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Regulators, Water Suppliers Need Broad Innovation to Solve Water Challenges, Experts Say at AAAS

Water is becoming scarcer as climate change alters its availability, while population growth is fueling an ever-growing demand. These realities make clear that society must move beyond old approaches to regulating and managing water to meet future challenges, John Tubbs, a veteran water policy leader, said at AAAS.

“We have found it useful to divide water up into parts”—such as groundwater versus surface water, headwaters and estuaries, fishable and swimmable water, municipal and industrial uses—“because we find it rather overwhelming to think of water in its whole,” said Tubbs, deputy assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of the Interior. “The challenge of the future is to bring those divisions back together—to try to treat water as a single resource. Because… it is a single resource.”

John Tubbs

Tubbs spoke at “Eco-Engineering: Addressing Water Challenges,” a forum held on 27 September. The forum was the fourth in an annual series sponsored by Hitachi Ltd., with panels co-organized by AAAS’s Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs, the AAAS International Office, and the Brookings Institution. In addition to a keynote presentation from Tubbs, two panels discussed water use in shale gas production and urban water challenges. The need for new, more inclusive approaches was something the other forum participants—who represented water investors, private water companies, regulators, and public water users—could agree on.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has quickly become a major use of water. The process pumps water deep underground to break up shale rock formations so energy companies can pump out the natural gas, petroleum, and other hydrocarbons trapped within. Usually, groundwater or surface water is mixed with chemicals that are pumped into the formation through many wells. Some of the water returns to the surface with contaminants that can’t be removed by conventional wastewater treatment plants. So, instead of being returned to the aquifer or a stream, the water is usually treated and reused for fracking nearby, or disposed of in very deep wells below the aquifer.

Bruce Baizel

While the total amount of water used for fracking can be significant, the most important issue for water-poor areas like the West is that “water used in shale development is 100% consumed. It doesn’t go back into the system because of its quality after it’s been used,” said panelist Bruce Baizel, a senior staff attorney for Earthworks, an environmental nonprofit.

There are currently no federal regulations concerning hydraulic fracturing, so each state has had to develop its own to ensure its water sources are protected. Baizel works with a group called STRONGER (the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulation) that, at a state’s request, convenes state regulators, oil and gas industry stakeholders, environmental groups, and the public to evaluate the state’s regulations on fracking and help it develop best practices. STRONGER advises states to evaluate the environmental impacts of fracking water use, Baizel said, and encourages the use of recycled water or treated wastewater instead of clean water.

James Slutz

Panelist James Slutz, president and managing director of Global Energy Strategies, LLC, an energy advisory company, said that industry will choose to use recycled water if the alternatives, such as trucking in brine or buying fresh water, are priced high enough. “Source water could be a penny a barrel… or it could be a dollar a barrel, depending on where you’re at and how far you have to transport it.”

The water challenges facing cities are primarily ones of protecting supplies while keeping demand in check. One long-standing problem is that people only pay for the cost of treatment and delivery of drinking water instead of the true value of that water, said panelist Richard Meeusen, co-chair of the Milwaukee Water Council and president and CEO of Badger Meter Inc. Municipal water prices are driven by maintenance costs, and don’t take into account whether you’re in a water-rich area like Milwaukee or in a drought-prone area like Phoenix, where the ecosystem impacts of using more water are far greater.

Richard Meeusen

Likewise, people with private wells don’t pay for the water they pump, so they also have no incentive to conserve or recognize the impacts their pumping has on their neighbors. “It’s a bad system. People need to recognize that water is more valuable,” Meeusen said. “Unless policy catches up, we’re going to continue to have problems in this country.”

One option popular in other countries is to privatize municipal water systems or have them managed and operated by private companies. That idea was championed by panelist Matthew Diserio, co-founder and president of Water Asset Management, LLC, which invests in water systems around the world. “Most of the municipal systems in this country have been under-invested, and the water is priced way, way too cheap,” to allow for the maintenance needed to keep the system in good shape and protect water supplies, he said. A privately-owned system, however, is regulated by a public utility commission and the investors have an incentive to put money back into maintenance to protect their investment, he said.

For example, Diserio said, about 30% of the water in the industrialized world is lost to leaks. But private systems tend to do much better because they have more incentive to conserve. Privatization is why “Manila has one of the best-managed water utilities in the world,” he said. “The leakage is now lower in Manila than it is in London or New York.”

However, if a city’s officials and administrators do what they’re supposed to do, and tackle maintenance when it’s needed, public systems can be just as good a private ones, said Dave Norris, the mayor of West Monroe, Louisiana. His city recently built a novel plant to recycle wastewater into water that meets drinking water standards, which a paper mill is using in place of over-pumped groundwater.

That water recycling technology is one that many cities around the world are beginning to take seriously. And while the idea of drinking water that was once sewage takes some getting used to, Norris said, once people begin to have to pay the true cost of water, the price will eventually drive them to accept it.

Water problems are ultimately solvable by applying capital, regulations, and new technology, Diserio said. “The world isn’t running out of water,” he explained. “It has run out of cheap water. And once water is priced to adequately reflect all of the costs associated with identifying it, treating it, transmitting it, and treating it once its been used, the problems go away.”


View a video of the forum “Eco-Engineering: Addressing Water Challenges.”


Kathleen O'Neil

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