“Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability”
By Brian Richter
Island Press, Washington, DC. 2014.
I recently sat down with Brian Richter, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Water Program, to talk about his recent book, “Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability.”
“Chasing Water” is a primer on water scarcity and the basics of water supply planning. It offers examples in the United States and around the world based on Richter’s experience of consulting on more than 120 water projects with governments, corporations and local communities.
Bay Journal: Since the book was published, you have been making a number of presentations around the country. What feedback have you gotten?
Richter: I think that people are really surprised to learn that so many places around the world are having trouble managing water; that people are running short of water is not just something that only happens in California or Texas.
Because water is something that is out of sight for many of us, we assume that our government or water management agencies are taking care of it, and that they do that perfectly — and therefore we should never end up running short of water.
A major purpose of the book was to build awareness that there are these problems and that there are sensible solutions, and that we aren’t often applying sensible solutions — at least not quickly enough or at a sufficient scale — and therefore we’re ending up getting into trouble.
BJ: You’ve been teaching a course on water supply planning at the University of Virginia for several years. How do you approach the topic with a younger audience?
R: It is very easy to leave the younger generation despondent if you are not careful, because there are some huge challenges. The fact that half of the population of the world is experiencing water shortages at least on an intermittent basis and a third of our water sources are really heavily depleted everywhere on the planet — that’s pretty darn depressing.
So I always make sure they understand that there are opportunities, and there’s room for them to bring new ideas and new solutions to the fore.
One of the reasons that I wrote the book in the way that I did is that I realized that for much of my career I had been mistaken in assuming that my audience knew more about water than they did.
We know from market research that most Americans have absolutely no idea about where their water comes from, or what the water cycle is.
I once heard a farmer who was on a panel in Florida, who said that water scarcity — and even the concept of water consumption — was a fallacy because “we’re just borrowing the water for a short period of time, and everybody knows because we were taught in grade school that it comes back through this water cycle.” But that isn’t exactly true.
In the book, I try to walk the reader through the basic concepts of a water budget, what’s on the input side, what’s on the output side, how much water is available on the input side, how is it available, how is that water being used for various purposes.
BJ: What about for the mid-Atlantic region, which is generally considered “water rich?”
R: I’ve been working with some groups who run computer models on the hydrologic conditions in watersheds all around the world. We thought that there was going to be a really strong correlation between arid and semi-arid regions and the propensity for water shortages. But we were surprised to find out that people were running out of water everywhere in the world, including in humid climates.
So no matter where you live, it’s still the same basic relationship between how much water is available and how much you are using.
The problem seems to result from getting accustomed to using a high volume of water on a regular basis — and when you go into a period where (rainfall) is below normal or a severe drought, then you’ve got all these people who are reliant on using a certain volume of water as a norm, and then they end up in trouble.
Here’s another thing that’s interesting: The recognition that communities have serious vulnerabilities is moving east in a really detectable way. Just this year, Oklahoma and Kansas have passed significant water legislation because they see the writing on the wall. I see that continuing further east over time.
BJ: I notice the book is called “a guide.” Who is your intended audience?
R: The major purpose for writing the book was to try to empower local stakeholders — people involved in local community decision-making, like river groups, local conservation groups, watershed councils — with some information so that they could participate in these dialogues in a more productive way.
Generally, what we’re seeing in places in the world where [there is local stakeholder involvement] is that you end up with more appropriate and more durable solutions. What I mean by appropriate is that oftentimes the local citizens know how things work in their local areas of the watershed. They know what’s going to work socially, culturally and economically. And because of engaging the local stakeholders in the discussion from the beginning, solutions will be better accepted.
But when I talk about “local water democracies” in the book, I also say that it can be really messy and complicated, and it can take longer to work it through. But in the spirit of democracy, I think it is a necessary and desirable thing.
BJ: The focus of your first book, “Rivers for Life,” was an argument for bringing natural ecosystems to the table in water supply planning. Are people accepting that more universally since the time you wrote that book?
R: It’s been a little more than decade since Sandra Postel and I wrote “Rivers for Life.” Since then, we have seen widespread uptake of those concepts. Pretty much everywhere I go in the world, I see people thinking about the ecosystem and the ecosystem’s water needs. It’s not universal, but we’ve come a long way.
But in the last five to seven years, I’ve come to appreciate that, in many places in the world, the challenge isn’t just to provide water for ecosystems, it is to provide enough water for everything that we care about.
I — and many others — have realized that to get what we want for the natural ecosystems, we’re going to have to think more holistically. How can we provide for water security for nature and for people, simultaneously? Because if we can find ways to better address the human needs in a more sustainable manner, there’s an opening for us to get the ecosystems needs met in that solution.
BJ: Do have a sense of what the next horizon is for you professionally?
R: I’m going to be giving a lot more attention, with my colleagues and the organizations that I work, to figuring out how we can really push water conservation to the absolute maximum.
It’s ironic, perhaps, but I am optimistic, simply because we waste so much water now. There is so much potential to use water better, both in our cities and on farms. Many of us estimate that we’re going to do OK for the next couple of decades if we just start using water more efficiently and conservatively.
For information, maps, classroom materials, visit: www.sustainablewaters.org/