Sandra Postel encourages her audience to prepare for the new normal

Reprinted with permission from the Freshwater Society

About 300 people crowded into a University of Minnesota theater Tuesday, February 12, 2013, to hear a stimulating, informative – and, ultimately, inspiring — lecture by Sandra Postel, an author and advocate for protecting and conserving the world’s water.

A panel of three Minnesota experts on water and climate joined Postel in taking questions from the audience. Panelists were: Paul Bolstad, a University of Minnesota forestry professor who was one of the contributors to a recent National Climate Assessment; Kate Brauman, a research scholar in the university’s Institute on the Environment; and Deborah Swackhamer, a professor of science, technology and public policy and co-director of the university’s Water Resources Center.

The Freshwater Society interviewed Postel about her work, her goals for the lecture and her hopes for the future. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and brevity:

What’s your story? Where did you grow up? What was your education? How did you get interested in water? 
I grew up on Long Island in New York. I was a beach kid, growing up near the ocean. In school, I studied geology and political science and resource management and ecology. I got very interested in ecosystems, wetlands and freshwater, particularly in graduate school. Then, my first job out of graduate school was with a natural resources consulting firm, and I was pretty much put on the freshwater detail. Three years after that, a major opportunity opened up to take on the global water portfolio at the World Watch Institute in Washington, where I spent the next 11 years and really developed my understanding, developed a research capacity, in fresh water.

You’ve written or co-written three books on water. Give us just a one- or two-sentence summary of each of those books, please.
The first book, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity, was one of the early books to sound a warning about the global implications of water scarcity. I had a lot of pride in that book because I think that it put water scarcity a little bit on the map in a global sense. That book is now translated into maybe eight or nine different languages and it’s been made into a PBS documentary, so it has reached the public. 

The next book, Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?, is a look at the history and sustainability of irrigated agriculture, pointing out that, historically, irrigation civilizations have failed. It was asking the question: Will ours be any different? It pointed to groundwater over-pumping, salinization of soils, extinction of rivers — those kinds of threats — as well as pointing toward solutions. 

The third water book was, Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature, which was a bit more technical, but still highly readable. It focused on river management, how we can operate our dams and manage rivers with ecosystem health in mind. It examined how we can put ecosystem health into the equation of how we manage rivers and pointed out successes where that has been done and the kind of policies we need.

You founded the Global Water Policy Project. What is that and what does it do?
I founded the Global Water Policy Project in 1994 when I left the World Watch Institute. The Global Water Policy Project promotes the preservation and sustainable use of the Earth’s fresh water. That’s done through research, writings, outreach and public speaking. The idea is to foster ideas, innovation, inspiration for redirecting how we use and manage fresh water toward conservation and preservation of ecosystem health.

Tell us about your involvement with the National Geographic Society.
National Geographic appointed me to be their Freshwater Fellow in 2010. I head up their Freshwater Initiative. The goals of the Initiative are to educate and engage the public on issues related to fresh water, helping people understand water scarcity, helping people understand their own water footprint and what they can do in their own lives and through their own actions to be part of the solution, understanding how they can conserve water. On the ground, we’re working to restore flows to critical ecosystems in the Colorado River Basin. It’s quite an innovative effort to get real gallons of water back to ecosystems throughout the basin. That campaign will be launched in a more formal way in early 2013. But we’ve already done one project, and a very successful one.

The title of your lecture here is, “Will We have Enough Water: Adapting to a Warming, Water-Stressed World.” In a few words, what’s going to be your core message for the audience here?
The core message of my talk will be that we’ve entered a new phase in our relationship with water that leads to water scarcity. In part, it is due to population growth and rising consumption, and now, increasingly, due to climate change. 

We’re going to need a different set of actions, policies, tools, from individuals, to communities, to state governments, to national governments and internationally, to address these challenges in a meaningful way. That will be the basic core of my talk: What the issues are, what the challenges are, and how we can begin to address them. We are facing 8 billion people by 2025, 9 billion by 2050. How are we going to meet the water, food, and energy needs of a population that large if we don’t have healthy ecosystems to support our economies and the rest of life on the planet? 

In 2010, you wrote an article for the Post-Carbon Institute and you offered a percentage for the increase in water productivity the world needs to achieve by 2025 to be sustainable. What was that percentage, and what do you mean by “water productivity”?
Water productivity is the value or benefit we’re getting from every gallon of water we extract from the natural environment. If we’re going to have any chance of meeting the needs for water, energy, food, for 9 billion people, we’re going to have to dramatically increase water productivity. My sense is that we’re going to need at least a doubling of water productivity by 2025, and that beyond that, tripling, quadrupling. Those are obviously very rough numbers –who knows what we’re going to need — but we’re going to need a really dramatic increase in the value per unit of water we extract from the natural world.

We’re running out of water in so many places. Groundwater is over-tapped, rivers are running dry. So the supplies are just not there for tapping in the way we have in the past. We need to make sure each gallon is giving us more nutritional productivity and more economic productivity. Unleashing technology, policy and innovation is necessary to help us do that. 

How do you see climate change — global warming — affecting water supplies around the world?
When we think about climatic change, most of the ways we’ll experience it are in some fashion through the global water cycle. 

Of course, temperatures are going to be increasing just about everywhere, so we’ll have that temperature rise. But beyond that, in terms of how we’ll experience climate change, there will be more intense floods, more intense and prolonged drought. Those kinds of ramifications — changes in river flows, changes in glacial melt — all impact the water cycle. 

Just looking at the last couple of years, we had tremendous flooding in 2011 in the Mississippi River Basin that required the levees to be breached in order to prevent flooding in Cairo, Illinois. And this year, there is serious concern about shipping being impacted by low flow. 

Preparing for this new normal is going to be increasingly critical. Of course, there’s the flooding and so on that came recently with Hurricane Sandy and, in my part of the world, dealing with the serious drought that is expected, long-term. Dealing with this is going to take some major investment in how we think about water use and adapting to this new normal. 

Lots of scientists, and I’m thinking here specifically of Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota, have written that the world faces a dramatic challenge, that of figuring out how to feed and provide clean water for an additional 2 billion to 3 billion people, while at the same time easing the over-use and abuse of water that already exist. Do you see a way to do that? 
This is exactly the question I’ve been writing about for 30 years The only way we’re going to do that is to dramatically increase water productivity and make sure that we put ecosystems back into the equation. We’ve been managing water as if it’s a limitless supply, as though there’s no end to the supply in sight. In fact, we do now have aquifers getting depleted, we do have rivers running dry. And yet, the demand is increasing. So it’s only by beginning to focus our policies toward protecting ecosystem health that we’re going to have any chance to have healthy rivers, beginning to cap groundwater pumping so that we don’t deplete groundwater supplies. If we do these things and start soon, we can, in fact, meet these growing needs and still have reasonably healthy ecosystems. 

Are there particular steps we need to take to protect those natural ecosystems?
Absolutely, there are. If we think about groundwater, for example, there needs to be a cap on groundwater pumping that keeps the pumping within a sustainable limit. For example, we have the Ogallala Aquifer in the United States that’s undergoing depletion. We have very important aquifers in the Central Valley of California, where our fruits and vegetables are grown, that are still undergoing depletion in this country. 

And that’s worldwide — in India, China, in Iran and Mexico. Very few places have a cap on groundwater pumping in place. The ones that do have shown that you do drive up water productivity. You give users of that groundwater, whether it’s farmers or cities, the message that they’re going to have to become more efficient. It works, but it’s being tried in too few places. 

When you do talk about a cap on groundwater pumping, are you suggesting there should be no diminution of aquifers or that there should be some sort of numerical limit set on how much lower we would allow aquifers to drop?
It really depends on the situation. One example is the Edwards Aquifer in Texas. In this case, the aquifer sustained some springs that were a habitat for seven endangered species. A cap was put in place to make sure that pumping did not make the aquifer decline to a level that would threaten the species. If you look at water use in that part of Central Texas now, you’ll find that irrigation has become more efficient, the City of San Antonio instituted very significant and very successful water conservation programs, and the public is well aware of the aquifer that is the source of their water and why, if it’s a dry summer, they have to have sprinkling bans. 

Everyone is engaged in the effort. And this is a good example, I think, of what a cap can do, and the kinds of conservation and efficiency measures it fosters. They’re sustaining threatened species, even as you still have productive agriculture and thriving cities. 

If you were the Water Czar or Water God and you could decree one major policy change governing water use around the world, what would it be?
It would be along the lines we were just talking about. It would be a cap on our water use to sustain ecosystems, including groundwater aquifers. If we could get that in place, innovations will follow. 

In your personal life and lifestyle, what do you do to “walk the talk” of protecting water resources for future generations? 
I try to use water as efficiently as possible in and around the home, I also have a water-conscious diet. It turns out that our diet, particularly as Americans, is far and away the biggest component of our water footprint. 

Only about 5 to 10 percent of our total water consumption, the water that sustains our lifestyles, is actually flowing out of our faucets at home. About half of it is in our diet, about a third of it is in our energy use, and the rest is in our miscellaneous consumption of goods and services, our clothes and computers and that kind of thing. 

We have installed solar panels at our home here in New Mexico. So we’re trying to be helpful in reducing the water footprint of the energy component. We have a vegetable garden that’s watered by an efficient mechanism. We have efficient fixtures. We’re thinking about putting in a sustained water harvesting system — that’s the next sort of big project on our list — to capture the monsoonal rains here in the summer so we can use that rain more effectively for irrigating the vegetable garden and so on. 

And then I do watch diet issues. I do occasionally eat meat, but Americans eat a lot of meat, particularly red meat, which is one of the most water-intensive foods in our diet. When I do enjoy a hamburger, I make sure it’s grass-fed and not grain-fed because the water implications are very different for grass-fed hamburger vs. a grain-fed burger. The average grain-fed burger takes something like 650 gallons of water just to make one burger, and it’s a tiny fraction of that for a grass-fed burger. 

Also, I’m not a big consumer of material things. Manufacturing a cotton T-shirt takes about 700 gallons of water, so one can use fewer cotton T-shirts and save water.

In the final analysis, are you optimistic or pessimistic about prospects for humankind and the environment we depend on? 
I maintain a realistic optimism. I do believe that we have the capacity for fundamental change and so I do maintain an optimism that, as we understand these changes that are coming, we can adapt. We have a long way to go, but I do remain optimistic that we can meet these challenges.

View Postel's lecture here>>