Mixing Water Into The Energy Debate

08/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


No, it's not the newest vitamin-enhanced thirst quencher to hit store shelves. It's the growing crunch between the country's water shortages and booming energy demand.

Watergy -- the energy-water nexus as the experts call it -- is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Producing energy has always used water just as delivering water requires energy. But a recent push for energy independence has led to alternatives that may be draining a diminishing resource we take for granted.

Presumptive presidential candidates Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have made energy independence, or energy security depending on the day, a large part of their platforms for the presidency. They may differ on how to get there, but each wants to produce more power at home and reduce our reliance on foreign oil from somewhat unreliable sources. But what about water?

U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) heard comments in Congress Wednesday on a bill he is set to introduce that could begin addressing the water problem. The bill would establish an inter-agency committee to coordinate water resources. With over 20 federal agencies involved in different aspects of water policy, it seems obvious there should be a network to coordinate them. But that doesn't exist today.

"We have a situation now where, in some agencies of the federal government, the permit writers don't talk to people who are the regulators," Jerry Johnson said Wednesday in a congressional subcommittee hearing to discuss Gordon's draft legislation -- The National Water Research and Development Initiative Act.

Johnson, of the DC Water and Sewer Authority, was one of six water experts invited to address the subcommittee on Energy and Environment and expressed optimism about efforts by Congress to mend these broken lines of communication. The subcommittee is part of the house Science and Technology Committee that Gordon chairs.

The testimony focused on the country's water supply and managing it among competing, essential uses that include agriculture, energy and drinking water.

"Dealing with one sector without thinking about the other is one-hand clapping," said Mark Shannon, director of the U.S. Strategic Water Initiative and a member of Wednesday's panel.

Whether the federal government can put both hands together to more carefully manage our freshwater supply may depend on whether this bill receives support when Gordon introduces it.

The lack of coordinated policy has led to the growth, for example, of ethanol, which is a much more water-intensive fuel than the petroleum it replaces, especially when it is produced from corn grown on land that requires irrigation.

Of course, there are other concerns with ethanol, such as the effect on corn prices, which have led 11 senators including McCain to introduce legislation to freeze the ethanol mandates. It's not clear whether the water impact is paramount to them or to Obama, who supports the ethanol mandates.

In fact, it doesn't appear water has rated much attention in past energy policy decisions.

But that may be changing with Gordon's bill.

Check back for a multimedia presentation on the energy-water nexus on the page in the coming weeks.