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  • Writer's pictureWill Sarni

Speaking of Water – Looking back at 2018, ahead to 2019

Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, and Will Sarni, noted author, strategist, and CEO of Water Foundry speak on how shifting priorities will affect regulations, and what role will big data and artificial intelligence play in water’s future.

  • Water continues to be among the biggest stories of our era, and there are waves of change ahead.

  • What were the trends and disruptions of 2018, and what’s ahead for 2019 and beyond?


J. Carl Ganter: Water continues to be among the biggest stories of our era, and there are waves of change ahead. So, what are the trends and the disruptions we saw in 2018, and what’s ahead for 2019 and beyond? I’m J. Carl Ganter with a special edition of Speaking of Water, from Circle of Blue. We’ve brought together some of the best in the business to talk about the most important stories of the past year and to look into the crystal ball for what’s ahead. How will shifting priorities affect regulations, and what role will big data and artificial intelligence play in water’s future? Circle of Blue’s senior reporter Brett Walton speaks with Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, and Will Sarni, noted author, strategist, and CEO of Water Foundry. Let’s join them for a glimpse into water’s present and water’s future.

Brett Walton: The old saying about environmental stories is that they don’t break, they ooze. And that’s another way of saying that these are slow-moving, deeply-rooted stories. There was a lot of oozing this year, it seemed, and some quite vividly so. You might think about the red tides on Florida’s coasts, or the dusty, nearly dry reservoirs on the Rio Grande, or the lakes and rivers in Michigan that are foaming due to perfluorinated chemicals, also called PFAS for short, that are in the water there.

In a year end piece that’s posted on Circle of Blue, I know that the urgency of some of these long developing stories reached new heights in 2018. Colorado River basin states are working on a drought plan to prop up Lake Mead and reduce their use of the river. In California, state regulators approved a plan to keep more water in the San Joaquin River system, for salmon habitat predominantly, but also for the benefits of downstream towns and farms. And in cities across the country, utilities and homeowners are dealing with perfluorinated chemicals in drinking water.

Brett Walton: All of these are big, contentious issues. They’re expensive to address and involve negotiations between competing uses. Many of them will face court challenges. So, these are stories that will be not only 2018 stories, but also 2019 and 2020 and so on. They will continue to ooze, in other words.

So, with our panel, I want to discuss some of these trends and stories, and I think we’ll start with Heather. You work on water policy issues in the American West and elsewhere in the country. What events should we remember from 2018, and why?

Heather Cooley: But I think they warrant going into a bit more. And as you note, or at least it’s kind of being shown, is that a lot of these are sort of coming to a head right now. This is just an incredibly busy time with respect to water. There’s just a lot happening.

So, you mentioned the drought plan on the Colorado River. That is incredibly important. It’s not quite over the finish line, but they set, the Federal Government set a deadline of the end of January to come to agreement on the drought contingency plan. And essentially what that does is, there have been shortage guidelines on the Colorado River, by which the various states would take certain levels of cuts, depending, as water levels in Lake Mead fell. What this new plan would do is, it stipulates what would happen with even deeper cuts, and it shares the pain a bit more, including to California. California has very senior rights on the Colorado River, and previously would not really take a hit, but they have agreed, or are looking to agree on taking a reduction in their uses of Colorado River.

So, that’s a really important plan. I think it does set the region up for dealing with climate change, frankly. The Colorado River basin is entering its 20th year of drought. We know that that system is overallocated. We know that there’s likely to be less water available under a future climate, and it will be more variable. And so, I do think that this is an important agreement, in terms of helping these states and these communities start to prepare for that reality.

Brett Walton: And just one bit of background there, Lake Mead and the basin itself is on a 20-year downward trend, basically, in water supply, and the goal of this plan is to keep the reservoir from crashing, to not just low, where it is now, at about 38 percent of capacity, but getting to the point where there wouldn’t be any water available at all, right?

Heather Cooley: Right. So, they’re looking at various strategies to keep water there, and to come up with innovative projects in order to avoid some of the more drastic measures that would be triggered if water levels in Lake Mead drop further.

Brett Walton: So, Lake Mead is one. What else are you looking at for 2018?

Heather Cooley: I think the decision that came in California about allowing more and providing more water for salmon and for the ecosystem is a really important one. It’s known that that system too, too much water was being taken out of it, and there are a lot of issues with respect to the delta and flows there. And so, the decision by the State Water Board to increase flows and that, and in so doing, then reduce the amount of water that can be withdrawn by by major cities, including San Francisco, as well as some agricultural districts, I think is a really important decision as well. It’s been a long time coming, and there are still a lot of things to be worked out. There are likely to be challenges and court cases associated with it. But it is an important, I think, an important decision, and there may be agreements that are worked out between parties. There will definitely be some agreements, and again, definitely some lawsuits, et cetera, to really start to flesh that out.

Brett Walton: So, that’ll be a story that continues into 2019 and beyond, most likely, right?

Heather Cooley: Yes, absolutely.

Brett Walton: Will, let’s turn to you. You work at the intersection of technology, data, and business. What caught your eye in those areas in 2018?

Will Sarni: A few things. One, and I don’t want to start on a negative note, but my take is that corporate water strategy where stewardship has really stalled a bit. Or maybe not a bit. It could be bigger. And I’m just being more polite. I think what you’re seeing is that water stewardship as a construct and strategy right now is very much focused on risk. And that’s not to say that it’s not important, but it’s very difficult to get companies to invest in water stewardship if it’s only a risk discussion, and really what has to happen is, go to a value creation discussion. So why would a company invest in technology, innovation, conservation programs, whatever it may be? It’s ultimately because it has great value for the corporation.

Brett Walton: Before you get there, what is water stewardship, what do you mean by that?

Will Sarni: Oh yeah. I mean, it’s essentially at the heart of the Alliance for Water Stewardship Mandate, WWF, WRI, TNC is pushing, if you will. I don’t mean that in a negative way. But essentially understanding that there is a role for the private sector that has to do with their interaction at the watershed level across their value chain. So, it’s moving companies from water management, which is essentially what do they do within their four walls, to what do they do across their value chain to mitigate supply chain risk or risk in product development, selling things to consumers and customers, and also engaging through collective action at the watershed. That is a very high level of water stewardship, and Heather, feel free to jump in and put a fine point on that or correct me, but that’s sort of the overarching framework of water stewardship. And what it’s missing is, that’s great for addressing social license to operate, ensuring that there is business continuity, but I believe there’s a bigger opportunity for companies, and that’s stalled.

Brett Walton: And why do you think that’s stalled? Why do you think it’s slowed down?

Will Sarni: Well, I think, what you’re not going to do is go in to a CEO or C Suite and have a conversation about investing in risk, because companies are primarily investing in creating value and growth. So, it sounds like semantics, but it’s really how do you frame water as a strategic resource issue that a company would actually invest in. So might a water strategy by a CPG company create brand value at the enterprise level or at a product level? Might the company invest in technology innovation that creates a new revenue stream that solves some of their problems, but also has the ability to create a new revenue stream for them?

There were a lot of different things that companies can do in the world of water that build on and mitigating risk. If it’s just a risk mitigation play, then what companies are weighing, well, do I make a $10 million investment in mitigating risk, or do I put $10 million in growing my business? And to me that’s really, I think a missed opportunity in the scheme of things.

So, it’s not to say we should replace, abandon water stewardship. My point is that there’s something bigger there. That’s an opportunity from the business perspective, which is why I believe water stewardship has stalled. And with the CDP reporting, the last year’s report was 2000 companies invested a little bit under $30 million in water projects. Take the number with a grain of salt, but it’s not a lot of money in the scheme of things.

One other note, WWF published a paper around Stockholm World Water Week, where they talked about pivoting, reframing water stewardship to go from risk to value. So, there are other voices in the world of water that are recognizing that we really need to change or modify, tweak the narrative.

Brett Walton: Yeah, it’s important because a lot of the water discussion, the warnings come in the form of, this is a risky time. We had the IPCC 1.5 degree Celsius report. In the US, we had the National Climate Assessment, which had a water chapter that was all about risks to water infrastructure going forward in the country. And so that gets to this, my next question, which is about policies. And so, a lot of the things that involve water are shaped by state and federal policies and laws, and how we perceive, and how individuals and companies and utilities and industries respond within that frame. So, I’m wondering if there were particular state or federal policies or laws this year that you think were especially important, and how and how they address water issues broadly.

Will Sarni: I think the public sector evolves very slowly, and innovates very slowly, so I’m sort of hard pressed to point to any federal or state program that is responding to the realities of last century public policy, you know, overallocate, Heather brought this up, you know, Colorado is overallocated. Fundamental problem. And states, agencies, are referring to it as the drought plan. Well, not really a drought plan. There’s a fundamental shift in how we need to manage the river, because it’s overallocated, we have the impacts of climate change, and so on.

Now, having said that, I’m encouraged by what’s going on in California. I think that California has gone from reacting to being proactive and acknowledging that they really need to address some structural issues in terms of how water is managed within the state. So, very encouraged by what I’m seeing in the state of California. Less encouraged by what I’m seeing in the greater Colorado River basin in the scheme of things, because again, I think there’s just a baked-in resistance to change

Brett Walton: Heather, policies that you thought were important this year?

Heather Cooley: Well, I do think there are a few, but I do think, we’re not really going far enough, and I think climate change is sort of the sort of elephant in the room that we’re circling. And maybe, let me talk about a couple of policies, and let’s then let’s talk about climate change.

In terms of policies that, in California this year there was passage of an efficiency framework that sets forth targets for urban water utilities, water use targets for 2025 and then 2030. So, it is, I think, efforts to advance efficiency as a strategy both on the climate adaptation and climate mitigation side. I think that’s important. I think it’s a good framework and I think over time and it will be tweaked. There has also been some new requirements for looking at drought for small utilities. We know that it’s the small utilities that are the most vulnerable to drought, and they’re the ones that really haven’t had to do as much planning. Most of the planning has been focused on the larger utilities and larger communities. So, I do think that will be important.

But what I’m not seeing, to be honest, is a concerted effort on climate adaptation. I mean, we’re seeing this in, we have wildfires in California, just last December with the Thomas Fire, and by January we were having mud flows. We had the Mendocino complex, which was in the July-August time frame. It was the largest wildfire on record. Then we had the Camp Fire, which became the deadliest and most destructive fire on record. I would expect this year that, when we’re already seeing mud flows, that it’s going to get worse.

And this isn’t just limited to California or the West. I mean, we saw massive flooding in the Carolinas due to Hurricane Florence. So, we’re starting to see, these very extreme events, way outside of what we’ve seen in the past. I expect we’ll see a lot more of that in 2019. What I’m not seeing, though, is a lot on adaptation. The focus has been in some places on mitigation. Certainly not at the national level, but in some states you’ve seen some great actions and policies around that. But there’s very little happening on adaptation, and I think that’s going to put more infrastructure, it’s going to put more communities at risk. And so, my hope is we’ll see more in 2019, but I’m not optimistic. But we do need to start moving as quickly as possible.

Brett Walton: That’s a good segue to what my next question was, and that was things that we’re not seeing, in the news or the narratives, what topics are not getting the attention that perhaps they deserve. So, what is oozing, but not yet being noticed. And I’ll go first.

We’ve talked a lot about western water issues, the Colorado River Basin in California, and I think for water in general, the US, those regions get a lot of attention because of scarcity. But we’re also seeing those problems crop up in the east. I did some reporting on a county in Michigan this year, Michigan’s fastest-growing county, Ottawa County, which has dry wells and salty water coming up from its wells. So, they’re finding out there that fresh water in this county on the shores of Lake Michigan is not as abundant as they perhaps thought it was, and they’re now having to go to groundwater management plans on the shores of one of the largest freshwater bodies on the planet. So, that groundwater scarcity and water scarcity is not just a western problem in the U.S.

The other, I would say, is on the health side, and we’ve seen some health concern this year with the PFAS chemicals, but also the other health issue that is not getting the attention I think it deserves, is legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by legionella bacteria. It’s a pneumonia-like disease, and it’s the deadliest waterborne disease in the U.S., spread by inhaling contaminated droplets. The number of cases continue to rise every year. There will be about 8,000 reported cases probably this year to the CDC. And researchers really don’t have an exact cause for the increase. That could be better reporting and better diagnostics, can be aging infrastructure, it can be a more vulnerable population, it can be climate change. So, the legionnaires’ disease story is one that is continuing to grow in magnitude.

So, beyond adaptation, which you mentioned, Heather, are there other under-covered or under the radar stories that people should be focused on?

Heather Cooley: Yes, absolutely. I mean, questions around access to water, sanitation and hygiene. This is something that we think is a problem of developing countries. We don’t talk about it enough here in the United States, but the reality is, we have many systems, frankly, in rural areas that aren’t able to provide basic service. And even in some of our large urban areas, there are households that can’t afford even basic water and sanitation. I think with Flint there has been some attention on it, but I don’t think we yet have a real understanding about the magnitude of the problem. We certainly don’t have an understanding about issues around affordability. That, I think, is a very nascent conversation, but one that I expect that as we make the needed repairs on our systems, as we try to adapt to climate change, we’re going to see more and more issues around affordability.

To the list that you previously mentioned, legionnaires’. There are now reports of hookworm in Louisiana, associated with poor sanitation. We had a hepatitis A outbreak here in California, related to homeless individuals or those living in homelessness that didn’t have access to basic hygiene. So, I think more and more of those stories, I think, will be coming out. We absolutely need to be paying attention, because we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and the fact that we can’t provide basic water and sanitation services is a tragedy.

Brett Walton: All right, so, affordability, access, sanitation. Will, other topics that were under the radar this year?

Will Sarni: Well, I agree with both of you, in particular Heather’s point about WASH in the US. I think most people view it as an international issue, and not something that is prevalent here at levels that would be shocking. So, yeah, just universal access to safe drinking water. We’re not getting there. It’s a big issue. I think in part this reflects the failure of centralized systems to deliver safe drinking water to the population. You talked about scarcity in a different way. So, it’s not about precipitation, access to groundwater and surface water. It can be public policy failure, governance failure that’s causing it. Heather touched on equity, affordability. I think that’s a critical issue that’s not being reported.

But on a positive note, I think there’s a lot of really good signs with respect to innovation, and not just technology innovation. So that, I don’t think, is getting enough attention, and we’re not framing innovation in a broad enough way. We tend to think about it as technology, and fall in love with technology. But I get really excited about innovation and partnerships that we’re seeing across industry sectors. NGOs, the private sector, really tackling some of these water quantity and quality issues in a very different way.

Brett Walton: Policy innovation, the lesser-known of the innovative fields. I want to end with a look forward. What stories or trends do you see being prominent in 2019? And are there any dates or events that listeners should be aware of to mark their calendars when they are scheduling for 2019? I will add one while you all think about it.

One near term date for something that we discussed already is January 31st. And that is the deadline that the Bureau of Reclamation just gave the Colorado River Basin states to submit their drought plans. So, Reclamation has been waiting for states to develop their own plans about what they’re going to do, but has now said, if we don’t have anything from you guys by January 31st, we’re going to move forward with this. So, that is a near term deadline to pay attention to.

In this conversation we also mentioned access infrastructure. One of the possible arenas of compromise in Congress and the Federal Government could be in infrastructure spending. So, that is something also to pay attention to.

So, Heather, any other events or dates that listeners should be aware of?

Heather Cooley: Well, you hit on one of mine, which was around infrastructure. I do think that is an area we’re likely to see conversations. I think, though, we need to be broadening what we mean by infrastructure. It’s about both green and gray infrastructure, not just gray infrastructure. So, thinking about sort of, what are some innovative strategies we could be doing that will help us adapt to a more variable and uncertain future, which is the reality that that will be dealing with. So, that’s an important conversation, and it’s just important that we frame it so that we are having a broader conversation, and it’s not just about passing proposals that have been the same proposals for the past 20 years, or simply applying 20th century solutions to 21st century problems. So, that’s an important conversation.

I do think, too, the Clean Water Act is going to be big in the news. There are some proposals the Trump administration has proposed, really cutting back on the waters that fall under the Clean Water Act. And while we were just talking about the need for safe drinking water, the proposal is to reduce the scope, so such that a narrower band, there’s a narrow scope of the waters that would fall under that. In particular in these sort of intermittent streams that are, common in the Western US, that would be at particular risk. That will undoubtedly be tied up in lawsuits for at least one to two years, if not longer. But that, I think, will be an important issue in 2019.

Brett Walton: All right. And Will, what are you looking for?

Will Sarni: No particular date. From my perspective, two big trends that I think will accelerate are digital technology, so data acquisition, analytics, visualization tools. So, real time water quantity and quality monitoring, that can be turned into actionable information for consumers, customers. Essentially, democratizing access to data and information will continue to accelerate. That ties into what the World Economic Forum is doing around the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And then, distributed. I think we’re all sort of touching on this notion that we are probably moving away, not probably, but definitely moving away from centralized systems as the only solution. So, redefining infrastructure. We certainly have the ability to do that through technology. I think those are the two big plays for next year that hopefully solve some of the issues that we’ve talked about.

Brett Walton: Those are very big areas. A lot to pay attention to. Thank you both, Will Sarni from Water Foundry, and Heather Cooley from the Pacific Institute.

Heather Cooley: Thank you.

Will Sarni: Thank you, Brett.

J. Carl Ganter: You’ve been listening to a special year end edition of Speaking of Water, from Circle of Blue. Senior reporter Brett Walton spoke with Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, and with will Sarni, CEO of Water Foundry. What’s the future of water? We want to hear what you think. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, or at Thanks for tuning in. I’m J. Carl Ganter.


Brett Walton

Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton.


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