Water isn’t a national security issue inside the U.S. Indeed, for most Americans, water isn’t an issue at all. Even in California, in the midst of the worst drought in settled history, you turn on the tap and the water flows. The drought hasn’t even caused a spike in water bills.
But water folks have been warning for years that the U.S. water system is brittle—dependent on investments from 50 and 100 years ago. And fresh stress is coming: Most of the impact of climate change turns out to show up most dramatically and most immediately in the form of water—too much, too little, the wrong kind in the wrong place.
That’s why the White House, in its first attempt to start a national discussion about how the nation uses water, may be getting ready to suggest a bold goal: Cutting the nation’s water use by 33%. That would save not just water, but all the energy used to move and treat water across the economy. On Tuesday, the White House hosted a Roundtable on Water Innovation—the first time any White House has convened such an event—and released a paper making the case that such a dramatic reduction was in reach without the need of any technological breakthroughs.
The benefits of this reduction would cascade through the economy in surprising, often happy ways that you might not even consider: If your big commercial washing machines need less water, you heat less water to run them, which means you pay less for electricity. Less water, lower energy costs. Pumping water around the U.S. economy is the largest single use of electricity in the country, so every farm, factory, university, power plant and skyscraper that found a way to cut water use by a third would see a significant drop in its electricity bill—and its carbon emissions.
Cutting water use by a third would give cities resiliency in their ability to supply water as climate change makes precipitation more uncertain and more episodic. We’d save on the costs necessary to collect, clean, and pump water for cities; we’d save again on the costs necessary to clean that water once it hit a drain. Because there would be less water flowing into—and then out of—farms, we could dramatically reduce pollution from farm runoff. It would likewise give climate-pressed farmers new techniques to keep growing food with less water.
Somewhat oddly, the 33% goal wasn’t mentioned at the White House Roundtable itself, perhaps because it’s so dramatic—even to water people—that it could have derailed the entire conversation. It was slipped into a water policy analysis released in conjunction with the roundtable, and then highlighted by a White House official in an interview after the event.
Indeed, almost by design, the White House event had a slightly unfinished air. The administration, in fact, announced that there will be a much larger White House Water Summit in 90 days, on March 22—World Water Day.
As much as anything, Tuesday's "roundtable"—which included the head of GE’s water division, the director of a water policy institute at Stanford, the entrepreneur who invented "5-Hour Energy," scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the CEO of Washington, D.C.’s water utility, as well as people from the worlds of water finance and water NGOs— appeared to be a dramatic way of saying to the nation’s fragmented and often overlooked water community that the Obama Administration intends to spend considerable time and effort in its last year trying to jumpstart innovation around how the U.S. uses, manages, and finds water. No modern U.S. president has ever paid any significant attention to water issues.
It’s possible that despite its clarity and power, a goal to simply cut water use broadly won’t be that popular with water managers and those who make water policy, who see water innovation as more varied and more complicated than simply using less.
A second goal suggested in the White House water policy paper, and underscored by a White House official, would be to drive research that cuts the cost of desalinating water by 75%. While it wouldn’t help water-pressed inland communities like Las Vegas it could have a dramatic impact on water supplies not just in the coastal U.S. but across the world. But, as the White House paper acknowledges, cutting the cost of desalination so dramatically will require water technology that isn’t ready for commercial application yet, or all new techniques.
"We use an awful lot of water in this country," Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell told the group of about 120, who met on the third floor of the Old Executive Office Building. "One could say we waste a lot of water." In an apparent reference to the four-year-long drought in California, Jewell said, "It’s going to take some bold action, it’s going to take some collaboration, because we don’t have enough water in all the places we need it. And when it begins to impact the economy, it wakes everybody up."
A whole series of administration officials were at pains to say that the federal government wasn’t going to solve the nation’s water problems, or dictate how they get solved—an acknowledgment that water issues in the U.S. are typically handled (and mishandled) at the state and local level.
But the federal government could dramatically reshape water policy from San Diego to Boston by picking a couple bold targets and putting resources behind them.
Water as an industry—outside of the silly indulgence of bottled water—has resisted the revolution that has swept through almost every other sector of the U.S. economy in the last 25 years, from entertainment to medicine. Water pipes have no sensors, most farmers have no idea when their fields actually need to be watered, and Americans resist re-using water that can easily be cleaned, both at home and at work. Even monthly water bills are designed the same as they were in 1975.
A White House effort to cut water use by a third would give a whole range of disparate water efforts direction and urgency, and might infuse a dusty business with both visibility and freshness. Despite grousing that conservation doesn’t necessarily equal innovation, such a target would unquestionably galvanize the fragmented water community, which struggles to get attention, investment dollars, and research money.
It’s a goal that is both outrageously ambitious and surprisingly within reach.
The water Americans use at home only accounts for 12% of total water use each day. So if no American took a shower, did a load of dishes, or flushed a toilet—ever—that wouldn’t come close to hitting the goal. By that measure, cutting water use overall by one-third seems a wild stretch.
But the big water use isn’t at home. It’s on farms and in power plants. Together, those two sectors account for 77% of water use.
And here’s the really big news—also not mentioned at Tuesday’s White House event: the U.S. has already done better than a one-third cut in water use, without really trying, and without almost anyone noticing. Per capita water use in the U.S. peaked in 1980.
In 2015, we use 41% less water per person than we did in 1980. And that’s just the per-person numbers. In fact, progress in total water use is even more dramatic. The U.S. today uses less water than it did in 1970. In the last 45 years, the U.S. has added 100 million people—growing the population by 50%—and we’ve quadrupled the size of the U.S. economy, while cutting total water use.
Every gallon of water an American uses today has four times the economic impact it did in 1970. That’s the kind of progress—especially in agriculture, electric power, and industry—that makes another 33% cut seem possible, especially if the White House puts a serious focus, and research dollars, behind water efficiency.
The White House water roundtable—organized in just a few weeks—was catalyzed by the Obama Administration’s sense of energy and optimism coming out of the Paris climate talks. Ali Zaidi, the co-host, who is associate director for natural resources, energy and science in the Office of Management and Budget, said in his opening statement, "It was remarkable how many rooms water popped up in as we were negotiating in Paris."
The water community feels so sidelined in national policy discussions that even as the group was meeting with senior White House officials in the Executive Office Building, one of the boldest requests Tuesday wasn’t for some innovative federal water policy, it was for yet more attention.
Dean Amhaus, the CEO of Milwaukee’s Water Council, a water technology incubator, turned to Zaidi during a panel and said, "It would be great if at the next State of the Union, the President actually talked about water."
In a room where perhaps a quarter of the people knew exactly how hard it can be to get topics into a State of the Union speech, a hopeful silence followed Amhaus’s exhortation. "Duly noted," Zaidi said dryly.