Download WATER: Adapting to a New Normal by Sandra Postel PDF

TitleWATER: Adapting to a New Normal by Sandra Postel
TagsWater Use Water Resources Desalination Irrigation Water
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Total Pages19
Document Text Contents
Page 1

The Post Carbon Reader Series: Water

Adapting to a New Normal

By Sandra Postel

Page 2

About the Author
Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water
Policy Project. A leading expert on international water
issues, she is the author of Last Oasis: Facing Water
Scarcity, which now appears in eight languages and was
the basis for a PBS documentary. She has authored more
than 100 articles for popular, scholarly, and news publi-
cations, including Science, Scientific American, Foreign
Policy, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.
She was recently appointed the National Geographic
Society’s first Freshwater Fellow. Postel is a Fellow of
Post Carbon Institute.

Post Carbon Institute
© 2010

613 4th Street, Suite 208
Santa Rosa, California 95404 USA

This publication is an excerpted chapter from The
Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s
Sustainability Crises, Richard Heinberg and Daniel
Lerch, eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2010).
For other book excerpts, permission to reprint, and
purchasing visit

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7 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS

and sustain fisheries. They do this work with free
energy from the sun—no fossil fuels or manufactured
energy is required. By contrast, all the technological
alternatives—building and running a treatment plant
to remove pollutants, artificially recharging ground-
water, constructing dikes and levees, raising fish on
farms—require external inputs of increasingly expen-
sive energy.

Of course, one of the most important “services” healthy
watersheds perform is the provision of clean drink-
ing water. If a watershed is doing the work of a water
treatment plant—filtering out pollutants, and at a
lower cost to boot—then it often pays to protect that
watershed. New York City, for instance, is investing
some $1.5 billion to restore and protect the Catskills-
Delaware watershed (which supplies 90 percent of its
drinking water) in lieu of constructing a $6 billion fil-
tration plant that would cost an additional $300 mil-
lion a year to operate.24 A number of other cities across
the United States—from tiny Auburn, Maine, to the
city of Seattle—have saved hundreds of millions of dol-
lars in avoided capital and operating costs by opting for
watershed protection over filtration plants. In doing
so, they have enjoyed many other benefits, such as pre-
serving open space, creating recreational opportunities,
protecting habitat for birds and wildlife, and (by pre-
serving trees) mitigating climate change.25

Other innovative ideas are coming from Latin America,
where some cities are establishing watershed trust
funds. For instance, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil collects fees
from water users to pay upstream farmers and ranchers
$71 per hectare ($28 per acre) to protect and restore
riparian forests, safeguarding the water supply and pre-
serving habitat for rare birds and primates. A public
watershed protection fund in Quito, Ecuador, started
in 2000 in partnership with the Nature Conservancy,
receives nearly $1 million a year from municipal water
utilities and electric companies. Quito’s water fund
has become a model for other Latin American cities,
including Cuenca, Ecuador, and Lima, Peru.26

There are many ways communities can work with
nature to meet their water needs while reducing energy
costs and building resilience. Communities facing
increased f lood damage, for instance, might achieve
cost-effective f lood protection by restoring a local riv-
er’s natural f loodplain. After enduring nineteen f lood
episodes between 1961 and 1997, Napa, California,
opted for this approach over the conventional route of
channelizing and building levees. In partnership with
the Army Corps of Engineers, the $366 million project
is reconnecting the Napa River with its historic f lood-
plain, moving homes and businesses out of harm’s way,
revitalizing wetlands and marshlands, and construct-
ing levees and bypass channels in strategic locations.
In addition to increased f lood protection and reduced

There are many ways communities
can work with nature to meet their
water needs while reducing energy
costs and building resilience.

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8 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS

f lood-insurance rates, Napa residents will benefit from
parks and trails for recreation, higher tourism revenues,
and improved habitat for fish and wildlife.27

Similarly, communities facing increased damage from
heavy stormwater runoff can turn impervious surfaces
such as roofs, streets, and parking lots into water catch-
ments by strategically planting vegetation. Portland,
Oregon, is investing in “green roofs” and “green streets”
to prevent sewer overflows into the Willamette River.28
Chicago, Illinois, now boasts more than 200 green
roofs—including atop City Hall—that collectively
cover 2.5 million square feet, more than any other U.S.
city. The vegetated roofs are helping to catch stormwa-
ter, cool the urban environment, and provide space for
urban gardens.29

Many communities are revitalizing their rivers by tear-
ing down dams that are no longer safe or serving a jus-
tifiable purpose. Over the last decade some 430 dams
have been removed from U.S. rivers, opening up habitat
for fisheries, restoring healthier water f lows, improv-
ing water quality, and returning aquatic life to rivers.
In the ten years since the Edwards Dam was removed
from the Kennebec River near Augusta, Maine, popu-
lations of sturgeon, Atlantic salmon, and striped bass
have returned in astounding numbers, reviving a rec-
reational fishery that adds $65 million annually to the
local economy.30

doing more—and living Better—
with less Water
Of all the water we withdraw worldwide from rivers,
lakes, and aquifers, 70 percent is used in agriculture,
20 percent in industries, and 10 percent in cities and
towns. With water supplies tightening, we will need
roughly a doubling of water productivity by 2025 to
satisfy human needs while sustaining nature’s life-sup-
port systems. Fortunately, opportunities to get more
benefit per drop abound through greater investments
in conservation, efficiency, recycling, and reuse, as well
as through shifts in what is produced where and when.

But the need to do more with less water is not only a
challenge for farmers, utilities, and manufacturers. It is
also up to individual consumers to shrink our personal
water footprints—the amount of water used to pro-
duce all the things we buy. The average U.S. resident
uses, directly and indirectly, about 2,480 cubic meters
of water per year—about 1,800 gallons per day—twice
the global average.31 More conscious choices about what
and how much we consume are essential for reducing
our global water footprint.

Water for food

Feeding the world is a very water-intensive enterprise.
It takes about 3,000 liters of water to meet a person’s
daily dietary needs. In the United States, with its high
consumption of meat (especially grain-fed beef), the

It could take an additional
1,314 billion cubic meters of water—
equal to the annual flow of
73 Colorado Rivers—to meet
the world’s dietary needs in 2025.

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16 The PoST CARBoN ReAdeR SeRieS

40 Sandra Postel and Amy Vickers, “Boosting Water
Productivity,” State of the World 2004 (Washington, dC:
Worldwatch institute, 2004), 46-65; Unilever example
from Sustainable Development Report 2007: Environmental
Sustainability, (Unilever, 2007).

41 For conservation methods and examples, see Amy
Vickers, Handbook of Water Use and Conservation: Homes,
Landscapes, Businesses, Industries, Farms (Amherst, mA:
WaterPlow Press, 2001); Boston example from Sandra
Postel, Liquid Assets, and Sandra Postel, “lessons from the
Field—Boston Conservation,” National geographic website,
march, 2010,

42 Cristina milesi et al., “mapping and modeling the
Biogeochemical Cycling of Turf grasses in the United
States,” Environmental Management 36 (September, 2005),
426-438; dara Colwell, “our love Affair With our lawns is
hurling the U.S. Toward Water Crisis,” AlterNet, october
2, 2009,; las Vegas figures from
Robert glennon, Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and
What To Do About It (Washington, dC: island Press, 2009).

43 Personal email communication with Katherine m. Yuhas,
Water Conservation officer, Albuquerque Bernalillo County
Water Authority, Albuquerque, Nm, october 12-13, 2009.
Between 1995 and 2008, Albuquerque’s total water
production declined from 40.775 billion gallons to 32.247
billion gallons, while the population served increased from
445,167 to 559,828.

44 iStaq example from matthew Power, “Peak Water: Aquifers
and Rivers are Running dry. how Three Regions are Coping,”
Wired Magazine 16, no. 5 (April 21, 2008); “iPhone App offers
Remote Water Sensing For Farmers, The New York Times,
June 30, 2009; see the website for Question Box at http://, and Ron Nixon, “dialing for Answers Where
Web Can’t Reach,” The New York Times, September 28,

45 Jamie Pittock et al., “interbasin Water Transfers and Water
Scarcity in a Changing World.”

46 For more examples, see Sandra Postel and Barton h.
Thompson Jr., “Watershed Protection: Capturing the
Benefits of Nature’s Water Supply Services,” Natural
Resources Forum 29 (may 2005), 98-108.

47 edwards Aquifer Authority website, at www.edwardsaquifer.
org; water use from San Antonio Water System, 2008 Annual

48 U.S. Congress, energy Independence and Security Act of
2007, 110th Cong., 1st session, 2007.

49 R. dominguez-Faus et al., “The Water Footprint of Biofuels:
A drink or drive issue?” Environmental Science & Technology
43 (may 1, 2009), 3005-3010.

50 Todd Woody, “Alternative energy Projects Stumble on a
Need for Water,” The New York Times, September 30, 2009.

Photo Credits
Page 4, Sheep grazing in darling River, cbnd d.

Page 6, henan China Feb 2009, cbna Remko Tanis.

Page 11, Central Coast organic Farm Tour, cbn CUeSA.

images marked c are under a Creative Commons license.

Cover art by mike King. design by Sean mcguire. layout by

Clare Rhinelander.

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