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.
Things get complicated in a desert city where water use has a direct and tangible impact on quality of life. While Phoenix water is affordable for basic, indoor needs, it is purposefully not affordable for outdoor water use to drive conservation. That conservation signal has worked very well and the use of desert landscapes has exploded. Those landscapes are good for local flora and fauna, but do little for, and maybe even exacerbate, the unrelenting urban heat island that keeps summer temperatures above 100 degrees even at night. Wealthy families, oblivious to the cost, plant lawns that mitigate the urban heat and increase property values. Poorer families swelter. As we face a hotter and drier future, the tradeoffs between conservation and quality of life will come into greater focus, and environmental justice will be the center of that conversation.