Sandra Postel: Repairing the Water Cycle
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The very deep did rot – Oh Christ!
That ever this should be.
~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge
El Niño has been dropping much-needed rain this winter on a parched American West. But it’s making little difference to the greater water scarcity issues the US as well as the rest of the world is increasingly facing.
Here to talk about the state of the world situation for fresh water — arguably the single most important resource to humans on the planet, next to oxygen — is Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project, author, lecturer, and former National Geographic Fellow. The punch-line to her message: as more and more demands are placed on our finite freshwater supply by human consumption and climate change, intelligent conservation is now an absolute must.
Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity Podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. Now in the crash course, we discuss many things and everything is important to some degree. Water, however, is among the most important topics and substances there is. As our next guest says, you can find substitutes for oil and coal if you want to, but there is no substitute for water. So it is time we shined a brighter light on this important topic and that is what we are going to do today. So joining us is Sandra Postel, a world-renowned water expert who I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with in the past as a Post-Carbon Institute back in 2009, I think that might have been. Sandra has worked on water issues for 30 years and in her flagship book, the award-winning Last Oasis, she really dove in and did a great job talking about many of the things that we are experiencing today. She also directs the Independent Global Water Policy Project and lectures, writes, consults on global water issues, and she is a former National Geographic fellow. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the National Freshwater Conservation and Restoration Initiative pioneered by National Geographic and its partners, which has restored billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. She has written some 20 op ed features that have appeared in more than 30 newspapers, all the big ones you have heard of, and is a frequent speaker and lecturer. You might have seen her on BBC’s “Planet Earth” series, Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Eleventh Hour,” or National Geographic’s “Breakthrough” series. Sandra, welcome.
Sandra Postel: Well thank you, Chris. It is a pleasure to be here with you.
Chris Martenson: Well thanks. We have a lot of people who are very interested in water on our website and among our listenership. Before we dive into that, tell us about your career. Where and how did you start and what do you spend most of your time working on today?
Sandra Postel: Well I have been working on water for a long time and I was one of those young people, ever since I was a teenager, that really knew I wanted to do something on behalf of the earth. The water piece came into focus for me a bit later after I got my graduate degree at Duke and my first job was out in California which had just come off of a multi-year drought, not unlike the one that they are going through now. And I got put on the water projects and just got very engaged with water, the importance of water conservation, how water is needed not only for humans but for nature, and then I joined the World Watch Institute. Again, I was still in my 20’s so still really kind of developing and learning my ideas about water but I had a chance to really look at the global landscape around water at the World Watch Institute and wrote my first papers and books there and really sort of dug deep into the issues and particularly how water is not always where we need it when we need it, and what does that mean for food security, for our economies, and, of course, for the health of the natural environment that we depend on for so many things, as well as social and political stability. Water is sort of a lens, in a way, through which I look at the world and it is a fascinating way to look at the world because many things that we do not associate with water really have water as an underpinning. So I have just had a great time over the years learning, learning, learning more about how water shapes our world and how important it is going to be to figure out how to secure water for our people, for our economies, and for nature going forward, particularly with climate change now such an important part of that picture.
Chris Martenson: Now it is certainly true that water has the opportunity to replenish itself. It comes out of the sky, thankfully, like it does here in New England more often than where you currently reside at this point. But when we are talking water, we are really talking fresh water so let’s start at the top for our listeners. Really, fresh water, I was always coached in grade school to save water meant turning the tap off in between while I was brushing my teeth and rinsing. That is certainly important but really, what are the — who are the big users of water in our world today?
Sandra Postel: Well first, you raise a very important fundamental point that water is renewable thanks to the water cycle which we all learned about in fifth or sixth grade. But it is also finite. It is only available in a finite amount and if we go beyond that amount, we are in an unsustainable situation. And so when we look at our water use, yes, it is good for consciousness raising to turn off the tap when we brush our teeth, but really the big users of water are our farmers because growing crops is a very water-intensive enterprise. Even if it is does efficiently, it is a water-intensive enterprise. Crops just have to transpire a lot of water to cool themselves down and to grow. It is a fundamental process for plant growth and so that water is transpired back to the atmosphere and you cannot capture that and reuse it. It may condense and fall again as rain but when you look at the areas of the world that are now experiencing water depletion, depletion of rivers, depletion of ground water, they are usually areas that have a lot of irrigated agriculture going on because it takes so much water to grow our food, to produce our cotton, for example. It can take more than 600 gallons of water just to make a simple cotton shirt. That is as much water as you probably use at home in a week just to make one cotton shirt. So our lifestyles take a lot of water. But again, diet and things that require growing plants in the field really are the big water consumers for most of us.
Chris Martenson: What about thermoelectric power plants? I know they draw a lot of water. Are they actually using that?
Sandra Postel: Yes. Thermoelectric power is a very big user of water and again, not to get too technical, but it is important to distinguish between water that is consumed and water that is used because we tend to use them interchangeably, those phrases, but from a hydrologic standpoint, there is an important difference. The plant that is transpired in water is consuming water because you cannot take that water and recycle it and use it again right away. It is not in our control anymore whereas water that is taken out of a river to cool a power plant, coal plant, or a nuclear plant is run through the plant, cools it down, and then usually is put back in the same river as it was drawn from with very little water lost in the process. A small amount is lost in the process. Now that is for most of those systems. There are some that use a different system that take less water out but recycle and reuse it and consume it. But as a consequence, we do not think of thermoelectric power as consuming a lot of water but it is in the United States the biggest user of water and so more water is withdrawn from rivers and lakes to cool power plants and electric power plants than any other use. And so even though it is not a consumption of water, it is a big user of water. And it also — if you look at a plant like Indian Point north of New York, for example, something like a billion fish get entrained in that cooling intake and are killed in the process of cooling that power plant. So it is not without a footprint, in a sense. It is not without an important impact. It is just not a consumptive use of water like agriculture is.
Chris Martenson: Right. So when we hear about China tossing up a coal-fired plant a week, that is not really going to impact their overall need for water all that much. I mean, certainly some evaporates if they have cooling towers, but not a lot.
Sandra Postel: Yeah. And again, it depends on the type of power plant, whether it is a recirculating kind or what we call a once-through kind. The once-through kind, you take it out, you put it back. The evaporative cooling or recirculating cooling, you tend to take a little less but then you lose more to consumption as a result. So it kind of depends where you are.
Chris Martenson: Okay. So you recently said then that if an alarm bell was needed to focus global attention on water security, it has rung. What did you mean by that?
Sandra Postel: Well, I was ringing the bell — the fact is for the last two years, the World Economic Forum which meets every year in Davos, Switzerland and does, as sort of a prelude to that meeting, they do an assessment of water risk and what contributes. What are the big drivers and factors contributing to risk to our global economy and to society at large and for the last two years, they have different categories of this and for the last two years, water crises made the top of one of those lists. This year they ranked water crises as the top global risk for the next decade and of course right behind that were things that relate to water: our failure to adequately mitigate and prepare for climate change, extreme weather, food crises. So water, in a sense, is at the heart of a lot of these risks but it is even topping itself some of those global threats.
Chris Martenson: And the point of an economic forum like Davos to raise water, why are they doing that? How do they use that in their proceedings?
Sandra Postel: Well the World Economic Forum includes, among its members, heads of state, chief executive officers of big companies, civic leaders, so it is a diverse group of world leaders, in a sense, that are concerned with human wellbeing, are concerned with social stability and progress and of course also risk to business. So this assessment is really to shine a light on some of those underlying risks that society might be facing and that maybe is an adequate [inaudible, 00:10:43] with. So last year when water topped the list and then right behind it was weapons of mass destruction and the spread of infectious diseases. So it really is kind of looking systemically at these problems and asking which ones are likely to cause society the most risk over whatever timeframe they are looking at. I think water coming to the top of the — and this was fairly new. Water has been in the rankings here and there over the last 15 years or so, but to rise to the top of two of these rankings two years in a row suggests that the business world is taking notice of this, that water is so fundamental not only to business, but to social stability which, of course, affects business. So the business world is very much taking notice which I think is new, not brand new. When I first started working on water issues, it really did not have that kind of attention but it does now and I think for very good reason.
Chris Martenson: Was there any particular incident or set of incidents that caused water to float to the top of that concern list this year?
Sandra Postel: Well I think it is the number of areas that are experiencing water problems and of course the continued problem from a human perspective that more than 800 million still lack safe drinking water. It is something that everybody listening to this podcast takes for granted every day, that we can turn on a tap and have water that is safe and clean to drink. So the fact that more than 800 million people do not have this is still a major problem, a major source of disease, particularly among kids under 5 years old. So this is still a big development challenge that we have yet to meet. We have been making progress but it is still not there. Then of course, the competition for water that arises when you have increasing scarcity. Competition between cities and farms within an area, competition between states and provinces within the same country, and then of course, competition and tensions between countries that share rivers. And so these are fundamental concerns going forward and we still have rising population, rising economic growth, rising water demand against this finite supply. And so just navigating that tricky course going ahead is the challenge.
Chris Martenson: Now I have heard it said that sometimes when a country imports wheat, for example, they are really importing water. A lot of water goes into growing wheat and so I am wondering — when I was reading the UN projections that say by 2050, here is how much more food we are going to have to grow and I have talked to the soil scientists and they are like, “Yes, but this is on increasingly degraded land,” I am wondering when they are putting together those gigantic food forecasts which, of course, are forecasts and could go either way, when they put those together, are they talking to someone on your side of the fence about water?
Sandra Postel: Well hopefully they are. I have written a lot about water and agriculture and hopefully that has been factored into some of these assessments. I am sure at this point it is because water, again, has risen into the sphere of concern in a way that it was not just 20 years ago. We need good soil. We need good water and we need good seeds to grow crops. And you need sunshine. So making sure those basic ingredients are available is a key thing. For me, the silver lining in the water picture is that we had not really begun to tap the potential to use water more productively. Water has been heavily, heavily subsidized, particularly in agriculture so there has been little incentive for farmers to invest in the more efficient irrigation technologies to grow crops that are more appropriate to the climate. Resetting the signals and getting those signals more aligned with reality, I think, could move us toward a more productive agricultural sector with regard to water in a major way. We just have not begun to tap that yet and so the silver lining is that, we have so much that we can do that we have barely begun to do.
Chris Martenson: Let’s talk about some of that then. I am very interested in this side. What are some of the things we can do besides stop trying to grow stuff in deserts which seems like probably a bad idea, particularly for Saudi Arabia using an ancient aquafer to do that. Assuming that is not the low-hanging fruit you are talking about, what are the sort of practices that we could put in place and/or technologies that are sitting there but are not maybe yet widely adopted?
Sandra Postel: There are a bunch of them. The key thing is to make productive use of water. If you think about flooding a field, only a portion of that water is actually getting to the roots of the plant that is going to use that water to grow. The rest of it is either going to run through the soil, maybe recharge the aquafer below, maybe run off the field and join a river downstream, maybe evaporate back into the atmosphere off the soil doing no good, really, for anything. And so getting more productive with that water would mean delivering it more efficiently to the roots of the plant. So one technology that is able to do that is drip irrigation where you deliver just the volume of water the plant needs. You deliver it to the roots of the plant either on the soil, below the soil, and then the plant transpires that water so you are reducing evaporative losses that are not serving any purpose and you are channeling that water to the roots where it can transpire and help the plant grow. That is a beneficial use of the water that is consumed. So more of that can mean we can take less water out of that river if we can grow the plants using less water. That allows us, if we choose, to leave more water in a river. So some of the projects that my Change the Course program has been working on involve that kind of activity. Let’s put in drip irrigation which allows us to grow those same crops with less water leaving more for the river and so as we try to balance human water uses with the need for nature to have water, that is a great technology. Again, it has to be accompanied by policies that say yes, we do want to leave more water in the river. How can we do that and still keep agriculture productive? And that is one great way to do it. I think one of the big fronts here now in agriculture, particularly irrigated agriculture, is going to be managing information technology with efficiency technology. We have seen this in our cars. There are sensors. We can have sensors in soils that let us know how much water is in that soil, when does that crop need another irrigation, and how much water does it need and then deliver that water very efficiently. If you can manage real-time weather monitoring with efficient technologies to deliver the water and know exactly when the crop needs irrigation water and how much it needs, that can save a lot of water.
Chris Martenson: I totally agree. I have a pretty big veggie garden and I have drip irrigation which I put in four years ago now and I have been gardening 30 years. I wish I had put it in 30 years prior. It is the most amazing technology, as far as I am concerned, because of how it delivers the water and how moisture gets into the soil and how it really does — it is literally a superior way. The only thing that could improve on it would be Mother Nature giving us a nice long slow drizzle but otherwise, it is just wonderful.
Sandra Postel: Exactly. Yeah.
Chris Martenson: We mentioned before that water is fundamentally replaceable but in some respects, it is kind of not a renewable resource, as you know. I wanted to talk quickly about aquafers and glaciers as well, I guess, although maybe they can recharge themselves under the right circumstances. But the aquafers that I wrote about a number of years of ago in the crash course, many of them seem to recharge really slowly and I guess that really came into the fore in California and the United States, at least for the U.S. audience, with the subsidence of the land there and the drawing down of those water tables. I thought that really shone a pretty bright spotlight on things. Is this monster El Nino going to get us out of that trouble and even if it does, did people’s attitudes change as a consequence of that drought?
Sandra Postel: Well the drought continues, of course, in California. They are definitely not out of the woods yet. And ground water is such an important water asset, if you will, to consider. It is literally and out of sight, out of mind problem in a way. And we have been over-pumping ground water in so many parts of the world that if you look numbers, the estimates would be that something like 10 percent of our food supply today depends on the over-pumping of ground water which is kind of like a bubble in the food economy, that we are propping up our food supply with this unsustainable use of water. It is a debt. It is a water debt to be over-pumping an aquafer and we are doing that in the North China Plain in China, in northwest India, the bread basket of India, in California in the high plains of the United States, and other parts of the world. It is a serious problem and gets worse in times of drought as you point out, Chris, that we have just seen in California where when the surface supplies dry up, the reservoirs shrink, the rivers do not flow as much. Farmers have their allocations of water cut. What do they do? They sink deeper wells and they pop up more grand water. We have seen this in Texas during droughts. We are seeing it in California. The depletion rates of ground water have increased significantly, not only in California, but also in the whole Colorado River basin which has been in drought for the last 14 years. This year is looking better but there has been a tremendous amount of ground water depletion both in California and in the Colorado River basin. You can literally see a reservoir shrink before your eyes. You have seen the famous bathtub ring around Lake Meade in Colorado. It is down, down, down. We do not see it happening when it happens underground but it is just as important and in some cases, more serious because we tend to look to ground water exactly during those times of drought. And if we do not replenish that ground water, it is not there when we need it and it has to be replenished and typically you have this balance of drawing it down in dry years, replenishing it during wet years, but there has been so much more depletion occurring and depletion even in so-called normal years that we are losing that important reserve of water in some of the most important food-producing regions.
Chris Martenson: In many respects, this feels like a population story, of course, because more people are going to use more water for personal residential uses and also they are going to eat more food, all of that. To what extent would you say that this is actually a population issue versus how much can we pin on just let’s say substandard practices that definitely could be improved?
Sandra Postel: Well, it is population. It is consumption and it is technology. It is the failure of policy to really move us toward a more water efficient set of practices in agriculture. It is really all of those things. The fact that we are growing with water in California, water in the Colorado River basin where water is fairly precious, we are growing some very low-value crops and using a lot of water to do that and often doing it inefficiently. A lot of water is used to grow hay and alfalfa. Some of it, a good portion of it, is actually used to grow alfalfa which is then shipped to countries like China to support their dairy industry. So in a sense, we are exporting Colorado River water to China in the form of alfalfa so they can support their dairy industry and have the alfalfa grown here. And again, it is not because farmers are unpatriotic or bad people or anything like that. They are responding to incentives. It is very important with water that we begin to create other opportunities for water. If farmers could make as much income by selling water to an urban area or selling water to a conservation organization or a water trust in order to put that water back to depleted ecosystems, they would do that. Right? It is an economic decision. It is up to policy and our public officials that are overseeing our water supplies to make the laws and practices work for the benefit of a sustainable water feature and right now, we are just not doing that. The subsidies are great and the water laws essentially are grounded in something called prior appropriation and beneficial use which means use it or lose it. So if you have a water right, you basically need to show that you are using it or you could risk losing it. And so there is an incentive to use water efficiently in much of the west. State laws are beginning to change that and open it up. We are beginning to see the idea of marketing water a bit more but there is still a long way to go with that. We have some sort of really crazy practices around water, particularly in the west.
Chris Martenson: Now this raises an interesting intersection here because I love what you said, people do respond to incentives. I do not think it is wrong or inappropriate for people to respond incentives. If you do not like how people are responding, you need different incentives is usually the answer. But speaking about that, I know there have been a lot of moves to privatize water. Thinking back to some of the heavy duty money crowd at Davos, some of them must have been rubbing their hands thinking about how to monetize water and sell it back to everybody. But let me also say certainly water projects, they are not free. Are you at all concerned about the move of corporations and other privatization efforts in water or could that be a good thing because it will help align incentives properly?
Sandra Postel: I am not in favor of privatization of water and that is because water is so much more than a commodity. It is the basis of life. It is needed by every living thing on the earth and so you do not want to privatize that. To me, it is the government’s job as custodian of the public trust in water. There is a public trust in water and the government is really the custodian of that public trust. I think it is fine to have governments contract with private companies, of course, to check for the leaks in the system, to install the drip irrigation systems. Private sector has a lot to bring to water management, a lot to bring to water management. But the ownership and the oversight of water, I believe, needs to remain to an entity that is accountable to the general public, not to shareholders. And again, it is because of water’s importance. It is essential to life. It is very different from any other commodity we can think of for that reason. I believe it needs to remain under the umbrella of a public entity that is accountable to the general public, so governments in particular. Again, that is not to say that there is not a role for the private sector. There absolutely is in many, many ways. But again, that accountability question is key.
Chris Martenson: I agree. I totally agree. Now you mention this idea of growing alfalfa in one hemisphere and shipping it all the way to the other to support cows, for instance, and milk and dairy production and I have heard the same thing about Saudi Arabia buying certain parts of land, specifically to grow hay and ship it back for their uses in Saudi Arabia. I know Saudi Arabia has a normal desalination set of projects undergoing at this point that they have obviously got clear water issues going on there. When you look at desalination, is this an interesting addition to the water story? Is it really going to be a cure in the case of a super-dedicated country like Saudi Arabia, or is it a pipe dream?
Sandra Postel: With a country like Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries, in general, it is a lifeline. Saudi Arabia completely over-tapped its aquafers in a really kind of crazy situation. Back in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, the Saudis decided it would be important for them to become self-sufficient in food production. This was when we had oil embargos going on so they had that in mind that there could be a food embargo against them at some point. Better to become self-sufficient in grain so they basically started tapping all their deep aquifers to grow wheat in the desert and they not only became self-sufficient in wheat, they were actually exporting wheat from Saudi Arabia. Well they completely depleted their ground water supplies in doing this and really had to end that whole program. Of course drinking water, they have no rivers there so they were building desalination plants. The ground water was mostly used for irrigation of that wheat but they built desalination plants to provide for their drinking water. So in countries like the Persian Gulf including Saudi Arabia, I think desalination definitely has a place. There is no rain there so people living there need to have drinking water and desalination can make sense. About half of the desalination around the world now is in those Persian Gulf countries. Island nations are in the same category. They do not have rivers, necessarily, so they need to have somewhere to get water. So there is a place for desalination but what I see now is there is this move toward every time there is drought, when there are water shortages predicted, cities are beginning to think desalination is the way to go and to me, it is not an elegant solution at all. It is expensive. It is very energy intensive, and it continues the idea that whenever we run short, we should just go out and find a new supply rather than ask the question how can we get more efficient with the supply we already have and conservation almost universally in these cases is going to be the least costly, most environmentally sound way of meeting new water needs.
But it is not thought of that way. We have seen a lot of cities reduce their water use through effective conservation over the last 10, 20, 30 years so it is proven that this can be done. Right near you, Boston, has a great example where the water use in Boston today is back where it was 50 years ago even though the economy has done very well during that timeframe. They have completely avoided the need to build a diversion from the Connecticut River to supply Boston with more water because conservation was cheaper and it was effective. They no longer even need to think about that diversion. Conservation was the way to go and it cost about half as much as that diversion would have cost. It took a change in mentality. It took a change in mindset to think about conservation as a new source of supply, just like desalination would be a new source of supply. I think that is the key. Again, if you look at the proposals to build desalination plants, after the 10-year drought in Australia, what they call their “big dry,” all five major cities in Australia, Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth. They all build desalination plants. Most of them have never been used and yet they are there. They have to be paid off. They are big capital projects so again, it is that mindset. Let’s think about how we can use the water we already have more efficiently, more productively rather than go toward this solution that again, if you are using coal and oil, a fossil fuel, to run that desalination plant, you are contributing to climate change which is going to increase your risk of drought. It is not a good solution. You are building this desalination plant to guard against drought but in the process of running it, you are increasing the likelihood of more drought. It is not an elegant solution, in my mind, to that problem.
Chris Martenson: Let’s talk about the climate change aspect of this and I am particularly interested in what appears to this layman’s eyes, the glaciers of the world are retreating in most places that I have looked at and a lot of places actually really heavily depend on those glaciers. I guess the Tibetan plateau being a gigantic example, but maybe lesser ones in certain places in South America, too. As you look around the world where the glaciers are, are there any bright red flashing warning signs or are we kind of at a yellow or worried stage? Where are we with respect to that part of the story?
Sandra Postel: Well in terms of glaciers in particular, there are very serious concerns because something like 2 billion people in the world depend on river flows that originate from glaciers, again, mostly in the Himalayan Tibetan plateau area. The Yellow River, the Yangzi River, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, they all come out of those glaciated areas in the Himalaya Tibetan plateau. For a time as the glaciers melt, there would likely be more water in those rivers increasing flood risks to some extent, but then those rivers will diminish over time as the glaciers that feed them have shrunk so it is a very serious concern for those regions. And again, there are a half-billion people and lots of irrigated agriculture that depend on those rivers. You raise an important point about climate change and water which is that if you think about climate change and how we are going to experience climate change, most of it will be through the water cycle and through changes in the water cycle and we are seeing signs of this already. What is happening is as climate warms, as the atmosphere warms, it expands. This is just basic physics. It expands so it can hold more moisture and so what that means is that wet areas are likely to get wetter. There will be more intense rain storms, more intense precipitation episodes in those areas and dry areas will get drier. Both precipitation and evaporation rates will change as a result of that atmosphere able to hold more moisture. So we are starting to see that already. How many times in the last couple of years have we heard there has been another 100-year flood and it has been the second one in 10 years or something. We are starting to see these extreme events occur more often and it is because the water cycle, in a sense, is speeding up and that is going to have profound implications for people everywhere, whether you are living in a wet area or an arid area. It is going to change the way water cycles through the land and the way water cycles through the atmosphere. South Carolina this past year saw floods they could not believe. And more and more places — it almost seemed like 2015, even before it was out, it was just being considered the year of wild and crazy weather. Getting ready for that and preparing for that is so important. This is likely what we are going to see, these weather extremes more and more, and preparing for that. One of the things I am starting to work on now is this idea of how do we think about [inaudible, 00:37:37] systems to help us add resilience in this time of climate change. In other words, if we are going to have to prepare for more flooding and more drought, well how do we repair the water cycle? How do we make use of natural systems, whether it is flood plains, ground water aquafers, river systems, wet lands, to help us become more resilient to these changes? I think there is a lot of potential there to do that. We are just coming off of this age of water engineering, you know, the big dams, the big canals, the big dikes to control floods, the big diversion systems to move water around. It has been a very engineering intensive century but we have really not looked at nature’s work in the way that we could — the fact that nature is cleaning water whenever it runs through a wet land. It is absorbing and storing water. Whenever we allow a river to connect to its flood plain, it recharges ground water which we can then tap during times of drought. We have really been substituting civil engineering for ecological engineering, nature’s engineering. And in some sense, we have to rebalance that because I think it is nature’s piece that is going to give us the resilience we are going to need to deal with climate impacts.
Chris Martenson: I completely agree. I love this line of thinking in the language because I use the word resilience a lot and unfortunately resilience is not the same thing as cost-effective or efficient or super engineering. Look, we moved the water really efficiently from A to B. Thirty years ago I was on this traveling school program called Audubon Expedition Institute and we used to go hang out in the Everglades and of course they would just tour us around these canals. They made a lot of sense. There are these canals. They are very easy to cut but it changed the hydrology of the entire region, which they are still struggling with. It looked like a good idea but moving water quickly and efficiently is not the same thing as resiliently. So what you are saying is that when the water cycle is impacted by these big events that happen, whether it is too little water or too much water falling, we need that capability of either in the case of too little water, having extra reserves on hand and in the case of too much falling, we need to have those buffers that can absorb it and manage it in the ways that it could be or we will just keep experiencing thousand-year floods with thousand-year losses.
Sandra Postel: Right. And all of that natural infrastructure, wetlands, flood plains, healthy watersheds, all of that runs on free flow of energy whereas all of the manmade alternatives, the treatment plants, the levies, the canals, all of that takes energy to run and maintain. Nature’s work is done with free solar energy so it is a win-win in a lot of ways. I think beginning to rethink our relationship to that water cycle and how we live with a healthier water cycle, I think, is going to be really important to us.
Chris Martenson: Well now you are front lines on this and last question, I am really excited that you are answering this, first of all, what is the hardest part about changing people’s perceptions about and policies toward water use, part A. Part B, how do you go about changing perceptions and beliefs and things like that?
Sandra Postel: That is a really good question, Chris. We are so lucky and we are so privileged to be able to not think about water in most of the aspects of our lives. We literally turn on the tap and there it is. That is hats off to the water engineers and the treatment plant operators and everyone behind the scenes who makes that possible every minute of every day. It is an extraordinary accomplishment, really, when you think about it. And yet water is so much more. It is necessary to grow our food, to make our clothes. Where do we go when we want to rejuvenate ourselves to have some vacation time? We go to water, whether it is the ocean, a lake, or a river. We go to water because it is rejuvenating. So the natural piece is so important too. We connect in these ways but we do not really consciously think about how our everyday lives are impacting the water out there. So I think in some ways it is connecting people and there is what our Change the Course initiative really is about. It is engaging people in understanding not only how water works, but how their everyday lifestyle requires so much more water than we would think. If you are an average American, holding up your lifestyle takes about 2,000 gallons of water a day. Only 5 or 10 percent of that is your home water use. The rest is your diet, your energy, your purchase of cars, clothes, and computers, books, and everything else. It is a lot of water and we do not think about it that way. Once we realize how much more our water footprint is than just turning on the tap to brush our teeth, that is a good think because it allows us to be involved in making some better choices. Do we really need 30 t-shirts in our closet? Probably not. Do we really — saving energy saves water. Every time we recycle we are saving water. Every time we choose to have something other than a water-intensive food item like the classic hamburger, we are saving water. It gives us a lot more choices to be part of the solution. And then the idea that where we can, if we get serious about it, we can return water to nature. It is not necessarily a one-way trip. We can, as a society, decide we want water to be flowing in our rivers. We do not want to see a dry Colorado or a dry Rio Grande or a dry anything. We want water to be where it is supposed to be. We can make a choice as a society to do that. What we are trying to do in Change the Course is involve everyone in those — we are trying to build a movement, really, of water stewardship that says we all are part of this challenge together whether we are an individual, a business, or a conservation organization that can help us put that water back. We are trying to educate, engage, and get water restored back to natural systems. We have returned, at this point, about 5 billion gallons and while it is just a drop in the bucket, it has been an important contribution to those wetlands, rivers, deltas that have gotten that extra water. It has made a difference.
Chris Martenson: Well thank you so much for doing that and bringing and leading those efforts. I know on my side working with even just simple economic terms, people do have little difficulty with the long-term. Just look at maybe the municipal pension plans in a variety of cities we could point to. It is just mystifying so when times are good, people forget about it and when times are bad, they sort of freeze up and then forget about the bad times as soon as the good times come back. It is a real change effort to get people to say look, we are not here just to conserve some water so that in 10 minutes somebody can forget that that was conserved water and say hey, look at all this water we can use. It is instead finding a balance between ourselves and the world around us so that balance includes not just humans, but of course all life that needs that and healthy ecosystems. My work is never about just how do we use every last scrap and morsel for human purposes. That does not fit my view. I do not believe it fits yours. That is a real change effort to get people to start thinking more, how do I put this, in sort of a stewardship rather than an extractive mode of thinking.
Sandra Postel: Yeah, and we have, at this point, close to 170,000 people who have, in a sense, pledged to do something to conserve water in their daily life. That is really all you need to do to join Change the Course is make a pledge to do something in your life to shrink your personal water footprint. And our promise is for everyone who makes that pledge, we will return 1,000 gallons of water to a depleted ecosystem. We have a community of 170,000 people who have done that and who we communicate with to stay engaged with around fresh water issues. We are slowly building that movement. Nearly a couple dozen at this point, two-dozen businesses, that have signed on with us again, to try to rebalance that water for people, water for nature picture. We are building this movement slowly but surely and to me, it is very inspiring because again, we all use water and we all can be part of stewarding it in a wiser way.
Chris Martenson: I love it. So for people listening, how can they be the 170,001st person to sign up?
Sandra Postel: Thank you. A couple of ways, one is go to change the course.us. Another is to text RIVER to 77177 which will allow you to make that pledge and join Change the Course in that way. So either the website or just texting RIVER to 77177.
Chris Martenson: Fantastic. Sandra, is there any other way that people can follow you and your important work?
Sandra Postel: I have the website. I need to get more engaged in social media, which I am going to be doing. I am starting to work on a book so I need to stop doing so much research and get a little more engaged in social media work. Most of my work is with Change the Course and we have a very active social media program as part of the initiative. I am present there, just not quite as visible as I should be as Sandra Postel.
Chris Martenson: Thank you for that. Thank you for your work. Thank you for your time today. I certainly hope we can re-engage on this at some point. We are going to send a bunch of people over to Change the Course. Please, keep up the great work. It has been wonderful talking with you.
Sandra Postel: Likewise, Chris. Thank you so much for this. I really enjoyed it.
Water image via shutterstock. Reproduced on Resilience.org with permission.
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