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”?