water is integral for agricultural production?
Kai Olson-Sawyer: There are a lot of systems involved in this, and you can’t really touch on one without touching the others. So we look at what’s called the food, water and energy nexus, examining the intersections between the food, water and energy systems. It’s true that water and food production are pretty much inseparable.If you don’t have water, you don’t have food. This relationship is extremely important and the water system impacts the food production system.
Douglas Gayeton: Are there solutions that you see in agriculture that can lead to greater conversation?
Kai Olson-Sawyer: There is very little monitoring of water use. So I would say there just needs to be better tracking of how much water is being used in the first place.
Then, there could be different schemes set up for better water pricing, water restrictions, or even water transfers in a better way, where if you have one set of farmers that hasn’t used up their allotment of water, they can sell it or transfer it to another set of farmers.
But I would also say that there are a lot of technologies out there, for instance, drip irrigation or sprinkler systems that are more water efficient, that don’t let water evaporate so quickly. There are also sensors that can be buried in the ground to give the water storage reading that shows whether you need more irrigation water or less. That can be something that farmers find very helpful, because if they don’t need to use more water, that benefits them in everything. The final thing that I’d say is just smarter practices, like crop rotation, less monocropping, more biodiversity, which promotes better soil health, and potentially no till.
Douglas Gayeton:Are there other mechanisms besides introducing price structures, that you feel can trigger shift in water usage?
Kai Olson-Sawyer: One thing that has been found in energy circles is that if you send out a utility bill to customers it has comparisons to other customers for the utility. That affects peoples’ use. So if they see that they’re higher than average, then it compels people to bring their energy use down. So there could be some psychological things that could be done to modify peoples’ behavior and incentivize things in a different way rather than strictly by price. Also, just the acceptance of water efficient sinks, faucets, toilets, etcetera into our culture really helps make people think about water use. If there’s an understanding that it’s a good thing to use less water and it costs you less, then that is an underlying cultural value that is starting to be instilled in people. It’s good to be efficient; it’s good to use less.
Douglas Gayeton: Have you noticed that many people don’t know the name of their own watershed and do you think there is such a thing as local water?
Kai Olson-Sawyer: Yes, one often things we like to say is “Know your water.” I think it really does begin with “Where does your water come from?” If you don’t know where your water comes from, it’s hard to have much concern about it. we did a video here at GRACE where we ask people in Long Island, “Where does your water come from?” All of their water comes from groundwater under their feet. But virtually no one we asked in the video knew that. And it just brought home to us the fact that people need to be educated about the fact that they live in a watershed or they get all their water from groundwater resources. It’s really important to figure out how to communicate that to the public and make it interesting, because without that there is not value. Unless it really is something that can understand, there’s not going to be a beginning of that recognition that they have an impact. Their daily lives have an impact on the world around them, in this case watersheds, water resource, management etcetera.
In most instances, people have local water, so that the water that they’re getting from their tap is from their watershed or from aquifers close by. So essentially yes, you do have local water and that’s what people depend on. Even though there’s a global hydrological cycle, essentially people experience water locally.I think if people start thinking about how their water is local and the fact that what they’re using has an impact on their immediate circumstances, their immediate ecosystem, then that can really make them feel like they have some ownership of it and that stewardship should be part of what they do and how they act. That’s something I think that escapes a lot of people at this point.