Executive Summary for January 12th

The Obama administration recently announced – quietly – it wants to reduce U.S. water consumption by 33 percent. A closer look reveals an ambitious new direction in the administration’s final year. Plus a peek at how better data could make El Niño floods even more beneficial for nature.

Published on Jan. 12, 2016 Read time Approx. 2 minutes

Cutting U.S. Water Use by 33 Percent

That was the suggestion in a recent Obama administration policy statement on water. Now Fast Company brings us a closer look at that proposal, which was largely overlooked.

It was the subtext for a roundtable event hosted recently by the White House – the first ever on water.

“Somewhat oddly,” Fast Company reports, “the 33% goal wasn’t mentioned at the White House Roundtable itself, perhaps because it’s so dramatic – even to water people – that it could have derailed the entire conversation. It was slipped into a water policy analysis released in conjunction with the roundtable, and then highlighted by a White House official in an interview after the event.”

A second goal in the policy paper is to cut the cost of desalinated water by 75 percent.

“It’s going to take some bold action,” said interior secretary Sally Jewell, “it’s going to take some collaboration, because we don’t have enough water in all the places we need it. And when it begins to impact the economy, it wakes everybody up.”

The event appeared to be a way for the Obama administration to indicate that it intends to spend a good deal of time on water issues in its final year.

“No modern U.S. president has ever paid any significant attention to water issues,” Fast Company reports. “A White House effort to cut water use by a third would give a whole range of disparate water efforts direction and urgency, and might infuse a dusty business with both visibility and freshness.”

California Ecosystems Face Flood of Changes

A four-year drought followed by El Niño-induced risk of flooding is likely to bring big changes to California’s landscapes and habitats. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Disturbances like floods, droughts, and fire are regular features in California, and our ecosystems are fairly well adapted to these extreme events,” says Joshua Viers, an ecological engineer at U.C. Merced.

Viers spoke about these changes in a Q&A article with the Public Policy Institute of California, where he is a member of the Water Policy Center.

“Flooding can be quite good for aquatic ecosystems, especially after years of drought, because … it can recharge shallow groundwater, replenish soil nutrients, distribute seeds from native plants, and create new habitat for animals and plants.”

But Viers says more can be done. Water flows will have to be managed more carefully – and with more flexibility – as climate change worsens.

“We will need to manage water flows to ensure downstream water temperatures don’t get too high for many of our native fish species,” he says.

Although California has one of the most elaborate water infrastructure systems in the world, there is a need for more and better data to manage that system differently.

“We need better forecasting,” Viers says, “on the amount of water coming into reservoirs, so we can minimize the impacts of sudden high releases from dams, which can damage ecosystems downstream. Being able to ‘pre-wet’ ecosystems dried from the drought can help reduce the effects of a sharp change.”

Top image: The Obama administration quietly announced recently that it hopes to cut U.S. water consumption by 33 percent. One way it could do so is by encouraging new tools to improve urban landscaping irrigation. (Associated Press photo)

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