Future Water Use: Solutions in Technology?

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As a society, we often seek solutions to social problems in technology and innovation. If we need more food or water, we will develop more productive processes that exploit available resources. Technology and innovation are at the heart of fundamental conceptions prosperity, as crystallized by Endogenous Growth Theory that dominates economic thought. This innovation almost always comes at the expense of more resources, as we continue a long tradition of believing that technology can solve difficult social problems. With deadlocked policy processes and stressed ecological systems throughout the West, should we continue to look for technical solutions to achieve needed conservation and distribution goals?

In the U.S., we are wasteful in our water use. Urban centers are designed to move falling rainwater through streets and sewers as fast as possible, even as they pump drinking water from hundreds of miles away. Simple plumbing innovations such as low-flow toilets save hundreds or thousands of gallons per year for a single device, but are just now penetrating the market widely. Farmers grow thirsty crops in parched spaces, fueled only by water pumped across great distances. Technological innovations can provide ready solutions for each of these situations to reduce water usage, but fiscal and social impediments often intervene.

Nevertheless, innovations in technology and the engineering process do have the potential to promote more sustainable consumption levels. Products and processes are increasingly planned with life cycle costs in mind. Government agencies now mandate environmental considerations in some infrastructure construction projects, especially in California. A host of innovative products are on the market to reduce water use, including low-flow shower heads, dual-flush or no-flush toilets, and many types of water-smart irrigation systems. More fundamentally, however, the engineering profession has an opportunity to reconsider its approach to the design of built and natural systems. For instance, western U.S. water infrastructure was developed to move water quickly and effectively, which, though capital-intensive, is easier to approach than considering the complexity of interactions between multiple influences of natural and built infrastructure operations. Research to understand the processes, however, is improving, including the effects of human decisions and infrastructure systems on environmental conditions, water supply, and costs. New modeling techniques, data collection, and systems analysis tools provide greater insight into these problems, but are limited when the resulting systems still focus on maximizing human benefits.

Technology Needs Help

Technology adoption is heavily dependent upon social values, norms, and processes. Engineering and innovation integrate with legal and policy frameworks, which together reflect social norms. Technology alone cannot alleviate the difficult issues of resource over-consumption represented by the Klamath. Science can only provide information to the extent that the stakeholders are willing to listen and absorb the inherent uncertainty of results. If stakeholders in the Klamath Basin are unwilling to reduce consumption or change lifestyles, then engineering cannot provide a lasting solution that mitigates conflict amongst the various environmental and economic end uses. At the same time, engineering infrastructures have deep, sometimes unnoticeable influences on human lifestyles. Altering these systems to provide greater balance between environmental and economic uses is an expensive but necessary prospect. Legal and political frameworks must provide proper venues for new technological processes to prosper. It seems unlikely that such changes will occur across all of these disciplines without a more fundamental shift in social attitudes towards conservation.

The father figure of conservation, Aldo Leopold, contemplated these issues over 60 years ago in his prescient 1949 work, A Sand County Almanac, stating:

Government ownership, operation, subsidy, or regulation is now widely prevalent in forestry, range management, soil and watershed management, park and wilderness conservation, fisheries management, and migratory bird management, with more to come. Most of this growth in governmental conservation is proper and logical, some of it is inevitable. That I imply no disapproval of it is implicit in the fact that I have spent most of my life working for it. Nevertheless the question arises: What is the ultimate magnitude of the enterprise? Will the tax base carry its eventual ramifications? At what point will governmental conservation, like the mastodon, become handicapped by its own dimensions? The answer, if there is any, seems to be in a land ethic, or some other force which assigns more obligation to the private landowner.

Leopold foresaw that government was the authoritative body capable of allocating the scarce resources, but that as the need for regulation expanded, it would reach a cap of available funding. For him, the solution was that private landowners uphold a conservation ethos. Expanding this more broadly to the realm of water resources, all citizens have a role in conservation, not just landowners. Watersheds do not end at city or farm boundaries, and citizens in all sectors must understand how to reduce their consumption. This in turn can begin to change the fundamental legal, policy, and engineering systems that perpetuate present-day over-consumption. Until that point, we will be stuck with lawsuits, deadlocked policy debates, rising infrastructure costs, and diminishing natural resource stocks, which no technological solution will be able to mitigate.

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