Timothy F. Brick
The conundrum of water is the socio-economic disconnect between the absolute necessity of water in our daily lives versus a pricing mechanism which signals both ready abundance and global scarcity. On Thursday, Procopio’s Environmental Breakfast Club included Chairman Timothy F. Brick of the Metropolitan Water District, David Pierce, Analyst in Climate Research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Procopio’s John Lormon as the always insightful moderator. The provocative presentations will serve as stimulus for several future posts to this blog. This post will be limited to some core truths about H20, reflections on the nature of water risk and, finally, a brief thought about the clean tech opportunity in water.
We hold these water truths to be self evident: The population of the world continues to grow. The supply of fresh water does not. Life-essential water is more valuable than the biggest diamond ever found, but is, in many cases, presented as if for free. The external energy cost of water in aggregate is surprisingly high. Chairman Brick said about 19% of California’s electricity is used to transfer, treat or heat water. And, always with us, is the partially lit stage of special interests on which the water play takes place. Agriculture in California gets 80% of the water. Think rice growers in Japan and the corn/ethanol colossus in the Midwest. The Ag lobby’s political clout overwhelms the forces of supply and demand. Of course, cheap water for growers is an indirect subsidy for food for California and beyond (and cheaper hay for your Arabian horse if you have one).
SIO’s David Pierce’s macro views of climate change were a background for Chairman Brick’s closer view of the state of our state’s water. There’s no shortage of disturbing scenarios. San Diego receives about 50% of its water from the Colorado River, 34% from Northern California and 16% locally.
Risk #1 For decades, California’s pull of water from the river has roughly increased with the population. Within a short period of time, that correlation will cease. California’s divvy of the Colorado will be locked in at a fixed amount.
Risk #2 San Diego’s 34% share from Northern California is directly tied to mountain snowpack and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The snowpack is functionally a larger water reservoir than anything man has built. Climate change has greatly reduced our frozen water-in-the-bank. An equal amount of precipitation with a lower ratio of snow versus rain changes our ability to capture and contain. The water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta comes from a levy-protected system which in some areas is several feet below sea level. Levies built prior to 1920 straddle at least two earthquake fault lines. The United State Geological Service estimates there is a 62% probability of an earthquake of 6.7 magnitude or greater striking the Bay Area before 2032. A massive failure of the infrastructure would mix salt water with fresh destroying a primary water source for all of California.
Risk #3 The water we drink is from a crazy quilt of infrastructures spread out over most of the western United States. Many of us who fear the impact of climate change are greatly concerned about regional variance. It is possible that a planet which is gradually warming may be experiencing regional climate changes which are more extreme. A more extreme regional climate change could have a negative impact which would reverberate far beyond regional bounders. (e.g. A sudden and dramatic reduction in the snowpack.) Our limited ability to evaluate a risk of this type adds to its “riskiness”.
What are some of the San Diego clean tech opportunities in water? San Diego receives about 84% of its water from outside the region. There is no reasonable hope that this supply will grow in the years ahead. The longer the distance of transport the greater the possible event risk to the water infrastructure. Therefore, the focus should be on technologies for local solutions including desalination, recycling, reclamation and conservation. The math of desalination is better than the deniers will admit when you take into inconsideration the increasing cost of traditional sources of water and the progressive improvement in desalination technology. Can you imagine satisfying the thirst of a billion new humans without effectively using the water which blankets 70% of our planet?
Future posts will cover the close-to-home water supply solutions of recycling, reclamation and conservation. Of particular interest are the opportunities to provide systematic cues to influence human behavior. In the meantime, you can check out the 36 Water & Wastewater companies in the CleanTECH San Diego company database.