[QTalks Ep.2]
Abundance in Times of Scarcity: Water Strategy in the US

With the “once-in-a-generation” Infrastructure Deal in the US set to unlock a wave of much-needed infrastructure rehabilitation and upgrades, will it be enough to make America’s water great again?

What will be the role of digital tools — including AI and remote sensing technologies — to help not only on water availability but drive democratized access to data on quality?

Discussing water strategy in the US and how abundance can be created in a time of scarcity, join our host and environmental journalist Tom Freyberg and a panel of experts from Qatium’s advisory board: 

  • Felicia Marcus, Former Chair, California State Water Resources Control Board
  • Jeffrey Kightlinger, Former General Manager, The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
  • Will Sarni, Founder and CEO, Water Foundry

How the landscape is changing

Tom began by asking Jeffrey to reflect on his 15 years with The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and how he sees the landscape changing in terms of water availability in the near future. 

Jeffrey provided some context to the question by highlighting the fact that the utility serves 19 million people across multiple cities. He also said that people referenced drought for the entirety of his tenure, but also said that the reality is that the Colorado River has been in drought since the year 2000. He said that this drought is now a permanent state of existence that water managers are grappling with.  

Providing some more context, Jeffrey said that the infrastructure was designed with a vastly different climate in mind and that now they are struggling with knowing how to capture very little snow and huge amounts of rain.

What is water scarcity?

Tom then asked Will about how he challenges the use of the word drought. Will said that in order to engage the public in solving the water scarcity issue and this involves a change in language. He referenced the fact that the word drought means something temporary and that the phrase “permanent drought” would draw much more attention to the issue. 

Will also said that scarcity is based on a disconnect between our current reality and last-century infrastructure and modeling scenarios. He said that aging infrastructure and a fundamental overallocation of water resources coupled with climate change means that the current responses are woefully out of date.

The snowpack issue

Felicia went on to comment on how the snowpack is the single largest piece of storage. She said that there’s a need to not only think about built infrastructure in terms of recycling and stormwater capture but also to work out how to get occasional deluges into groundwater basins since they’re the only things in size and scale that can compensate for a lack of snow. 

She also said that climate change isn’t just an incremental change that has produced extremes that are far less predictable than what engineers have planned for.

Infrastructure funding

Jeffrey then went on to comment on the $15 billion in government funding for lead service line replacement. He said that there’s a two-generation lag in US infrastructure funding and that there are certain things that only the government can really step in and finance including large-scale aqueducts, interstate projects, and removing lead piping. 

Will spoke about how there’s a need to get back to making consistent investments in infrastructure and innovation. Felicia said that the infrastructure deal should also inspire investment in the tech sector.

The impact of large-scale water recycling initiatives 

Jeffrey shed some light on water recycling in Southern California, highlighting that 10-12% of water in the region is recycled through small projects. He also described a pilot project that aims to be the largest water recycling plant in the US where they are testing technology and how to optimize it. 

He said that the exciting thing about this project is that it will shift all groundwater replenishment in Southern California away from imported water to recycled water which will free up imported water for drought management and scarcity.

What role does digital technology play in the quest for a resilient water supply?

Drawing on the content of his new book, “Digital Water: Enabling a More Resilient, Secure and Equitable Water Future”, Will said that analog methods are no longer an option for addressing water scarcity. He said that enabling technology that provides the ability to diversify resources, makes people aware of the quality of water, and gives them the information to make better decisions is essential. 

He also said that building innovative business models that make it easier for the public sector and utilities and even private sector companies to adopt digital technologies and manage equitable access will be a crucial part of the puzzle.  

Jeffrey commented on what he’s seen at the retail level, saying that smart meters have helped them collect data to provide to the consumer, and customized billing methods have enabled consumers to customize their water usage.

Felicia said that one of the most exciting things coming out of the technology revolution is the technology that enables utilities to identify where leaks are more likely to happen and where a pipe is more likely to break. 

She said that being able to fix things more precisely makes a huge difference in a much more affordable way. Finally, she said that technologies that provide insight and data on water usage are crucial in getting consumers on board the task of tackling climate change.

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