If you’ve been reading the news – or, more likely, skimming your Facebox/Tooter feed – you might be fearing (or hoping for, depending on your mood) the imminent dewatering and collapse of civilization. 

California has “one year of water” left. Land is sinking due to excessive groundwater withdrawals by desperate farmers. Climate change is altering the spatial and temporal distribution of rainfall, including increased frequency, duration, and severity of droughts. It takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond! There’s a new Mad Max movie! We’re headed for a dystopian future littered with the desiccated corpses of the underclass, dehydrated to satisfy the insatiable thirst of our future almond/fracking conglomerate overlords...

Whoa, take a deep breath. Take a sip of water even, we’ve got plenty – kind of. Meeting the water needs of our expanding human family is a legitimate existential challenge, one that will entail some serious societal growing up and accompanying socio-political growing pains. But we’ve got plenty of tools to save humanity from dying of thirst – all of which are distinctly boring compared to escorting a squad of hot babes through a post-apocalyptic desert hellscape or declaring almond jihad.

Beyond almond-shaming and crisis-clicks: a sustainable water policy toolkit. Image 1.

John Atkinson

energy and environmental policy consultant


John Atkinson is a consultant on energy and environmental policy issues. He is also an electronic musician in Aa and a solo performer. He lives in Los Angeles, mostly.

Beyond almond-shaming and crisis-clicks: a sustainable water policy toolkit. Image 2.

A 21st century water

“The fact is there is enough water available to meet the world’s growing needs, but not without dramatically changing the way water is used, managed and shared. The global water crisis is one of governance, much more than of resource availability, and this is where the bulk of the action is required in order to achieve a water secure world.” – UN World Water Development Report, 2015

Most of our existing water system was essentially built through brute, dumb force, because it was cheap and easy. Is that river in the wrong place? Build an aqueduct! Need that water more reliably? Build a dam! In many parts of Asia, Africa, and elsewhere in the world, there’s still plenty of opportunity and need for these kinds of big old-fashioned infrastructure projects.

But in America, Europe and similarly-developed regions, we’ve exhausted most of the opportunities to tap into more of this cheap, easy water – in fact, in many cases we’ve overexploited them. In order to avoid a sexy-apocalyptic Mad Max future, we’ll need to invest in new systems – and, maybe even more importantly, new institutions – to harness water more efficiently, productively, and sustainably. 

In order to avoid a sexy-apocalyptic Mad Max future, we’ll need to bring our water system into the 21st century.


Better information

Step one to good management is good data, and our current water system is woefully inadequate in this regard. Tracking of water flows, quality, storage, diversions, discharges, and uses is often incomplete or altogether absent, leaving major information gaps that make the determination and regulation of sustainable and fair water allocations difficult. Investments in new technologies like smart water meters, automated gaging, and remote sensing and monitoring networks will help, and so will more stringent reporting requirements – for instance, in California, many farmers are currently only required to report their water diversions every three years, and users outside urban areas are not required to report their discharges back into the water system at all.

In addition to better information on current water resources and uses, truly sustainable water systems will require better predictive information about regional and global water cycles. And given the increased variability in precipitation patterns that is accompanying climate change, improved understanding and modeling of the interactions between the water cycle and human activities will be essential for effective long-term resource planning. 


Conservation and efficiency

For most people, the most visible step towards our collective water future will be more water-efficient homes. That includes the widespread use of water-friendly appliances like low-volume showerheads, front-loading washers, and dual-flush toilets, all of which can be facilitated by regulations for new buildings and rebate-backed replacement programs. Even bigger gains can be realized from reduction in water use for outdoor landscaping, which accounts for about half of residential water consumption in California. For environmentally-conscious Angelenos, this means grass lawns and water-hungry flowers are out and succulents are in.

These steps can make a serious dent in household water use very quickly and cost-effectively. In Australia, these kinds of measures undertaken during their recent “Millennium Drought” collectively reduced per capita water consumption by nearly half in just a few years – to about 60 gallons per day, compared to more than twice that much in California today. However, in the bigger picture, this urban water use is a relatively small share of total demand, accounting for only about 10% of overall consumption

To achieve bigger gains, water efficiency needs to be improved for our vast “virtual” demand, which is the water embodied in the food we eat and the energy and manufactured goods we consume. This will entail a wide range of measures to reduce water consumption and increase productivity per unit of water, including modernized irrigation systems, drought-resistant crop varieties that produce “more crop per drop,” closed-loop manufacturing processes, greater use of solar, wind, and geothermal power, fossil fuel power plants that use less water (or seawater) for cooling, and more fuel-efficient and/or electrified transportation.

Total freshwater and saline-water withdrawals for 2010 were estimated to be 355,000 million gallons per day (Mgal/d), or 397,000 thousand acre-feet per year (acre-ft/yr).

Freshwater withdrawals made up 86 percent of the total, and saline-water withdrawals made up the remaining 14 percent. Most saline-water withdrawals were seawater and brackish coastal water used for thermoelectric power.


Beyond almond-shaming and crisis-clicks: a sustainable water policy toolkit. Image 3.

Pricing and trading

The importance of more water-efficient technologies is obvious enough, but if you want to get a water policy wonk really excited we need to talk about the untapped potential of the “invisible hand” of economics. At the household level, public awareness campaigns for water conservation are great, but the introduction of conservation-oriented pricing schemes will give them the force they need to reach the less socially-conscious. This includes tiered rates that charge higher per-gallon prices for greater water use, as well as rate structures that allow prices to increase during droughts. 

As with efficiency measures more generally however, improving household water conservation is a relatively small part of the problem – the biggest improvements will be achieved through market-minded reforms of water rights for large agricultural consumers, which use 40% of California’s water supplies (and 80% of human consumption). Currently, these users are governed by rules developed over a century ago that tie water rights to land ownership and seniority, which essentially requires farmers to “use it or lose it.” Thus, long-time landowners may end up growing water-intensive, low-value crops like alfalfa (which is in turn shipped to Asia for livestock feed) simply because they have access to lots of cheap water and can’t do anything else with it. 

Water policy experts would replace this with water markets operating under a “cap and trade” principle: regulators determine an overall sustainable level of water use, award allocations based on existing rights, and then allow users to buy and sell these allocations so that water goes where it is most highly valued. This would allow the alfalfa farmer to sell his water rights to an almond grower, who is producing a much more (economically and nutritionally) valuable crop and is thus willing to pay more for the water. It would also promote more efficient water use overall and allow for more dynamic responses to changes in hydrologic conditions and agricultural markets. 

This may not sound like much, but it would amount to a sea change in the way farmers do business – and one that could help ensure the survival of the agricultural sector during periods of prolonged drought. In Australia, water trading allowed the agriculture sector to maintain 70% of its value despite having its water allocations reduced by two-thirds at the height of their recent drought. The necessary institutional reforms were painful and controversial, proceeding incrementally over more than a decade, but the end result was a much more efficient and flexible agriculture sector, as well as a pioneering policy model that water regulators in California and elsewhere are studying very closely today.

↓ A tractor turns the cover crop into the soil in preparation for planting at Leafy Greens, in the Salinas Valley of California on Thursday, June 16, 2011. Leafy Greens grows row crops of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower sweet peas and seed beans.

Beyond almond-shaming and crisis-clicks: a sustainable water policy toolkit. Image 5.

New supply infrastructure

These steps to reduce water demand per capita and per unit of production will likely account for the biggest piece of the water puzzle going forward, but there’s still room to address the supply side of the equation as well. Familiar types of old-fashioned water infrastructure – dams, reservoirs, canals, etc – have already been developed in the most suitable locations. However, there’s plenty of potential for investments in less-familiar infrastructure to increase our water supplies, including:

Urban Stormwater and Rainwater Harvesting: Big, dammed reservoirs aren’t the only way to capture and store rainfall for future use. Small-scale systems to collect, treat, and reuse stormwater and rainwater have long been utilized in rural areas of the world, and have major potential for more widespread use in urban areas of developed countries. The potential for stormwater and rainwater harvesting in California’s cities is estimated to be at least 400,000 acre feet per year, and could be double that. 

Wastewater Recycling: After almond-shaming, the next most-clickbait-worthy water trend set to infest your social trough will be recycled wastewater – aka sewage, aka your PISS and SHIT, aka <CLICK>, you sickos. Recycled water networks are increasingly being used to treat wastewater to appropriate levels of cleanliness for use in agriculture, irrigating public green spaces, industrial cooling systems, and in some cases, YES, drinking water - that’s right, #waterworldstatus.

Domestic deliveries by public water suppliers totaled 23,800 Mgal/d in 2010 and represented water provided to 268 million people at single-family and multifamily dwellings.

The majority of people in the United States used water provided by public suppliers.


Beyond almond-shaming and crisis-clicks: a sustainable water policy toolkit. Image 6.

Desalination Plants: The biggest and costliest new water infrastructure projects being considered are coastal desalination plants, which take seawater from the ocean and scrub the salt out. It sounds like an easy solution – but large-scale desal plants can cost $1 billion and take years to permit and build, which makes them difficult to finance, and they require a lot of energy to operate and can disturb local aquatic ecosystems if the concentrated brine is returned to the ocean, which makes them unpopular with environmentalists. 

As in the past though, this easy-seeming solution has become popular again during the current California drought: San Diego will open California’s first large-scale desal plant later this year, Santa Barbara is bringing its desal plant back online, and there are 18 new plants being considered up and down the coast. It remains to be seen how many will actually be built, but they’ll be only a small piece of the puzzle regardless: even if all 18 proposed desalination plants are built, they would only meet about 9% of the state’s public freshwater needs. 

* The 2000s drought in Australia, also known as the Millennium drought, is said by some to be the worst recorded since settlement. The drought began in 1995 and continued Australia wide until late 2009 with the final areas in drought ceasing to be eligible in early May 2012. With the official end of the drought declared in 2012, the Federal Government had provided $4.5 billion in drought assistance.

Long-term action,
or short-term crisis-clicks?

All of this is incredibly unsexy, non-hate-clickable stuff. Yet the combined impact of these new systems and institutions could help us avert water-apocalypse in California and elsewhere in the short term and put us on more flexible footing for whatever our climate-weirded future holds in the long term. We know what the tools are, we know they work – the only question is whether a well-informed and water-worried public demands that politicians and regulators use them, or whether we end up getting too distracted by almond/fracking/lawn-shaming frenzies and extinction fantasies to take the kinds of boring but wildly important actions we’ll need to ensure a sustainable future for our #1 most valuable resource.


Images via  shutterstock.com 1 / 2 / 3, flickr.com/usdagov & flickr.com/infospigot