On Tuesday I spoke with the National Association of Water Companies about our Wasting Water is Weird campaign. So I’ve spent the last several days hanging out with “water people” and soaking up their perspectives on all things water-related. Here are some of the things I’m leaving San Diego with:
- When it rains in San Diego, it makes the news. Every year, San Diego gets only nine inches of rain. But they got a little on Tuesday and it was the lead story on the local news – beating out a story about a highway shooting. San Diego relies on “the big pipe” as one water official put it, and pulls most of its water from the Colorado River, more than 250 miles away. That’s a precarious position for the city’s 3 million residents and a $187 billion local economy. One local official, when asked what concerns her most, was offered several options: natural disasters, water wars with neighboring “up the pipe” cities, and unfunded regulations. With a wry smile, she said “Water wars. Already have those. Unfunded regs? Welcome to my world. But natural disasters, that’s what keeps me up at night.” San Diego is building an emergency water supply to provide clean water to its citizens in the event of a natural disaster – maybe that will help her sleep a little better.
- Water faces the same cycle of “conservation leads to reduced revenue leads to rate increases leads to angry customers” as energy. Most people agree – though I met a few this week who don’t – that demands for water in the coming years will stretch supplies and in some cases exceed availability. So water conservation calls go out, people start using less water, and revenues shrink for the water company. I spoke with one water company representative from Idaho who said water consumption in his territory had decreased 25% since 1990. That’s good news, right? Except when it’s not. When rates go up, it’s like punishing people for doing exactly what they were asked to do. They saved water, and now they have to pay more? Talk about a motivation killer. It also poses serious challenges to this country’s crumbling infrastructure – those miles and miles of pipe that bring water to our homes and businesses. Experts contend that the country’s pipes need to be modernized and repaired to stop wasteful leaks and other inefficiencies. But if there’s no money from revenues, and the financial industry is reluctant to lend money, what happens? Absolutely nothing.
- There’s a whole field of study about how to create lies. It’s called agnotology, and it’s literally defined as the study of culturally constructed ignorance or the creation of intentional confusion. Other people may call this “spin” or “lobbying” or “propaganda.” I call it loathsome and repugnant. In this era when trust comes at a premium, when transparency is more important than ever, and we’re all facing collective issues, anti-truths (as the agnotologists call them instead of lies) are a dangerous distraction from real problem-solving.
- Water needs some new ideas. I heard this theme over and over at the conference. As one speaker eloquently put it, “It’s no longer acceptable for us to say that we never thought this could happen – we must think forward instead of looking back” when it comes to supply and demand issues. Water utilities, by their own admission this week, are working on transforming their cultures from one of passivity and in the case of Jefferson County, Alabama, outright corruption. (Want to read a good story full of drama, intrigue, blatant disregard for the law and sheer stupidity? Read about how the county’s sewer system, commissioners and New York investment houses have put the county on the brink of declaring bankruptcy under the strain of several billion dollars of debt.) I was encouraged to hear several water company officials talk about a return to their original mission: to serve their citizens and customers. I heard people talking about building business cases for expansions to ensure the public’s investment is being served, and others talking about innovative new ways of reusing water. There’s still some work to do, according to the conference speakers, but it seems as though things are moving in the right direction.
Sincere thanks again to the NAWC for inviting me to their annual conference. I met some great people, enjoyed some really good conversations, and hey, La Jolla’s beautiful. Hope to see you next year in Miami.