By Denise Klarquist
When most businesses or individuals talk about the drought in California, the focus is primarily on direct water conservation. How can we use less? How brown can we allow our landscapes to become? How much shorter can our showers be? Can we be more efficient with our washing and still meet standards of cleanliness and hygiene?
Often what we may fail to appreciate is the complex relationship between water and the many other aspects of what we associate with sustainability, including energy, waste, and environmental and social well-being. Water exists as part of a complex system — whether in the natural environment as an essential component of our ecosystem keeping biodiversity in balance and protecting source water by storing it naturally in headwaters forests — or in the man-made systems of power generation.
When we consider how to respond to the severe water cutbacks recently mandated in California, we’d do well to better understand the interconnectedness of these systems and the role that water plays behind the scenes. We need to recognize that a more holistic approach to sustainability, beyond simple “water conservation,” will have a much more profound impact on the drought, immediately and into the future.
An example of this is what is termed the energy-water nexus. Simply put, it takes water to make energy, and vice versa. The Congressional Research Service projects that the energy sector’s water consumption will rise 50% between 2005 and 2030. Last summer, the California Independent System Operator (ISO) predicted that drought conditions would limit the capability of the state’s hydroelectric resources causing up to 1,150 MW of thermal units to shut down due to water supply curtailments. With this in mind, it’s easy to see the importance of both water and energy consumption reduction in times of drought.
In this same vein, we should continue to look toward renewable energy sources, as they typically use much less water than traditional systems. It’s estimated that the use of wind power saved 2.5 billion gallons of water in California in 2014 by displacing water consumption at the state’s fossil-fired power plants.
Agriculture offers an eye-opening window into the complexities of sustainable water use. It’s widely touted lately that it takes a gallon of water to grow one almond, but before we start an almond boycott, consider that a large percentage is exported, contributing to a healthy state economy. Consider though the environmental impact of transporting that crop overseas which may temper the economic benefit. And there are far greater water (and energy) hogs on your dinner table than the lowly almond. A single plate of food can account for over 700 gallons of water. Certainly, we can’t starve or stop agriculture in the state, but armed with better information, we can make smarter, more sustainable food choices.
By altering our behavior to refocus what we do through a lens of sustainability, we can be more creative about opportunities to improve systems and save water. Shaklee Corporation did just that. By installing water softeners on their cooling towers, they not only lengthened the lifecycle of that equipment by reducing corrosive deposits, but considerably reduced their water consumption as well.
And then there’s the plastic water bottle. While it may not seem obvious that switching from bottled to tap would reduce water, it’s estimated that it takes 3 liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water. And if you’re feeling good about recycling that bottle, think about the additional water and energy required for that process. Considering that bottled water in the U.S. is subject to less stringent regulation than tap water, often comes from the same municipal source as tap water, and costs at least 300 times as much, just the economic incentive alone should end the bottled versus tap debate.
The bottom line is that successfully operating within the constraints of the current water reduction mandates and actively engaging in both water conservation efforts and meeting aggressive new GHG reduction targets will take more than just turning off sprinklers and switching off lights. It will take an entirely new approach to how we look at our operations and how we inspire our colleagues and communities. It will take a fundamental shift in not only our resource use behaviors, but also our beliefs and our mindset — how we view the world around us and appreciate the interconnectedness of everything and everyone.
If California is going to continue to lead and thrive, we need to embrace the fact that water efficiency and sustainability is neither a sacrifice nor a risk to economic growth, but rather an opportunity for new approaches and innovation, and a sound strategy for stability and prosperity.