14 september 2015

California drought: What we’re learning

An opinion piece by Ed Pinero, SVP Sustainability of Veolia North America



The severe drought currently underway in California has taught us many lessons in the areas of planning, governance, behavior, awareness, policy, and of course the science of the environment.

While water is scarce and in high-demand in California right now, drought and water shortages are not new to the state. What’s unique now is that the drought coincides with an expanding state economy that could be impacted. 
Droughts are inevitable and natural; and they’re not solely due to manmade climate change. So the solution lies in preparing for drought, not simply hoping it doesn’t happen. Water resource strategic planning has to include the implications of drought. This means understanding current and projected demand and ensuring that through efficiency, storage, and reuse, there is enough water to go around.

“Enough water to go around” affects many sectors – not just drinking water needs, which actually represent less than 10 percent of freshwater use. Food production, energy generation and industry account for the rest. So, when water is short, there must be governance and policy mechanisms in place to prioritize allocations to all these sectors. This is not easy because some of these sectors have significant impact on quality of life and the economy.  California’s economy is the seventh-largest in the world, so imagine the implications of curtailing agriculture and food protection in the state. Or imagine limiting industry usage in Silicon Valley, home to a very water-intensive industry.  

Awareness needs to be increased

Planning has to be long term and strategic, not reactionary

There are two lessons I think are most important. One is that awareness needs to be increased so people understand the true urgency around droughts and growth. Having to reduce lawn watering or car washing is not really a crisis or sacrifice; it’s an inconvenience. Look at Sao Paulo, Brazil, where drought has resulted in interruptions in basic water supply to homes and major disruptions in commerce. The messaging and recommendations have to be more aggressive about more wholesale efficiency improvements. The recent commitment by farmers to use less water is very encouraging.

Secondly, planning has to be long term and strategic, not reactionary. California ironically sits adjacent to one of the largest bodies of water in the world, the Pacific Ocean, but it is salty. California also generates much wastewater due to its population.  But we know droughts are coming and without policies, infrastructure and mechanisms to allow wider scale use of desalination and reuse of treated water, these resources go untapped. Establishing the governance and infrastructure to do this takes time. It cannot be built overnight, especially in the middle of the drought when everyone is in panic mode. 

Sustainability is the balance of environmental, economic and societal needs. Focusing on only one or two of these aspects can lead to trouble. Contrast this situation to Australia, another strong economy in a drought and water shortage-prone area. What has made them successful is their strategic and long-term embracing of reuse and desalination as sustainable solutions.