The water-energy nexus is not new. The concept that our water and energy systems are reliant on each other is sometimes paired with a third issue, like food security or public health. This can make it more relevant to our daily lives. Despite a basic understanding of resource interdependencies, city and utility leaders still allow planning and implementation processes to remain predominately separate. A common local scenario finds the water utility facing system upkeep alone, the energy utility not considering other utility issues or city goals as they operate, and city leaders generally focused on more visibly troublesome urban systems, like housing or transportation.
Today, over 2 million Americans are living without access to clean, running water. The newly released ‘Close The Water Gap’ report by DigDeep and the US Water Alliance pulls back the veil on America’s hidden water crisis.
This is the first-ever comprehensive look at indoor water access across the United States, and its findings are explosive: Race is the strongest predictor of vulnerability. In six states (plus Puerto Rico), progress is actually backsliding. More than 44 million Americans are served by water systems with recent violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
When thinking about conserving water, we should also be focusing on how more efficient water use correlates with energy savings. Studies show that when households participate in water savings programs, they also conserve energy and reduce strain on the power grid during peak demand periods while saving consumers money on their utility bills.
Water utilities can also dramatically increase their energy efficiency and reduce overall energy usage by adopting locally based solutions. For many municipal governments, drinking water and wastewater treatment plants are typically the largest energy consumers, often accounting for 30 to 40 percent of total energy consumed. Overall, drinking water and wastewater systems account for approximately two percent of energy use in the United States, adding over 45 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.
The track record of state and local Green Banks in the U.S. shows how these financial institutions can move projects forward in cities. For example, consider a success story from the New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation (NYCEEC). A property management company that wanted to make improvements to six of its multifamily properties. Incentives from the local utility would cover part of the cost, but significant gaps remained, and the developer needed an affordable loan. NYCEEC provided a $1.3 million loan, which is due to be repaid within six years. The improvements will reduce greenhouse gases in an amount equivalent to removing 3,200 vehicles from the road, and will also reduce the emission of fine particulates which damage city residents’ health.
Coordinated approaches are preferred for building urban drought resilience. Over the long term, a “trust but verify” policy can be more effective than the “better safe than sorry” approach of the mandate because the former encourages local suppliers to continue investing in diversified supplies. A good model is the stress-test approach the state adopted toward the end of the drought, which allowed local utilities to drop mandated conservation if they could demonstrate that they had drought-resilient supplies to last three more years.
In the wake of the drought, the state has adopted measures to improve information sharing, including a system for urban suppliers to provide regular updates on their supply situations. To encourage all agencies to prepare for more extreme droughts, urban water management planning documents must now address how suppliers would manage longer droughts.
In the face of our climate crisis, most of these cities have ambitious plans to become carbon neutral with zero net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These cities plan to generate all electricity with renewables. At the same time that wind and solar power are being massively deployed, buildings and people are becoming more efficient, requiring less electricity.
Getting to 100 percent renewable electricity, however, does not cut even half of a city’s GHG emissions. Buildings typically use natural gas (methane) for heating, cooling, hot water, and cooking. Vehicles spew emissions by burning gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. To take advantage of renewable electricity, buildings and transportation will need to be all electric and efficient.
Oakland and other cities in California are working to end dependence on natural gas in new construction. Cities, product manufacturers, regulators, and utilities in California have been working together under the Building Decarbonization Coalition to end the use of natural gas in buildings. This coalition and its members have demonstrated the availability of electric technologies to replace gas systems in all building types, shown that all-electric new construction is cheaper to build and operate than buildings with gas, and helped educate builders and contractors to show how modern electric systems like heat pumps and induction cooking deliver better cooking and heating for homes and businesses than their gas-based alternatives.
The Baltimore-based Climate Access Fund (CAF), a nonprofit Green Bank, was launched in 2017 to address the gap between the community solar regulation and the way the solar market has traditionally worked. CAF provides a one-stop shop for low-income community solar, working to attract solar developers to the nascent market.
Every city needs a biostrategy for economic and environmental well-being.
Replacing grass with climate appropriate plants (and irrigating those plants properly) can reduce a landscape’s water needs by 70-80 percent. During the last California drought, we saw homes across the state doing this, a trend significant enough to be clear on Google Maps. This was a big part of why California’s urban communities were able to meet, in fact exceed, the emergency drought mandate of reducing water use by 20 percent.
Municipal governments and local partner organizations are the primary governing bodies responsible for improving greenspaces in cities. But unlike other public lands, they do not have formal oversight, protection, research or guidance for their care. In comparison to rural forests, urban conservation strategies are developing — often with limited data and resources to understand basic information like where they are, their condition, and how they are changing. In cities, this responsibility has been left up to local institutions and governing bodies.
As our world becomes more urban, local forests will play a primary role in conservation education and nature connection for millions of people nationwide. Ensuring healthy forests in cities is not just an important mandate for individual cities but should be considered a national priority.