April 16, 2011

Water Priorities

From an NPR interview with Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water:
"The last 100 years has been the golden age of water in the developed world: water that has been safe, unlimited and essentially free," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "But that era is over. We will not, going forward, have water that has all three of those qualities at the same time: unlimited, unthinkingly inexpensive and safe." 
Currently, one out of six gallons of water acquired, treated and pumped by water utilities in the U.S. leaks back into the ground before it can be used by a home or business. This, says Fishman, will change — but only if technology at water utility companies starts to improve. 
"Water utility companies are run the same way they were 30 or 40 years ago," he says. "They don't understand what's going on in their own pipes. As technology allows us to see what's happening to the water in the water system — whether it's in a factory, university or whole ecosystem — we'll be able to manage that water much more smartly." . . . 
"The average U.S. home pays an average of $34 a month. So our always-on, unlimited, almost universally reliably safe water costs us about $1 a day. Our water bill is less than half what our cable TV bill or our cell phone bill is. So cities are starved for financial resources and water utilities are often in terrible shape. In Philadelphia, there are 3,300 miles of water mains in the city, and they replace 20 miles a year. They're on 160-year replacement cycles. One of the officials from the Philadelphia water utility said to me, 'We want to make sure we get the 20 miles right.' That's not a question of money, it's a question of public resistance to digging up streets." 
Fishman subsequently did an interview with the New York Times in which he commented on the extraordinary success of Las Vegas in putting water to good use:

Las Vegas has quietly become the most water-smart city in the U.S. By outlawing front lawns in new homes, by paying residents and businesses $40,000 an acre to remove grass, by imposing water budgets on golf courses, Las Vegas has dramatically changed water use patterns. Las Vegas now recycles 94 percent of all water that hits an indoor drain anywhere — cleaning it and sending it back to Lake Mead. No U.S. city matches that. And water use in Las Vegas has fallen 108 gallons per person in two years. Las Vegas today uses almost exactly the same amount of water as 10 years ago — but it has grown 50 percent in population. The fountains, lagoons and topless swimming pools notwithstanding, that’s an incredible achievement — something every U.S. city could learn from.   
The best news, in fact, is in the biggest picture. The U.S. as a nation uses less water in 2011 than it did in 1980. We use less water to produce an economy of $13 trillion than we did to produce an (inflation-adjusted) economy of $6 trillion.   
That’s incredible. The country over all has doubled its water productivity — which means that it’s possible to continue to grow and modernize, while actually reducing the amount of water we use.

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