Water Conservation: The Tyranny of “Or”

Iíve spent the last 20 years in public service, with the last four in conservation, leading The Nature Conservancy in Texas. In that time, Iíve seen a lot of changeócell phones have replaced wall phones, and the Internet has completely changed the way we communicate and connect. Iíve also seen concern about the environment become paramount. Issues like water scarcity, climate change, and protecting our natural resources have become dinner table discussions among family and friends.

At this point in our countryís history, that awareness of environmental issuesóand in particular, issues of water quality and quantityóhave never been more important. Clean, fresh water is our planetís lifeblood; without this resource, businesses canít function, families canít cook a safe meal, economies canít grow, and nature canít flourish. But the tenuous position of our global freshwater supplies is palpable: Of all the water found on earth, 97 percent is salty and 2.5 percent is locked in ice. We are literally fueling the world’s economies, people and communities on the remaining half-percent.

Globally, the conversation about water poses seemingly simple questions: who has it, who needs it and where to get it. But the answers are far more complex. The World Bank reports more than one billion people lack access to clean water, and 80 countries are experiencing critical water shortages that threaten public health and economies. In my home state of Texas, the consequences of insufficient freshwater resources are no less critical. Experts expect Texasí population to nearly double by 2060, to 50 million people, which will increase demand for freshwater by more than 20 percent. But existing water supplies are actually expected to decrease by 10 percent.

The warning signs of the looming water crisis are evident, and as much of the U.S combats drought, itís clear that we canít simply cross our fingers and hope for the best. But as we work to solve this puzzle, we must understand one basic idea: we cannot afford to pit one water need against another. We cannot fall under what I call “The Tyranny of Or” where we create and perpetuate false choicesóprotecting agricultural interests or serving our cities, utilizing our lakes and streams for recreation or protecting our watersheds.


Next: what’s wrong with “The Tyranny of Or”?

Creating either/or scenarios leads us to discuss water as a zero-sum, winner-take-all game, when in fact, it is just the opposite. Think about it:

  • Roughly 70 percent of the water used globally is used for agriculture and irrigation. Of that, 30 percent is completely wasted, meaning it doesnít go toward the ultimate goal of growing food. Imagine if we conserved just 15 percent of that waterówe could, for instance, serve the city of Austin 10 times over.
  • Municipalities are the second largest water sector of water use behind agriculture and irrigation, and as our cities grow, the demand from our cities will increase. But cities can lose as much as 15 percent of their water through fixable issues like leaky pipesóit makes sense to prioritize programs that upgrade city infrastructure and support creative conservation solutions.
  • The most important aspect of energy production is the availability of fresh water: the oil and natural gas industry use it in every aspect of exploration and production, from enhanced recovery techniques to engine and compressor coolant. While we may disagree on the types of energy to ultimate rely on, what isnít in question is the fact that we need reliable sources of energy to support our economies and supply our growing cities.

    The necessary conversation should not choose winners and losers; the end result should not be protecting only farmers or only cities or only energy and industry. Instead, letís talk about how to serve the needs of each of those constituencies adequately and with fairness. To achieve that, we need to invest in large-scale, across-the-board conservationóit isnít only about using less, but using what we have more efficiently. If we lose sight of that, we risk losing sight of our ultimate goal: ensuring a healthy environment for ourselves and for future generations.

    Laura Huffman is the director of The Nature Conservancy of Texas. A native of Austin, Huffman has a long and distinguished record of public service. She earned a masterís of public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and a bachelorís in political science with a minor in history from Texas A&M University. She makes her home in Austin, with husband Kent and their four children.

    [Photo credit: Flickr user fox_kiyo via Creative Commons]

    By Laura Huffman, The Nature Conservancy

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    Jules W.
    Jules W.3 years ago

    Thank you for posting, this article.

    Carrie Anne Brown

    thanks for sharing :)

    Amy M.
    Amy M.3 years ago

    We must continue to move forward with conservation in our built environment. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification is worth mention here as the guidelines will continue to play a critical role in greening our cities by addressing both energy AND water conservation in our buildings. (see http://www.everblue.edu/blog/how-leed-protects-water). It's true that we must all take responsibility for conserving and protecting our natural resources. The framework put forth by the LEED certification process helps to set us on the right path.

    Shelly Peterson
    Shelly Peterson3 years ago

    Everything is interconnected and true CONSERVATION of all, for ALL is the only solution!
    Outstanding article!!

    natalie n.
    natalie n.3 years ago

    its a tyranny, it really cant be one way or the other, a compromise must be still struck, along with education and greater awareness.

    Nils Lunde


    Heather M
    Heather Marv3 years ago

    We had a serious drought of about 13 yrs in Australia which makes one a lot more aware of not wasting water.

    Robert Petrozzi
    Robert Petrozzi3 years ago

    This can be reason for conflict in future,.........?!

    Teresa Wlosowicz
    Teresa W.3 years ago

    thank you

    Winn Adams
    Winn Adams3 years ago