Fast Company

Water Is A Fuel With No Alternatives

We can innovate our way out of using petroleum, but we will always need water to survive. Instead, we need to find ways to use less or, even better, to reuse.

All water is reused water. Cities and towns that draw their fresh water supplies from local rivers are reusing water that has been used, cleaned and discharged from factories, households, and other sources upriver. Yet, when discussing water reuse as part of an overall water portfolio, many are turned off by the prospect. The terms “used water” or “water reuse” conjure up negative connotations and public perceptions.

At the heart of the issue is the need to educate the public on both the value of water and water reuse as a sustainable and safe water resource. For example, if consumers could reuse gasoline over and over again, the infrastructure and technology would be built to achieve this, because gasoline is a valued fuel. Like oil and its refined products, water is a fuel. It fuels our bodies, our businesses, our food sources and industries. But unlike oil and gas, there are no alternative fuels to water; therefore we must make the most of every drop.

Proven technology solutions exist today that, in essence, enable us to speed up and improve Mother Nature’s processes for cleaning water. For example, the Changi Water Reclamation Plant in Singapore reclaims used water and treats it to the highest standards for both industrial and in-direct potable uses. In Arizona, used water helps recharge aquifers so that towns and cities can continue growing. In Minnesota, the Mankato power plant is cooled by reused water from a local wastewater treatment plant. These are only a few examples of the many ways we can make the most of our precious water supply.

As consumer demands increase, the existence of water as we know it will soon change. Ongoing droughts in Texas and in the Colorado River Basin should serve as a constant reminder that just because we have used water it is not a waste. Reusing water enables us to do more with less.

The United Nations estimates that there will be an additional 3 billion people in the world by 2050 and 90 percent of this added population will be in areas already in water stress or suffering from water scarcity. In addition to each individual’s personal thirsts and needs, industry, agriculture and energy are fervent consumers of water--and water demands for each of these services and products will grow with the population and regional economies.

Water shortages are placing new planning demands on communities and industries across the country. In the southwest, more than 8 million people in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and many other cities, rely on fresh water from Lake Mead and Lake Powell. However, water from these reservoirs is being used at a much faster rate than what is being naturally replenished. How fast are we using up this resource? Three years ago researchers at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography gave 50-50 odds that Lake Mead would be completely dry by 2021.

The desert Southwest is not the only region struggling with water supply challenges. Just a few years ago, the city of Atlanta was nearly brought to a standstill when Lake Lanier, the area’s primary water supply, dropped to its lowest levels in a century. The states of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama are currently battling in federal court over access to the water of Lake Lanier.

If the ongoing oil crisis centers on high and unpredictable price spikes, the looming water crisis centers on prices that do not support the needs of water producers. In the United States, much of our water infrastructure is managed by local governments. These governments face hard choices, particularly during economically challenging times when tax revenues are low. Many choose to spend less rather than charge more for services such as water.

More often than not, capital improvements to essential infrastructure are not funded and routine maintenance is deferred. If you don’t change the oil in your car you will eventually have to replace the engine. Similarly, deferred infrastructure maintenance creates problems that are more expensive to fix than what it would have cost to maintain and improve. In the end, the result is what community leaders were trying to avoid – drastically increased rates to pay for improvements.

In order to address the looming water crisis, it will be important to educate the public on the value of water, the true cost of treating it, moving it and storing it, in order to fix infrastructure challenges before they get worse. And for areas in water stressed regions, such as the southwest and southeastern states, it will be important to implement the necessary measures to mitigate the economic and societal impacts of water scarcity through reuse.

It’s time to treat and value water as the essential fuel to life and industry it truly is. Water reuse is not the only answer to developing a sustainable water supply, but it must be part of the solution. We must educate the public on the urgency of the looming water crisis and the benefits water reuse provides. More than anything, we must remember that while we have alternative fuels for energy, there is no alternative to water.

Dan McCarthy is CEO of Black & Veatch's Global Water Division

[Image: Flickr user cogdogblog]

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1 Comments

  • Alan Harris

    Dan - you make some great points about the availability of clean potable water. I too believe ingenuity and technology will take us into another century of perceived water abundance. It is already happening as you note, but it is few and far between. Being a native of Atlanta I especially like the reference to Lake Lanier. I too have written and continue to write about this case which has been going on for over 20 years now. You can read more at http://tinyurl.com/3u6kakk