Chasing Water: Global Water Sustainability Rests on Local Control

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Local author Brian Richter
Local author Brian Richter

Crozet’s Brian Richter has been the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist for global water programs for 28 years and has summed up his knowledge of how water shortages should be managed in a new book, Chasing Water, A Guide for Moving From Scarcity to Sustainability. It’s published by Island Press, a nonprofit publisher that specializes in environmental topics.

After graduating from graduate school at Colorado State University, Richter did a brief stint with the U.S. Geological Survey and from there, in the late 1980s, took on a job with the Nature Conservancy, managing a newly-acquired property in Arizona that faced a water shortage threat from population growth in a town upstream.

“That set the trajectory for me,” said Richter. “How can we interact with land and water development and find the most sustainable outcomes?”

He was the first “water person” the Nature Conservancy had on staff and now he directs more than 400 others from his two-room office above The Mudhouse. He is also teaching a course on water sustainability at U.Va.’s School of Architecture to an eclectic group of students that include environmental science majors and law students. He said he intends to do more college-level teaching.

Meanwhile he’s giving lessons on water use to kids at Crozet Elementary too. He’s occasionally heard on NPR when they are looking for water expertise. “I’ve absolutely loved working for the Nature Conservancy and it’s given me a chance to see the world.

“We have to be strategic. One-third of all rivers in the world are affected by problems. We look for demonstration value in a location, something that can be emulated in other places.

“The drought in California is in the news every day. The media gets water stories wrong a lot. Now the coverage is much more mature. It’s really heartening. What crops are sustainable for California? They are scrutinizing how water is getting used. We have to have foresight, rather than just let anybody do what they will and then get to the point where the bucket is died up. What is the highest and best use?

“That’s not a decision to be made by a centralized government, but by the local community. That’s the people who share the resources. There has to be democratic process around the use of water. It’s emerging in the world. We are moving from a central approach to a local, organic decision model.

“There are thousands of books about water,” he said. “I was shooting for local community leaders who are concerned about water and need to influence the process, like the Rivanna Water Conservation Society. Unfortunately there’s a conundrum about community involvement: their ability to contribute is based on their education on the issues. They come into the discussion without an adequate understanding about water.

“I wanted to write a book that is relevant around the world. I wanted it to be translated and well distributed.” So far it’s available in five other languages, Chinese, Spanish, French, Portuguese (think of Brazil) and Arabic.

“What can cities do? Across the U.S., half of water use is outside the house. We could substantially cut water use. We could capture rain water in cisterns and make those as part of new construction. For some communities it could make a huge difference.” Richter has a 600-gallon cistern at his house that collects water off his roof and stores it for use for outdoor purposes.

“Sao Paolo [Brazil], which has 20 million people, now turns on the water only two days a week. There is less than a year’s supply in their reservoir. They have 60 inches of annual rainfall. [Crozet gets 45 inches.] Half of their water leaks away in the city’s system. Tanker trucks are hauling in and people are drilling wells, sometimes inside their houses so they won’t be detected.

“People are almost unconscious about water,” he said in a tone of lament. “California is becoming painfully aware of their vulnerability. They’re thinking about where the water ‘slop’ is in daily life. It will come down to how irrigation water is used. Are there aspects of agriculture that have to change? It will translate into higher food prices. Half of our food is coming from there. It’s pushing production into other parts of the country.

“A lot more people will look for local [food] sources. I’ve been inspired by the 20- and 30-year-olds getting into farming. There’s a second ‘back to the land’ movement going on. They can’t produce enough now.

“Our use of water has consequences for the rivers and lakes that we depend on. People don’t connect their use of water with where the water comes from. A Nature Conservancy poll shows that 77 percent of Americans have no idea where their water comes from. Three out of four students in my class have no idea and have never in their lives known where it came from. You don’t know what damage you’re doing to the natural system and how much it can supply. People in Austin, Texas don’t realize that their river is down to 10 percent of what it would be without their use.”

Richter’s book makes use of an analogy to a household checkbook to convey the principle of sustainable management. “People act like they don’t have to check their balance,” he said. “We need to manage in a way to leave enough to keep nature healthy. We can adapt and we can do it with a lot less water.

“The Isrealis are the world’s best water saving society. They are hyper-efficient. The Australians are also very good.” The book traces the history of drought effects on the Murray-Darling watershed in New South Wales to make a case study of how to successfully respond with policy to a water crisis.

“Tucson, San Antonio and San Diego are doing a pretty good job. They can do more. Australian cities use half the water that our western cities do and they have the same climate and style of life. People have a sense technology will save us—desalinization. Yes, to some degree, but every option has a consequence. Desalinization is 10 times more expensive than other options because it takes so much electricity.

“There’s a very strong will to make to make the world better in the current student generation. Giving people even a little info will help them make sense of things in a hurry. We’ve missed some things in education.”

The Nature Conservancy is working on a global report on water scarcity and potential solutions, Richter said. “We’re engaging a lot of professors and students at U.Va.

“One twist in the budget analogy: with a bank account if you are more than zero then you’re okay. With water you have to leave more than zero in an account to save fisheries and recreation. With personal accounts we make decisions unilaterally, with water accounts we have to be communal. It’s doing a budget with a really large family. And you have to be mindful that water deposits vary over time. Long-term averages aren’t really useful. What are you going to do when not a lot is being deposited? That was our problem in Albemarle in 2002, a record drought year. In Crozet we’re drinking National Park water. It’s a huge luxury.”

Richter calls for greater local control over water supplies and awareness of the water budget as the foundation for government’s enlightened management of water. He ends Chasing Water with an optimistic chapter titled “Chasing Hope” that chronicles recent examples of developments in America, China, Europe and Africa that suggest stubborn mankind is learning the lesson of reckless water use.

“It’s time to start living within the limits of water’s natural availability so we can reap the benefits of a water-secure future,” he said.

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