Water Diversions Are so Last Century. The Focus Has Turned Toward Reuse and Conservation

WateReuse Symposium keynote speaker sees a trend away from water diversion projects and a movement toward reuse, desalination and conservation to resolve scarcity issues.

Peter Annin
Peter Annin

Water scarcity is a growing problem, both in North America and globally.

Traditionally, water-scarce areas of the U.S. have been supplied by diverting water from rivers such as the Colorado and the Rio Grande. Periodically, there have been proposals to send water from the Great Lakes to more arid regions.

Peter Annin has followed such issues closely as author of the book The Great Lakes Water Wars. He sees water reuse as a more sustainable way to keep communities supplied with safe and reliable drinking water.

Annin delivered the keynote address, at the 34th annual WateReuse Symposium held in San Diego last September and sponsored by the WateReuse Association. He explained why water reuse, along with desalination (powered by renewable energy) and conservation, constitute the “wave of the future.” He took attendees on a historical journey of water diversions that serve as cautionary tales and illustrate the benefits of creating sustainable, locally controlled water supplies.

Annin is director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and a former reporter for Newsweek. He talked about his vision for sustainable water management in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: Globally speaking, how would you describe the status of water supplies?

Annin: The United Nations projects that water demand globally will surge by more than 50% by the middle of this century and that two-thirds of the global population will be water-stressed by 2025. Most of these issues will be in the developing world, so it will be really important for the developed world to figure out water-supply technologies and have them exported, maybe through help from the U.N. and the World Bank.

TPO: How would you describe the thesis of your address to the WateReuse Symposium?

Annin: The first part described the history and the pressures, perceived and otherwise, of proposals to divert water from the Great Lakes — an illustrative story for all of us in the water industry. The second part raised the question of whether the era of long-range, large-scale diversions is over and suggested how reuse, desalination powered by renewable energy, and a much more vigorous push for conservation, especially in the agriculture sector, seem to be the new-century way of dealing with water supply.

TPO: How would you assess the negative impacts of water diversions?

Annin: I don’t suggest we shut down diversions already in existence. I do suggest that when we’re looking to solve problems in the future, reuse and conservation along with desalination for those in saltwater areas should be the top priorities. When you look at diversion, can you think of one that didn’t damage the originating water body? A hundred and fifty years ago, maybe those diversions made sense, but now we have these other technologies.

TPO: To what extent is the trend toward reuse linked to the melting of glaciers and snowpacks due to global climate change?

Annin: It’s not so much related to that, although that is a part of it. It’s just that when we talk about costs to taxpayers and the environment and the inevitable controversy and litigation related to major water diversions, it seems there should be more opportunity for desalination for people who live in coastal areas, and reuse both for those who do and who don’t. And conservation is still the lowest-hanging fruit in many areas, especially in the agriculture sector.

TPO: Would you agree that communities in water-stressed areas are doing a pretty good job with reuse and conservation?

Annin: Yes, and that’s why I am specifically calling out the agriculture sector. Parts of that sector are doing a good job, but Western water law doesn’t always promote good conservation practices. Globally and continentally, agriculture consumes more water than any other sector. We’re not going to solve the water crisis without engaging agriculture.

TPO: Given that the crops need what they need, how can the agriculture sector be more water efficient?

Annin: Some parts of the agriculture sector have adopted amazing water technologies in conservation and some parts haven’t. For example, various forms of drip irrigation are well known. It’s not as if the technologies are new; it’s a matter of adoption. The returns on investment for farmers aren’t always there, so there may be a need for some incentives. Some farms in the Southwest still use flood irrigation, which is one of the least-efficient methods.

TPO: Do you see significant progress in the various forms of water reuse?

Annin: I think it’s really exploding. In 2018, about 600 to 700 people attended the WateReuse Symposium, and about 1,000 attended in 2019. It seems we may be entering a turning point in the water reuse movement. But that movement is still more or less regional. There’s a fair amount of purple pipe in Florida and Texas and all over the Southwest, for example. But reuse is not very widely practiced in the Great Lakes region or the Northeast.

TPO: Are we still seeing proposals for water diversions to help water-scarce regions?

Annin: Pat Mulroy, former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has proposed diverting Mississippi River floodwater to help resolve the drought in the Colorado River watershed. In 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposed diverting Missouri River water to Denver so that city could give up the water it has under the Colorado River Compact for the benefit of communities farther downstream. Diversion proposals persist even in an era when it seems to me that water reuse might be a better methodology for this century. The question is how we can help people live within the water means of their watershed.

TPO: What would you say to people who claim that since we ship oil from place to place, we should be able to do the same with water?

Annin: Oil is very different from water. If you take oil out of an ecosystem, that doesn’t dry it up and ruin it and change it permanently. But if you take water out, you will permanently transform that ecosystem. Rather than continue sending water hither and yon, we need to look at technological alternatives, and water reuse is one of the most prominent examples of that.

TPO: What is the potential for desalination in today’s environment?

Annin: One of the big knocks on desalination is that the energy intensity makes it expensive and less sustainable. If we can move desalination onto renewables, that lowers the cost and the carbon footprint and makes it less of an issue, although the problem of brine disposal remains. Where the price point pencils out between desalination and reuse depends on where you are.

TPO: Do you see any particular signs of water reuse becoming very mainstream?

Annin: At the WateReuse Symposium, the U.S. EPA announced its Water Reuse Action Plan. The fact that a federal agency has released a plan for reuse is a pretty major turning point.

TPO: Apart from cost, what would you see as the major challenge facing widespread adoption of water reuse?

Annin: I would argue that there needs to be more outreach and communication about reuse. One resonant thing that’s happening is a lot of brewing is being done by microbrewers with recycled water. That seems to be a possible access point to help the general public get over the fears they have. I see it as a really smart way to start breaking down the barriers.

TPO: So you would argue that technology is not a substantial obstacle?

Annin: At the WateReuse conference in San Diego, I asked people to stand if they had heard of a reuse project failing to get off the ground because of technology or engineering. No one stood. Then I asked people to stand if they knew of a reuse project that didn’t make it because of bad public relations, and many people stood. That’s a sign that there needs to be a larger investment in communication and outreach.

TPO: As you get away from areas that are water stressed, what argument would you make for water reuse being applied much more broadly?

Annin: As a theoretical example, consider communities in the Great Lakes region under the Great Lakes Compact. Those that have applied or will apply for a Great Lakes water diversion have to return the water after it’s used and cleaned to Clean Water Act standards. That makes the diversion infrastructure often doubly expensive. Among communities thinking about requests for diversion, reuse isn’t even on the menu of options they’re thinking about. It just doesn’t come up as much as it could or should. It’s just not part of the conversation.

TPO: More broadly speaking, what about areas outside the Southwest and the Great Lakes region? Should they be looking at reuse?

Annin: I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t at least get a quote on reuse when looking at water options and use that as a baseline to work from. Of course, with reuse there’s not only the cost of engineering, there’s the cost of communication and public relations. It will be interesting to see how far, geographically speaking, reuse can move, and how fast, in North America.

TPO: Where conservation is concerned, how can we deal with the fact that utilities lose revenue when their customers conserve?

Annin: That is definitely a conundrum for water suppliers. Going forward, we have find ways to not punish water utilities for customers conserving their water.

TPO: Do you see progress in utilities conserving by clamping down on nonrevenue water, due to leakage or defective metering?

Annin: Yes. Especially in the eastern half of the country, we have problems with old infrastructure and leaky pipes. There are many areas where utilities can invest in infrastructure to help with conservation without running into that ratepayer issue, but somebody’s got to pay for it. There’s no way to get there without government funding and public-private partnerships. Ratepayers will have to take some of the responsibility as well.

TPO: What would you observe about the value of water as scarcity becomes more widespread?

Annin: Over time, the value of water, even in water-rich areas, is going to increase. We have left what I call the century of oil, and we have entered the century of water. I believe water is going to be the defining natural resource of this century. People will think more about where their water comes from. Water service is underpriced for the value it has. Utilities could charge a lot more for it, and should, so that people would appreciate it more and waste it less.

TPO: Where do water operators figure into this scenario?

Annin: The operator’s corner in water systems has often been a quiet place. I don’t think it’s going to be anymore. More and more attention will be paid to water quality and quantity in coming decades. Operators know about these things, but they’re usually not asked to talk about them to journalists, public officials and the public. I believe that is going to change.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.