Connected Cities, Water

Photo by Courtney Spearman.

“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” – Jacques Yves Cousteau

In the U.S., we don’t worry about water. It’s always been there – when we wash our hands, fill a glass, switch on the dishwasher, run a bath, take a shower. We don’t think about it; we just use it and forget about it. For city planners and engineers, water is a logistical problem, something that has to be cleaned, distributed and collected. Farmers probably spend the most time thinking about water. Irrigating crops and watering animals is an essential business function upon which their livelihood depends.

But what value do we place on this essence of life, industry and energy? How much time do we spend lying awake at night worrying about the cost of water? How many of us fret over the possibility that we may wake up one morning and find that water simply isn’t there? Little to none would be my guess.

Just to put the question in perspective, a single 12-ounce can of soda costs about 50 cents. For the same price, many U.S. municipalities deliver up to 1,000 gallons of fresh, clean drinking water to homes 24 hours a day. A typical monthly water bill in the western U.S. is about $50. If drinking water and soda pop were equally costly this bill would increase by about 10,000%.

Because water has always been there and is a resource we take for granted, we don’t price it according to its actual value. The worst consequence of undervaluing this essential asset is that we waste it. The three biggest culprits are food, energy and transportation – all three are intimately intertwined with water.

Our current agricultural irrigation practices are shockingly inefficient. Over half the water used in irrigation is lost to evaporation, so not only does it fail to benefit the crops, but it also fails to reach and recharge the aquifers. Growing and shipping food to other parts of the world is a significant pillar of our economic base and a foundation of U.S. foreign policy. What is underrepresented in the conversation about current agricultural policy is the value of every grain of wheat, every pound of meat we ship as represented by the water embodied in it. Every time we send a shipment of food overseas we’re also shipping the aquifer from American midlands to other parts of the world, and we’ll never get that back.

We also use huge amounts of energy to move water from where it’s available to where it’s consumed and then vast amounts of water for cooling energy plants. In many instances those plants are not reusing the water; they’re simply running it through the plant and then discharging the warmed water back into rivers and lakes. The resulting warming effect on the environment is fundamentally changing the ecology of our rivers and streams. If the warming trend continues, the energy plants put themselves at risk as diminishing cold water supplies threaten production output.

Then we factor in transportation. The average American diet requires approximately 1,000 gallons of water per person per day to produce. But this food is not consumed at the site of production. The ingredients for a typical American meal can travel thousands of miles before reaching our plates. A gallon of gasoline takes nearly 13 gallons of water to produce.

Add to these staggering numbers the fact that water use in the U.S. has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, and we begin to see the scale of the problem.

There are a lot of people at the table where water is discussed – but they are not the  right people. Our chambers of commerce and economic development councils are not thinking about water as an essential strategic asset. We don’t have the kind of economic assessment of value at a city scale that would cause policy makers to rethink how we’re wasting this scarce and valuable resource. We are not considering water as the single most important asset in a competitive global economy.

There are economically viable and technically possible ways of assuring a sustainable water supply. The missing link is political will. We have to elevate the importance of water as a valuable economic asset – particularly in our conversations about energy, transportation and agriculture.  Water is, simply put, the single most important determinant of national security and global competitiveness.

Substitute the word “oil” for the word “water” in this discourse and think how differently we would be acting if our oil were being treated so wastefully and negligently. We don’t actually need oil to survive. Yes, our lives would be completely different, but without water there is no life. Which asset should we treat with more respect?


Gary LawrenceGary Lawrence is AECOM’s chief sustainability officer.

Originally published Mar 19, 2014

Author: Gary Lawrence