Sandra Postel: Water World, Uncut


Sandra Postel, founder of the Global Water Policy Project

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(This is the full interview. Read the edited interview that appeared in the print version of Momentum.)

Whether it’s 500-year floods or 100-year droughts, water has been one of the top news stories in 2011. Good ol’ H20 will likely grow in prominence over the coming decades as growing demand due to rapid population growth collides with increasing unpredictability of supply. Momentum recently caught up with Sandra Postel, founder of the Global Water Policy Project, to discuss current freshwater challenges and our unending thirst for water in the 21st century.

When did you first become interested in water-related issues?

I’ve been interested in environmental issues since I was at least a teenager, if not earlier. When I left grad school at Duke I took a job with a small natural resources consulting firm in California and was given the opportunity to work on freshwater issues. We had some work going with the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers and so I got my feet wet, so to speak, in water pretty early out of grad school.

Can you tell me more about the organization you founded, the Global Water Policy Project?

The Global Water Policy Project is an umbrella for a variety of things that I do, but the goals really are to begin to move ideas and policies and advance ways of harmonizing human use of water with the protection of the natural world. It’s really focused on the question of, “How can we begin to meet the needs of this growing human population while sustaining the ecosystems that support not only the rest of life, but us, too?”

How would you characterize our relationship with water today?

We know that freshwater is finite, it’s the basis of life and there are no substitutes for it. But we’re not using it and managing it as if any of those things are really true. So there’s a big disconnect with these known truths about freshwater and the way we go about using and managing it.

The entire path of development over the 20th century has been about acquiring more water. As we run out, we find more. And we build more and bigger water projects. We drill more groundwater wells. And that worked for a time, but clearly it’s not working anymore. And so I think the challenge is to re-integrate how we use and manage water with those fundamental truths about freshwater. And that really is a game-changer. Once you start aligning our use of water, our policies around water, and our management goals around water with those fundamental truths at the core, it shifts everything.

Issues like climate change and energy seem to grab all the attention, but you’ve said one of our greatest challenges—if not the greatest—will be related to water. Can you elaborate?

First of all, to some extent we’ll experience climate change in large part through its impact on the water cycle. We’ll experience it through more and severe floods or more severe rainstorms. Where I am in the Southwest right now it’s very dry and expected to get much drier and much hotter. So, I think we’ll experience a lot of climate change through the water cycle.

We’ve got different wells in different parts of India that are running out, again from pumping of groundwater. We’ve got rivers of various sizes all around the world in the drier parts of the world that had been perennial rivers that are now not flowing over extended periods of time from overuse. So, I think it’s beginning to hit home in more places, and it’s connecting the dots and saying, “We can do something about this. This trajectory does not have to continue in this way.”

If you could change the way water was managed, where would you start?

Number one for me would be to say that not only should people have their basic water needs met, but also I think we need to do the same thing for ecosystems. We need to make sure they have the flows they need to be healthy and continue to provide important services to us. So that means putting ecosystems and the health of ecosystems right at the core of our water decisions and saying, before we allow more to be extracted for this or that use, we need to make sure the ecosystems themselves—the river systems, the wetlands that we rely on get the water—get the flows that they need.

And this is where the game changing comes in. Because once we do that, we’ve not only secured a healthier environment or a healthier set of ecosystems, but we’ve basically said okay, given that those flows need to go to the ecosystems, the remaining water is what we have to manage for human uses—for drinking, for industry, for agriculture.

So it drives up the productivity of water use. Once we don’t go out and look for more water anymore, we become a lot more efficient and productive with the water that we have. And that’s the piece that’s missing from our policies and management approaches right now.

Where do you stand on the use of water for irrigation?

I think it’s necessary. Irrigation has been a cornerstone of human civilization for at least the last 5,000 years, and it’s been central to the rise of human civilization from ancient Egypt to ancient Mesopotamia to the ancient Chinese civilization in the Yellow River basin. And today it’s also important. We get about 40 percent of our food from the 18 percent of cropland that’s irrigated. So it’s disproportionately important to food production. And given the size of our population, I think using that land productively and applying water to it is critical.

Now, that said, there are so many ways that the current irrigated agricultural system is not using water efficiently and productively. There’s an awful lot that could be gained and a lot of water that could be freed up for other uses if we made our irrigation systems and the entire irrigated agricultural enterprise more efficient and productive when it comes to water.

We’re growing a lot of thirsty crops in very dry places, and we’re often irrigating them inefficiently. So there’s a lot of waste in the system. And to some degree that’s a silver lining. Because there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit if we look for it and put the incentives in place.

The other hidden message is that water’s not priced properly, and so we’re not giving the economic signals to farmers and other water users to encourage a more sensible crop selection or a more efficient irrigation system. So again, good opportunities that could be developed to use and allocate water more wisely.

What’s your opinion of the privatization of water?

I go back to first principles with water. That water is not just a commodity or an input to our production systems; it’s the basis of life. Which makes it fundamentally different from just about every other commodity we deal with. It’s different from oil. It’s different from copper. It’s different from any other commodity because it is first and foremost the basis of life. Without water, nothing lives. So, to me, that means that we really shouldn’t privatize water.

That said, I think there’s absolutely a role for the private sector when it comes to water management. Private utilities can manage water well, just as well as public utilities sometimes. But I think the ownership of the water itself should always remain with the people.

You’ve also commented on the number of freshwater species that are going extinct. Is this a global phenomenon?

Global estimates of the projected rate of loss of freshwater species are four to six times those of terrestrial and marine species.
If we look at the numbers in the United States, more than two-thirds of freshwater mussels, which do a terrific job of cleansing water, are at some degree of extinction. Close to 40 percent of fish species in North America are at risk of extinction. So these numbers are very concerning and again reflect that we haven’t been managing water with the protection of life and the web of life at the core.

Are there places where water policies and practices balance both human and ecosystem needs?

Certainly we’ve seen policies adopted that have those principles on paper at their core. South Africa was one of those countries, if not the first country, that adopted a very progressive water law that said not only people but ecosystems should get the quantity, quality and timing of flows that they need to be healthy.
What I’m seeing now is a burgeoning movement to see how we can incorporate the work of nature into how we manage water. We’ve come off of a century of building big dams and building lots of levees and drilling more and more groundwater wells. A very high engineering, command and control approach to water management. And I think now that we’re seeing the economic and ecological limits.

More and more places are looking to other kinds of solutions that actually work with natural ecosystems, rather than trying to go against them. And so there are some really good examples of that. Flood control and water purification are two really good examples.

We’ve got for example a city like Napa, Calif., having endured numerous floods deciding to try something different. They’re calling it the “living river approach” to flood control, where they’re reconstituting wetlands and giving the river some of its floodplains back, and they’re buying up homes and businesses that were in harm’s way and moving them out of harm’s way so the river can reclaim some of its floodplain. And this is a relatively new project, but its intent to work with nature.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is also looking at a different approach to flood control that brings in wetlands and the floodplains again. And we have the New York City example, where they’ve avoided a $10 billion filtration plant by investing in watershed protection, letting the healthy watershed do more of the work of filtering pollutants out. And since so far they’ve been able to maintain a high enough quality of water, New York’s gotten a waiver from the EPA allowing it to avoid this $10 billion filtration plant. I think they’ve invested maybe at this point a billion and a half dollars in watershed protection and avoided this very expensive treatment plant.

It’s another example of using what nature does well, helping us control floods when you give the wetlands and the floodplains a chance to absorb it, or filtering water and cleansing it so you don’t have to build an expensive filtration plant and then operate it year after year after year, which also is an expense.

What’s the takeaway message?

I guess the final thing is, understanding our own water footprint and how much water flows through our daily lives on an individual basis. What I find is that people are very aware of the water that comes out of their tap. And they ask questions like, “What more can I do? I turn off the tap when I’m washing my dishes and brushing my teeth, but what more can I do than that?” Beyond that is, it’s important that people have a more comprehensive sense of the total water that feeds their lives every day.
If you’re an average American, about 2,000 gallons of water flows through our lives every day. And more than half of that is our diet. And so understanding that the choices we make about what we consume and how much of it to consume and so on can make a big impact, not just in our local watershed but in other watersheds around the world where those products are grown and made. The simple choices we make every day can have a beneficial impact on other places around the world if enough of us make more conscious choices about what to consume.