I just finished reading a novel called The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. The premise of the book is that the American Southwest has been decimated by drought. Nevada and Arizona are fighting over dwindling resources while California gets ready to take the entire Colorado River for itself. Although a work of fiction, the book really hits home because most of the story takes place in Phoenix, about two hours north of where I live. In the novel, Phoenix has become one large dustbowl where the average person’s biggest concern each day is finding drinking water. Times are so desperate, that people use a product called “Clearsacs” into which they urinate. These Clearsacs have a filtering capability that once again makes the water drinkable. The entire premise is just too plausible to not be scary.
Living in Arizona, you can’t but help wonder how long the water will last and why we aren’t doing more to conserve it. The average Arizonan uses about 100 gallons per day, with about 70% of that used outdoors (watering plants, swimming pools, washing cars), especially in the summer.[i] One of the driest states in the Nation, Arizona receives a statewide average of only 12.5 inches per year. It is also one of the fastest growing with a population of over 6 million in 2010, which is projected to grow to 9.5 million by 2025. Municipal (including residences) needs account for 25 percent of our water usage with industrial accounting for another six percent and agricultural accounting for 69 percent. We get our water from three major sources: surface water (including the Colorado River), groundwater and reclaimed water. Approximately 43 percent of our water comes from groundwater sources, or aquifers. Unfortunately, we’ve been pumping out these aquifers faster than the water is replenished, creating a condition called overdraft. Although many smart people are working to solve this problem, it won’t be easy or cheap and we haven’t yet found the solution.[ii]
Most people however, are probably insufficiently incentivized to take appropriate action. After all, the price of water does not correlate to its replacement cost. Rather, rates vary because the cost to provide the water varies, since water rates are set to be revenue neutral.[iii] According to the American Society of Civil Engineers in their 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, Arizona’s approximately 800 community water systems will need $7.4 billion for upgrades over the next 20 years including: $5 billion to replace or rehabilitate deteriorating water lines, $1.4 billion to construct, expand, and rehabilitate treatment infrastructure, $684 million to construct or rehabilitate water storage reservoirs, and $334 million to construct or rehabilitate wells or surface water intake structures. As the infrastructure ages, pipes deteriorate and break causing street and property damage and leak. In addition, valuable treated water is wasted and steel water storage tanks need to be sand blasted and recoated to prevent rust and deterioration. Equipment such as pumps and motors also wear out and require replacement. In Arizona, that translates to over 2,600 miles of transmission and distribution mains that currently need rehabilitation or replacement.[iv]
Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on where you live), the current system of pricing water results in widely different costs to the consumer. For example, in Phoenix’s East Valley, prices for water vary from $33.79 for 9,000 gallons of water a month in Surprise, to $66.57 in El Mirage according to a Surprise study.[v] In SaddleBrooke, an active adult community 25 miles north of Tucson, that same amount would result in charges of approximately $25.[vi]
With only one percent of the Earth’s water being fresh water, it is clear water is a valuable resource. Thomas Fuller, a physician, preacher and intellectual, was certainly prescient when he said back in 1732: “We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”[vii] Why then, do we not charge accordingly for it? The price should certainly include the cost of providing the water and maintaining the infrastructure to deliver it. It also though, should include a value for the water itself. That is the only way most people will come to value it as an important resource.
Unlike the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers haven’t done much to ensure future sustainability. It is time we stepped up to continue what our parents, and their parents, started. It is time we stopped just “eating the bread” but started “making it” as well.