By Nick Diamantides
Unless the United States changes the way it uses and conserves water, the nation is headed for a severe shortage of that precious commodity in the not-too-distant future. That’s what Anne Castle told an audience of about 70 at a Water Replenishment District (WRD) luncheon last Thursday (April 22) at the agency’s headquarters in Lakewood. Castle, who is an assistant secretary of the United States Department of the Interior, also outlined a program the federal government recently initiated in hopes of preventing a national water crisis.
The audience members sat with rapt attention. Most of them were representatives of local water departments and agencies in the Southern California region who are looking for alternate sources of water and more efficient ways to conserve it.
Castle began her presentation by praising the water agencies of Southern California, especially WRD. “The work that you are doing here is at the cutting edge of water recharge and water conservation for the rest of the country,” she said. “We have a lot to learn from you.”
Castle explained that one of her priorities as the assistant secretary for water and science is to try to bring the water sustainability ethic to the entire country. “Southern California demonstrates better than any other place that the current water supply-and-demand equation in this country is out of balance,” she said. “The imbalance has a variety of causes that you’re all familiar with.” Those causes, according to the assistant secretary, include population growth, drought, more lasting decreases in supplies of water brought on by climate change, new demands for water for domestic energy production, and increased recognition of the water needed to support healthy ecosystems.
“We’re seeing more frequent and severe droughts, not just in the Southwest, but also in places that haven’t ever experienced water shortage before, like the Southeast,” Castle said. She listed several regions in the U.S. that are currently experiencing drought and dealing with significantly reduced water supplies.
Turning to climate change, Castle acknowledged that there is a debate as to the causes of global warming, but she added, “What we can all agree on is that the prospect of climate change introduces a large degree of uncertainty about future water supplies.” She noted that climate models consistently show reduced runoff in the Southwest for the foreseeable future.
Castle added that while water supplies for this region are expected to dwindle, the demand for water is expected to increase. “Population growth in the southwestern United States was higher than any other region over the past decade,” she said. “Expectations are that this growth will regain momentum with an improving economy.”
Adding to the need for more water, according to Castle, is the ongoing increase in domestic energy production. She explained that solar cell production, the conversion of organic matter into natural gas, fracking (a process of extracting hard-to-get natural gas from underground pockets) and carbon sequestration all require tremendous amounts of water. (Carbon sequestration is the process of injecting power-plant emissions deep below the surface of the earth.)
“Another thing we don’t talk about very much is the full development of Indian-reserved water rights,” Castle said, referring to water rights guaranteed to Native American Tribes in treaties signed with the federal government in the 1800s and 1900s. “In the West in particular, it is important to remind ourselves that Indian-reserved rights, some of the oldest water rights in the priority system, are only now being quantified and developed.” She explained that as Native American tribes appropriate more and more of the water that is rightfully theirs, cities, farms and industries will be further pressed to curtail water usage and find additional sources to satisfy their needs.
“Interior has a direct interest in this issue because, through the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior is the largest wholesaler of water in the country,” Castle said. “We bring drinking water to more than 31 million people and irrigation water to one out of five Western farmers. That’s water for 10 million acres of farmland.” She added that the Department of the Interior also supplies water to many Native American communities and uses vast amounts of water in the national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands that it manages.
Castle noted that facing all those challenges may seem like a daunting task, but the federal government has recently initiated a program aimed at coordinating efforts throughout the nation to increase water-usage efficiency and tap into new sources of water. She explained that in February of this year, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar signed a Secretarial Order establishing the federal WaterSMART Program. (SMART stands for Sustain and Manage America’s Resources for Tomorrow.)
“Right after the order was signed, we hosted a workshop in Las Vegas to gather stakeholder ideas on how to implement this program,” Castle said. “We’re still crafting the details of the program and continuing to get input about how the Interior can be most helpful to water users on the ground.”
Castle spent the next 15 minutes explaining some of the major components of the program, which include: the expansion of Bureau of Reclamation grants to agencies for water recycling; reuse and usage efficiency projects; the start-up of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water Census (the first comprehensive national water assessment in more than 30 years); and the establishment of a WaterSMART clearinghouse. “This will be a centralized database with information about successful water conservation programs and the not-so-successful ones so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel and so that we can avoid making the same mistakes as others,” Castle said.
She reminded the attendees of what they already knew– that water conservation is a crucial part of a water supplier’s portfolio because it’s less expensive than buying additional water and because it allows water agencies to deal with growth.
Castle noted that the level of cooperation between WRD, water purveyors and the Department of the Interior is very high and will increase in the future. “We have a lot to learn from you,” she said. “We hope to be able to provide assistance to you so that you can keep leading the way on aquifer storage and conservation.”