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Call for a "local water movement" and a New Way of Thinking About Water

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It is time for a "local water" movement. The broader sustainability movement has grown and expanded in recent years to include a growing effort to strengthen local production, processing, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. This movement has been applied to clothing and other goods, to food, to energy. And now, I propose that it should be applied to water.

For food, increasing and strengthening local food systems offers a supplement and an alternative to the large-scale corporate food industry. For water, "local water" should mean something similar: stressing reliance on local water sources, management, treatment, and control.

And like the "local food" movement, the definition of "local" must be flexible. Our major cities long ago outgrew their ability to provide enough food for the - sometimes - millions of people living in them, and they long ago outgrew their ability to provide enough water with purely local resources. New York City relies on water from upstate New York. Los Angeles relies on water from northern California and the Colorado River. San Francisco moves water from the Sierra Nevada. Even ancient Rome built aqueducts to move water long distances to supply the needs of the city when it outgrew local springs.

So when I call for a "local water" movement, I do not mean cities must shrink, or cut off the movement of water from neighboring watersheds. But a local water movement would lead to increased efforts to use local resources more effectively, to treat and reuse water once it has been brought into a region, to minimize the broader environmental consequences of water use and management, and to give priorities to local actions and management.

I've written extensively about the need to move to a "soft path for water." The soft path makes use of smart and innovative technology but also requires that we use smart economics and institutions, consider ecosystem needs and health to be just as important as (and tightly connected to) human needs and health, and carefully consider water demands, not just water supply. Thinking about water in the local context is part of the soft path.

What might a local water movement mean?

A local water movement would prefer to improve the efficiency of current water uses as a way to control and manage demand over the more expensive and environmentally and socially damaging choice of expanding water supply by finding new water sources farther and farther away. For example, in a local water movement, Las Vegas would look inward at the way water is used now and figure out how to use it more effectively, rather than looking outward to take the water from rural counties and ranching communities to pipe to meet their needs, as they are trying to do.

In a local water movement, the consumption of bottled water would drop because local tap water would be purified to the best and strictest standards, and if people chose to buy bottled water anyway, they would not buy it from overseas sources but from more local ones because of the vast energy costs of making and transporting bottled water.

In a local water movement, the concept of "local" would encompass the concept of ecologically sustainable water systems with a premium put on healthy wetlands, fisheries, and natural water systems that produce significant local benefits.

A local water movement would give serious consideration to innovative distributed water-treatment systems for purification of water and for collection, treatment, and reuse of wastewater. The old centralized model of water purification, delivery, and wastewater treatment could use some competition from small-scale, distributed systems that may produce better local benefits. This includes expanding local efforts to use greywater.

A local water movement would prefer building desalination facilities over efforts to find more distant supplies, but only if such facilities could be built and managed under local, public control, in an economically and environmentally acceptable manner and if other less costly local alternatives, such as improved efficiency, had been tapped to the fullest extent.

A local water movement would prefer that water utilities be owned and operated by the community and the public, not by multinational corporations that suck profits from a community to satisfy far distant financial interests.

A truly effective and successful local food movement, or local energy movement, or a "local water movement" will be complicated, not easy (though no truly sustainable water systems are "easy."). It will have to be flexible, not ideological. It will require different solutions in different places. We will, and should, argue over definitions, ideas, policies, and approaches. But my hope is that the arguments over how to design a local water movement will lead to new ways of thinking about water. And that is sorely needed.

Drink local!

Peter Gleick
Pacific Institute

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