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Will Water Become the Chief Commodity of the 21st Century?

The world faces a growing number of challenges surrounding water, from freshwater supply to flooding
drinking water



flickr/Darwin Bell

South Bend, Ind., avoided $120 million in upgrades and conserved millions of gallons of water by becoming one of the first cities on the globe to use cloud computing to manage its water systems.

In Oregon, local officials cooled down water from wastewater plants by planting trees near riverbanks rather than using cooling equipment, lowering investment costs at the same time.

The Department of Energy, meanwhile, is working with governors and transmission officials in Texas and the western United States on a multi-year computer project to find the best locations for new power plants faced with growing scarcity in nearby water resources to cool down their operations.

These examples underscore the many options available to alleviate a growing global water crisis exacerbated by climate change, water experts said yesterday at forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Growing Blue, a group created by Veolia Water in consultation with the United Nations, Columbia University and water conservation groups.

"Water is posed to be the commodity of the 21st century," said Richard Sandor, an analyst at Environmental Products, who also founded the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Current statistics -- outlined yesterday in a new report from IBM at the event -- highlight the challenges facing the water sector on everything from drought to storm runoff.

Between 2005 and 2030, the number of people living in areas where water demand will exceed available supplies could rise 40 percent, from 2.8 billion to 3.9 billion, the company said.

A water trading system to conserve supplies
By 2070, the value of flood-exposed economic assets in 136 major ports could reach 9 percent of global gross domestic product. In global agriculture, 35 percent of annual water is wasted because of "poor resource management."

In the United States, there will be a need for 165 percent more water by 2025 above 2000 levels, the report says. Energy use -- such as use for cooling down power plants during hot summers -- accounts for 49 percent of U.S. water demand.

Tight supplies will be further squeezed by a potential shortage of workers managing stormwater, drinking water and wastewater systems, said Mary Keeling, a manager at IBM. The issue is "often overlooked," she said.

In the United States, the average water utility worker is 44.7 years old, with a retirement age of 56, Keeling said. That raises serious questions whether utilities will have the personnel they need to address problems such as drought, she said.

For Sandor, an obvious answer to future water shortages is water trading, which would allow water-stressed areas to purchase supplies from other regions. As one example, he said that it takes the same amount of water to make $250,000 worth of alfalfa as it does to run an Albuquerque, N.M.'s computer chip plant, yet farmers "can't sell their water rights" in the state, he said.

While it could take 10 to 20 years to build a water trading system in a given region, it is an idea that would boost conservation tremendously, he said.

The idea is a controversial one. A study in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association published this spring outlined the potential difficulties of setting up a water trading system in the American West, including the fact that there is not an umbrella authority over states in the 1922 Colorado compact. Some critics also are concerned about trading altering river flows and disrupting hydroelectric dams, among other things.

Alberta could lead the way
Yet Sandor said Alberta, Canada, could be a first mover. The province faces multiple pressures of growing oil extraction, business development and population growth in an arid climate, and there are preliminary discussions about the concept (ClimateWire, Aug. 3).

Lynn Scarlett, a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future, emphasized the importance of ecosystem services or the idea of protecting natural infrastructure such as forests that absorb storm runoff. Roughly 2.7 miles of sea marsh protection can reduce storm surges by a foot, she said, citing federal government statistics.

Many localities using green infrastructure and other conservation measures have saved money over time, she said.

Oregon saved $60 million by paying farmers to plant miles of shade trees to cool down water flowing through the Tualatin River Basin, she said. The move was necessary to comply with regulations governing the temperature of water flowing from wastewater plants upstream.

The savings resulted from not having to install refrigeration plants to cool down the water from the plants, she said. Climate change threatens to heat water above acceptable levels in many other localities, she said.

Keeling of IBM said that technology -- such as South Bend's use of the computing cloud -- definitely can play an important role in water conservation. In Dubuque, Iowa, city officials recently installed a "real-time" computing system to monitor water consumption every 15 minutes.

The system automatically notifies households of problems such as water leaks and resulted in decreased water usage of 6.6 percent during the test pilot, she said.

At the same time, technology will not solve ongoing challenges such as a lack of coordination among the 53,000 water agencies in the United States, she said. Businesses need to gain a better sense of how much water they are actually using via sensors and meters, she said.

"Technology is never the end; it's always the means," said Keeling.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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