The Future of Water

What the California Drought Tells Us about Global Water Challenges

Insights from Peter Gleick, President and Co-Founder of the Pacific Institute.

As water scarcity becomes more common, how can we ensure that the right to water is met?

California is in the midst of the fourth year of severe drought, with extreme shortages of precipitation and unprecedentedly high temperatures. As reservoirs have been drawn down, groundwater overdrafted and ecosystems devastated, new conversations are happening around a series of water issues long considered taboo or sacrosanct, including water rights, pricing, agricultural policy, the virtual export of California water in goods and services produced in-state, the nature of our outdoor landscapes, recycled water and equity.

But California is not alone in facing water challenges and the drought offers an opportunity to both draw on lessons from other parts of the world and to explore whether our experiences, technology and insights have a role to play in addressing water challenges elsewhere.

My colleagues at the Pacific Institute and I have worked on these issues for nearly three decades. We produced some of the earliest assessments of the risks of climate change for water resources. We offered the first sustainable vision for California water and analyzed the strategies needed to achieve that vision. In the late 1990s, the Institute helped define the legal human right to water subsequently adopted by the United Nations and explore the threats to impoverished communities in the Central Valley exposed to unsafe drinking water. Our analyses of the untapped potential for improving the efficiency of water use and the potential for wastewater recycling have been adopted statewide and now form the basis for new state policy. And we defined the concept of “peak water” limits and the “soft path” for water to help policy makers and the public develop more successful strategies for managing our scarce water resources.

The bottom line for California is that we no longer have enough water to do everything we want as inefficiently as we’re doing them.

We’ve reached the point where we have to fundamentally rethink our infrastructure, our water use and our institutions in an effort to bring our unbalanced water system back into balance.

What should be our ultimate objective? A strong economy, healthy environment and sustainable water system. These objectives are reachable, but they will be difficult to achieve without the engagement of all parties and a willingness to abandon ideological positions in favor of identifying areas of agreement and compromise.

The good news is that effective solutions exist.

We have seen substantial improvements over the past few decades in the efficiency of water use, leading to a great increase in the “economic productivity of water use” — where we now get far more economic well-being out of every gallon of water used. Per-capita water use is declining, permitting the state to meet the needs of a growing urban population without seeking new water. New efforts to expand water recycling and reuse are bearing fruit, potentially adding millions of acre-feet to our overall supply. The first laws to help regulate and manage severely overdrafted groundwater basins have been passed and are slowly being implemented. And we are learning more every day about the water needs of vital natural ecosystems and strategies to satisfy those needs. And there are lessons to be learned from other regions like Singapore, Australia, Israel and Latin America, where similar problems are faced and tackled with new thinking.

It is hard to define a sustainable water future and even harder to lay out a clear and universally acceptable path to that future. But the alternative — continued political conflict and dispute, deteriorating ecosystems and a diminished agricultural sector — is worse.

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