Checking Local Water Use and Scrutinizing Those Big Water Projects Can Benefit Your Community

January 15, 2012
Cynthia Barnett

Reporter's Toolbox


This fall the news media around San Bernardino, Calif., picked up a press release from the local water district and ran it with little alteration or context: A leading national panel of groundwater experts, the release and the news stories said, had concluded that a water-supply project known as the Cadiz Valley Groundwater Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project “can offer a significant water supply to Southern California communities and avoid environmental harm.”

That’s a matter of considerable scientific and policy debate and has been since the late ‘90s, when agribusiness company Cadiz first proposed to store Colorado River water in the Mojave Desert during wet years and pump it up in dry ones to pipe to Southern California. The Metropolitan Water District, an original partner,backed out in 2002 amid financial and environmental concerns. Now, Cadiz has partnered with five other Southern California water companies. The utilities see steady supplies and sales of freshwater for growing populations. The Cadiz principals and their investors see a gold mine. Environmental reporters should, too.

The Cadiz story overflows with reasons why our community, state and national water supply “crises” — and proposed solutions — deserve the same scrutiny we’re paying presidential candidates’environmental records. It’s not that these crises aren’t real: The United States has depleted aquifers and over-tapped rivers from coast to coast. Freshwater habitats have become the single most degraded of America’s major ecosystems. Climate change seems to be having the greatest impact on freshwater resources. And many communities are grappling with vanishing water supplies, steep energy costs to move water around, financially unstable utilities and other problems.

But in some cases the water managers themselves and particularly their preference for the largest infrastructure projects, are to blame. The classic example in the West: vast diversions of the Colorado River, so over-allocated that there isn’t enough for all human legal users, much less fish and wildlife, during times of drought. In the East: harnessing a relatively small river — the Chattahoochee — to quench a major metropolitan area, Atlanta, brought that metro within 90 days of running out of water. It spawned a legal battle among three states that has dragged on two decades. And it doomed aquatic life downstream that relies on freshwater flows to Fla.’s Apalachicola Bay.

Unintended consequences continue in the 21st Century. In Tampa, water managers already were regretting their 25-million-gallon-a-day desalination plant’s cost overruns and technical mishaps when they were surprised by its enormous energy demands and carbon emissions. The utility’s annual electricity costs have soared 138%, an additional $10 million.

So what’s a reporter to do, when such projects promise to solve a problem as desperate as water scarcity — and when they are championed by water engineers, the hydraulic heroes we rely on to bring us fresh, clean water and protect us from floods?


The first thing to know is that water use in the United States is declining rapidly. Check the U.S. Geological Survey’s “Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2005.” The Pacific Institute is another good source. Everything we do as a society — growing food, industrial processes, flushing toilets, to name a few things — takes a lot less water than even 10 years ago. Other countries, too, are showing how we can live quite well with a lot less. These are problems for which there often are solutions.


In 2010, I took a leave of absence from my day job to report on these new ways of living with water from different parts of the world and the United States for my new book, Blue Revolution, which calls for a water ethic for America. I learned that much of the conventional wisdom I’d heard during my years on the water beat — such as the refrain from some utilities that they can’t make money if their customers use less water — is simply not true, or doesn’t have to be.

If the political body or environmental agency you’re covering insists your city, region or state needs a lot more water 20 or 50 years from now, that’s a red flag: Cities such as San Antonio, Texas, have proven it’s possible to grow population and economy while using far less. Reductions in the agricultural irrigation that accounts for roughly half of freshwater use in the U.S., are especially promising for easing groundwater pumping or freeing up supply. The USGS scientists can help you analyze agricultural water use in your state or region, and whether farmers have transitioned to micro-irrigation or still rely on unsustainable practices such as flood irrigation. (Flood irrigation still accounts for about half of all agricultural use east of the Mississippi.)

Next, check your city or state’s per-capita water use and compare it with the national average, which is a still-high 150 gallons. If your community is around there or higher, it probably hasn’t done enough to eliminate waste to justify a mega-project. Monterey, California, is down to around 70 gallons per person per day. Sarasota, Florida, has reduced per-capita by nearly half, to less than 80 gallons a day. If residents can still water their lawns with all the cheap, potable water they want, your community is behind the curve.Another thing to remember is this similarity between the water and health-care industries: While doctors are often trustworthy and knowledgeable sources, the system in which they work is at best driven by profit, at worst failing in some life-threatening ways.

Some of the country’s most progressive engineers and local governments are showing that it’s absolutely possible to live with far less water. We’ve begun to see new subdivisions and even part of a school (Seattle’s Berschi School) built with little or no imported water — a concept known as “net-zero water.” Cisterns for toilet flushing and irrigation, recycling air-conditioning condensate and other practices are standard in cities such as Tucson and San Antonio, where local governments figured out that conserved water is their best source of “new” water. They’ve forestalled costly new capital projects for decades.

This doesn’t mean a large infrastructure project isn’t the best option for your community. Regional solutions, especially those that help struggling smaller utilities work together on water supply, are often smart. It means the scrutiny of journalists is crucial — to put the story into context for readers, viewers and listeners, and to question the hydraulic heroes.

Check the membership of panels and committees recommending water projects in your community: Is the desalination plant builder recommending the desal plant, as has been the case in several Florida proposals?

Check the campaign contributions of any company working to build a water project, including the engineering firms. I devote a chapter in Blue Revolution to the politics of a “Water-Industrial Complex.” The term is not random; a wave of mergers and acquisitions has transformed the industry from locally owned firms to global conglomerates, some of which are also among the top private defense contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reporters checking the campaign contributions for Cadiz, for example, will find hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on California candidates.

Every few years, the American Society of Civil Engineers puts out its dismal report card on U.S. infrastructure to expose the nation’s crumbling, woefully underfunded waterworks, roads and bridges. (Press contact is Jim Jennings.) Water-infrastructure needs are usually given the lowest grade — a D-minus in the latest report. Water and wastewater also carry the highest price tag to fix: total investment needs of $255 billion. This is an important story — as are the busting-water-pipe stories that often happen during droughts. But next time it comes along, don’t forget there’s another side. Often missing from the conversation is the idea that rather than prop up failing systems, we could invest in new ways of living with water, in the same way we’re investing in alternative energy.

The new, more-ethical approaches are often cheaper than the 20th Century model — finding a pristine new source of water, conveying it with pumps, using it once, cleaning it up, then flushing it away. But the water industry has been slow to change, in part because its business model is based on that old, linear approach. Firms’ revenues are directly proportional to the size of the water projects they build or land for local communities: The higher the number of gallons captured for our growing thirst, the bigger the profit.

Until recently, few companies saw the profitability in saving water. But that’s beginning to change, in the same way we’ve seen corporations like GE and BP increase revenues by creating more energy-efficient products, from small light bulbs to giant wind turbines.

Utilities and taxpayers also save big bucks on the more ethical water path. One well-known example is Philadelphia’s “all-green” stormwater plan. To halt sewage spills and comply with the Clean Water Act, the city was looking at a $10 billion price tag for a massive sewage tunnel under the Delaware River. Instead, Philly is spending $1.6 billion to restore streams; remake everything from parking lots to basketball courts with porous pavement; and plant miles of vegetation atop rooftops and along city blocks.

It’s a compelling angle for 40th anniversary stories on the Clean Water Act (October 1972). Howard Neukrug, deputy commissioner at Philadelphia Water, is the architect of the plan and a fun interview. Another source on shifts to more decentralized systems, recycling and reuse — and a counterpoint to ASCE — is economist Valerie Nelson of the Massachusetts-based Water Alliance, also a panelist at SEJ’s Miami conference.

A major driver of the U.S. freshwater crisis has been our illusion of water abundance. Many Americans don’t understand where their water comes from, where it goes after they use it, who’s in charge of it or what it really costs — financially and ecologically. Environmental journalists have an important role to show them what’s really going on under the surface.

Note: Water-supply references for reporters can be found here.

SEJ member Cynthia Barnett is the author of Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, Beacon Press, 2011, and Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.,University of Michigan Press, 2007. Feel free to email her followup questions:

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2011-12. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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