The ‘Third Age’ of Water: Stretching Every Drop

Efficiency Plus Conservation is Smarter, Cheaper than Dams and Desal, Experts Say

Los Angeles aqueduct
Courtesy Photo

If you were thirsting for some good news about the water crisis, the panelists at the Lobero Theater on Sunday had some.

It’s true, they said, that 700 million people around the globe are without access to safe drinking water. Polluted rivers still catch on fire. People still get sick from water-borne diseases such as cholera, and from lead poisoning, as in Flint, Michigan. In California, where aqueducts crisscross the state, every source of water, including rivers, lakes, and underground basins, is over-committed, both legally and physically, the experts said. Even absent the drought, there is not enough water.

But water use in the United States peaked 30 years ago, even as the economy expanded and the population grew, Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank based in Oakland, told the Lobero audience of 200. It is a sign, he said, that the country is entering the “Third Age of Water.”

“We have lots of bad news about water, but we are in the midst of a transition to an age of sustainability,” Gleick said. “The idea has always been to build another dam, tap another river, drill another well. We can do much more in conservation and efficiency – do more with the water we collect and distribute.”

A $55 million desalination plant is expected to begin operations this fall on the Santa Barbara waterfront. But at Sunday’s discussion, organized by Pacific Standard, a national magazine and website, the panelists said desalination was not the best way to address water shortages – at least not yet. The Carlsbad desalination plant, they said, is producing the most expensive water in California.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Jane Gray, a member of the Central Coast Water Quality Control Board. Gray, Gleick, and Robert Wilkinson, a UCSB professor of water policy, cited a long list of much cheaper ways to create new supply and keep it local.

Wastewater that is dumped offshore could be treated to a higher level and used for irrigation, the panelists said. Stormwater that is channeled out to sea could be captured, treated, and injected into depleted groundwater basins. More rainwater could be harvested and stored. Toilets and dishwashers could be more efficient. “We have to stretch one drop of water five, six, seven, eight times,” Gray said. “We have to turn stresses into opportunities.”

Wilkinson noted that Southern California gets fully half its water supply from local sources and aims to further reduce its dependence on aqueduct supplies. The City of Los Angeles, population four million, is planning to cut its allocations from northern reservoirs by half, he said. In light of this trend, Wilkinson asked, who’s going to pay for the governor’s $16 billion plan to build massive twin tunnels underneath the San Francisco Bay Delta, a project designed to move water more efficiently to the south?

“We’re shifting from centralized water projects to local supply options because of cost and reliability,” Wilkinson said. Treating wastewater and contaminated groundwater, he said, uses much less energy than removing salt from seawater or lifting aqueduct water 3,000 feet from the Delta to Los Angeles.

Agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s water supply. Over-pumping for farms has so depleted groundwater basins on the Central Valley that the land has sunk between 20 and 30 feet, a phenomenon called subsidence. In the Cuyama Valley, farmers are pumping well water that is 30,000 years old.

Low-value, water-intensive crops could be replaced with crops that use less water and yield greater profits, the panelists said. “There is going to have to be a discussion statewide about taking some land out of production,” Gleick said. “That’s the last thing farmers want to do.”

Gleick described the “First Age of Water” as the period from ancient Mesopotamia to the Renaissance that saw the construction of the first aqueducts. During the “Second Age of Water,” he said, empires realized they were losing control of their water sources to pollution and disease. The Second Age flowered in the 20th century, Gleick said, with the construction of massive dams, water treatment plants, irrigation systems, and aqueducts hundreds of miles long.

“The future will not be like the past because of climate change,” he said. “Water is no longer an engineering problem. It’s a food problem …We use a lot less water for everything than we did 30 years ago. This is an indication we’re on the path to the new way.”

Sunday’s panel, moderated by Adam Nagourney, Los Angeles bureau chief of the New York Times, is the first in a series to be organized by Pacific Standard. The magazine is published by the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy, founded by Sara Miller McCune, the Santa Barbara philanthropist and publisher of academic journals.


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