Sitting at the dinner table, a young Jerry Brown listened to his father, then attorney general of California, describe a hard-fought lawsuit with Arizona over access to the Colorado River. “Water was always a big story,” Brown recalled recently during a forum at Stanford focusing national attention on the Western United States’ ongoing drought, market mechanisms for mitigating water shortages, the path to water innovation and global warming’s impacts on water resources.

The Oct. 20 event, “New Directions for U.S. Water Policy,” featured comments from Brown, who emphasized the need to pass a proposed $7.5 billion water bond, as well as former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and a range of experts from federal and municipal agencies, universities, agricultural interests, businesses and nonprofits. The forum, co-hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute and The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, also marked the release of new research papers highlighting opportunities for improving water management in the face of scarcity.

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"We have a management challenge that is going to take money,” Brown said. “It will take brains, it will take innovation and the magic of the marketplace to bring out the best of our creativity."

It’s also going to take realistic pricing for water delivery, infrastructure financing, consistent regulation, technological innovation and conservation, according to the forum’s panelists and the research papers’ findings. Specifically, they suggested measures to:

  • Establish a state office to spur technological innovation in managing, measuring and conserving water
  • Educate the public about the need to raise municipal water rates, then doing so gradually over time
  • Prioritize water issues at local, state and federal levels
  • Consolidate water- and wastewater management agencies
  • Increase water recycling and restoration of aquatic habitats; among other initiatives.

A Changing Climate

The time is right for change, Brown pointed out. Public awareness and support for new water management approaches is growing in the midst of the drought. California’s legislature recently passed comprehensive groundwater regulations for the first time, and the state’s residents will soon vote on Brown’s Proposition 1, a massive bond effort to expand water storage, water recycling and other water management efforts.

Beyond political urgency, there is climatic urgency. Water scarcity issues will only become more severe and complicated as global warming creates a new normal of extreme weather.

"We know with very high confidence that when we get low precipitation in California, we're about twice as likely to have a severe drought if it's also warm when precipitation is low," said forum discussant Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford associate professor of environmental Earth system science and Woods senior fellow. "We're essentially approaching 100 percent risk of drought-inducing conditions because of this increase in temperature."

Widespread Impacts

The news is bleak: wide swaths of agricultural land gone brown, massive wildfires raging through tinder-dry forests, residential wells tapped out, unemployed farm workers crowding food pantries. The ongoing drought is projected to cost the agricultural sector about $2.2 billion in 2014. The social and ecological damage is also profound.

The Colorado River Basin is staggering through its fourteenth consecutive year of drought, Las Vegas is spending $1 billion to build a water intake pipe to catch the water at the very bottom of its fast-dropping reservoir, and Texas has seen $25 billion in drought-related losses. “It’s a scary time,” said discussant Robert Glennon, a professor of law at the University of Arizona.

It’s not just agriculture and drinking water that are taking a hit. Western businesses, such as technology companies that run data centers dependent on water to cool equipment, are facing an uncertain future, Glennon pointed out. “This is about the future of the American economy,” he said.

Complex and Controversial

As in the past, solutions do not come easy. Panelists agreed water law throughout the region is a complicated and often fraught overlap of government jurisdictions involving literally thousands of water agencies and embedded interests such as California’s massive agriculture industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the state’s freshwater use. There is little built-in resiliency planning and few incentives for conservation.

Complicating the picture is a dearth of technology innovation in the field, due largely to water’s artificially low market price, said Stanford law professor and Woods Co-Director Buzz Thompson, who co-authored one of the event's white papers, “The Path to Water Innovation,” with Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Water in the West program. “Water is perhaps the only resource that doesn’t get more expensive as supply dwindles.”

Getting these and other water management issues right is imperative, panelists agreed. “Water is going to be the critical resource issue of the 21st Century,” said Thompson.

 

Research papers released:

Shopping for Water: How the Market Can Mitigate Water Shortages in the American West

Five policy recommendations for using market forces to facilitate the movement of water resources and to mitigate the risk of water shortages.

The Path to Water Innovation

A look at ways to cultivate innovative technologies that promote efficiency and conservation or generate new sources of water.

In Times of Drought: Nine Economic Facts about Water in the United States

A framing of the water crisis and America’s relationship with water through the lens of supply and demand issues.

(Photo Slideshow)