Water as a Wicked Problem

Did you take a refreshing shower today – say, for five minutes? If so, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories estimates that you used the equivalent of one 60-watt bulb burning for 14 hours.

Many people view water and electricity as separate entities, but  they are inextricably linked.  U.S. fossil fuel and nuclear power plants account for 39 percent of all freshwater withdrawals in the country.  Now take a guess:  How much water travels through the United States’ power plants each day?

A. One billion liters of freshwater
B. 250 billion liters of freshwater, or as much water as flows through the River Nile
C. 500 billion liters of freshwater

If you said “C,” you’re right. Besides sustaining life on the planet, water is a giant, invisible cost in just about every kind of power plant.  Water is crucial for cooling, spinning turbines, growing biofuel crops, and getting geothermal energy out of the ground.  Without it, all our energy would grind to a halt.

So the connection between water and energy is something we have to take more seriously, as the summer drought of 2012 reminded us.  Although it may seem practically limitless, nearly all our water is found in the oceans or polar ice – only 3 percent is freshwater.  By 2030, unless we better manage this vital resource, the world’s population will have an estimated 40 percent less sustainable water than it needs to withdraw (see chart, below).

“Water resource management should be thought of as a wicked problem," is how Brian Davidson, professor of water resource management at the University of Melbourne, describes it. "Wicked problems do not have a single, optimal, one-off solution. They have a temporary solution. And it is a solution that has to change over time in response to changing circumstances.”

In addition, water stress is not spread equally around the globe.  Some areas are awash in the life-giving substance while others are nearly always dry. Water availability is also tied to seasons and random events, such as floods from excessive rainfall.

Encyclopedia of Climate & Weather, Oxford University Press, 2nd Ed., 2011; IEEE Spectrum

Throughout history, one of the major tests of a government has been how it deals with water uncertainty. Effective governments designed aqueducts and other systems to deal with it – they also created hardware (such as dams) and more recently, software (such as insurance systems) to cope with seasonal variability.

Whether we have an enormous water shortfall by 2030, of course, depends on us.  But unless things change, some regions are destined for severe water stress by 2030. Let’s take a look at the last two droughts to see how things might play out in terms of food and bioenergy crops.

A tale of two droughts

First, consider the most recent drought of 2011-2012 in the United States. By the end of August 2012, 60  percent of U.S. farms were experiencing severe drought conditions, which result in the lowest corn yield since 1995. (This was true even though improved, transgenic varieties of corn, resulting in higher yields than would have occurred otherwise.) This, combined with low inventory, resulted in the highest nominal prices -- $8.25 per bushel of corn, a 25 percent increase over 2011 prices and almost double the price of corn in 2010.

The drought, in fact, increased farm income for U.S. crop producers as well as the largest crop insurance claims ever received by farmers, resulting in record earnings.  Retail prices for grain and livestock in U.S.  rose only slightly, with an expected increase of 3 to 4 percent by mid-2013.

However, the scenario was not so optimistic for other countries, since a drop in U.S. production will reduce food exports and cause a jump in food prices for consumers around the world.  High food prices of 2008 were a major cause of political instability overseas, and current food prices are a source of concern in developing countries.

In addition, while field crop producers actually gained from the drought, livestock and dairy farmers suffered. During the height of the drought, there was a call to move corn from biofuel to food production, but that has since subsided.

This quiet after the storm doesn’t mean there are no consequences, however. If we are hit by another drought, the lower inventory of food and livestock will likely push both feed and food prices to far higher levels.  This, in turn, would result in a public outcry with strong political ramifications for bioenergy. But history suggests that repetition of drought conditions will also spur innovation in technology and government policy.

Take the California drought of 1987-1991. The state’s farms relied on irrigation, whose water comes from rainfall and snowfall from the Sierras through a canal system.  During this drought season, rainfall was down 40 to 80 percent.  The states’ farmers soldiered on as if nothing had happened during the first two years of the drought, but water stocks plunged.  In the third year of the drought, water shipments to farmers were cut by 50 percent, and farmers responded by letting some lands lie fallow, increasing groundwater pumping and conserving water.

All this helped compensate for the lost water supply. In the fourth year of the drought, water stocks were so low that the government made a radical policy change – introducing water trading in the form of a “water bank.” After the taboo on water trading was broken, farmers with low-value crops could trade water to those growing crops with a higher value.  This led to a water reform policy that allocated 10 percent of water from agriculture to go to environmental use. 

All these innovations allowed California to survive a severe drought at relatively low cost –less than that of the hailstorm that undermined the citrus crop in 1992. In addition, the water crisis of 1991-92 triggered drastic policy reform that forever changed the way water is managed in California.

The story of the two droughts suggests that we can avert some of the harmful impact of water crises.  In the case of California, irrigating fields more efficiently, conserving water, and cutting back on residue pollution allowed agriculture to thrive under harsh conditions.  

The drought next time

Similarly, new strategies could expand the resource base available to agriculture and take pressure off food production, especially during periods of stress.  Financial mechanisms such as “options” could assure food security for vulnerable groups, as could suspending biofuel mandates for food-based energy crops during a food crisis. Other ideas, which are explored in this special series on the drought, include:

  • Giving incentives to farmers and industry to research technologies that help food crops better withstand adverse conditions
  • Developing or investing in drought- and salt-tolerant energy crops
  • Growing biofuels on marginal lands
  • Using marginal water, including wastewater, for biofuel feedstock
  • Reducing water use in all phases of biofuel production
  • Investing in artificial photosynthesis, even if it is years away from common use

Finally, water and energy should be placed squarely on the same policy “grid.” We will not be able to slake our thirst for energy – or water – until we do.

 

 

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