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Dr. Peter Gleick: Water efficiency key to solving crisis

As California continues to struggle to manage the worst drought in more than a century, water issues are once again at the top of the political and economic agenda. Impeller caught up with Dr. Peter Gleick, a world-renowned expert on water and climate issues and co-founder of the Pacific Institute – one of the most innovative non-governmental organizations leading the research on how climate change affects water. We asked Dr. Gleick what governments and utilities companies should do in times like these to optimize water management.

Q. Is the current drought in California the new normal?

A. While we all hope the drought will end soon and that we’ll have a wet year so that the reservoirs – currently at less than half their normal levels – will start to refill, it’s also reasonable to expect that climate change will continue in the future. We don’t know for sure what will happen with precipitation in California, but we do know that demand for water will grow because of temperature increases, while we’ll have less snow in the mountains and sea levels will continue to rise.

Q. Has peak water been reached in the state?

A. I think it’s safe to say that California is approaching peak water – we’re simply running out of new water sources to meet our demands. This is especially apparent now, during the worst drought in modern times, but it would also be true in a normal year. When we can no longer rely on the current infrastructure of reservoirs, dams and aqueducts, it means we need to find new, innovative sources of supply, along with new ways of managing demand and conservation.

Q. What actions can California take to deal with this situation?

A. Firstly, it needs to respond to the short-term crisis by putting in place emergency measures, such as cutbacks in water consumption. More long term, we need a fundamental change in water allocation, which means looking at pumping patterns and the way we use water for farming and industry. Some 80 percent of the water we use goes to agriculture so it’s crucial for farmers to learn to grow crops with less water, using solutions such as drip irrigation, precision sprinklers and soil moisture monitors. We also need to modernize our groundwater management. The fact is that California has one of the most archaic groundwater systems in the country and overdrafts groundwater by hundreds of billions of gallons every year. Finally, the authorities also need to consider collecting and using stormwater, as well as making better use of treated wastewater – two valuable resources we’ve tended to ignore in the past.

Q. What role can water utilities play in improving water management?

A. All water agencies ought to be encouraging their customers to be more efficient. Our experience is that people do respond to a call for greater efficiency, typically resulting in a 10-15 percent reduction in consumption. However, this only works in the short term – when the drought ends, usage goes back up.

This is why water agencies need to look at permanent efficiency improvements, such as offering rebates for users who upgrade to more modern, water-efficient appliances and irrigation systems. While taking a quicker shower works in the short term, installing a low-flow showerhead will cut consumption by more than 50 percent forever!

Q. Is pricing part of the solution?

A. When water is priced correctly, in a way that reflects its true cost, people tend to be more efficient in their use. In this day and age, all water should be metered and all water agencies should use increasing block rates, meaning that the more you use, the higher your rate. In California today, 25 percent of water agencies still offer flat pricing, while 45 water agencies still don’t require their customers to have water meters. These are antiquated pricing systems that should not exist in the present situation. Instead, efficiency measures should be promoted, while high-volume users or people with leaks who don’t fix them should be penalized.

Q. How do you convince people that investments in more efficient technology are worthwhile?

A. The smartest, quickest, cheapest thing we can do is to help water users do what they want with less water. Increasing efficiency helps both during droughts and during normal years. The good news is that improvements in efficiency tend to pay for themselves in a relatively short period of time. Most importantly, efficiency improvements will enable us to continue doing the things we need to do, while protecting our valuable water resource for future generations.


Visit the Pacific Institute’s new California drought website.

Read Xylem’s white papers on urban water resilience:

Solutions for Urban Flood Management

Solutions for a Water-Scarce Future


by Isabelle Kliger