Water Conservation: The Tyranny of “Or”
I’ve spent the last 20 years in public service, with the last four in conservation, leading The Nature Conservancy in Texas. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of change—cell phones have replaced wall phones, and the Internet has completely changed the way we communicate and connect. I’ve 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 country’s history, that awareness of environmental issues—and in particular, issues of water quality and quantity—have never been more important. Clean, fresh water is our planet’s lifeblood; without this resource, businesses can’t function, families can’t cook a safe meal, economies can’t grow, and nature can’t 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 Texas’ 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, it’s clear that we can’t 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 choices—protecting 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 doesn’t go toward the ultimate goal of growing food. Imagine if we conserved just 15 percent of that water—we 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 pipes—it 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 isn’t 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, let’s 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 conservation—it isn’t 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 master’s of public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and a bachelor’s 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