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Off Peak

Fortnightly Magazine - October 15 1999

Global water shortages loom, but most U.S. utilities don't have long-range supply plans.

By 2050, according to estimates from Population Action International, one-fourth of the world's population likely will live in countries blighted by chronic or recurring shortages of fresh water. But are global water shortages perceived as an imminent threat in the United States? Not at most U.S. water utilities, it appears.

In fact, few utilities in the world have long-range supply strategies, notes John Wright, program manager of the American Water Works Association's WaterWiser clearinghouse. "Without proper planning, water suppliers could face an increasingly more limited, less accessible and more expensive water resource inventory," he warns.

In the United States, water utilities take a regional approach to supply management, ignoring global or even national concerns, adds AWWA's director of regulatory affairs, Alan Roberson.

"Each city is almost their own independent utility," he explains. "So you've got 60,000 community water systems in the country, and there's some regional cooperation but there's not really a national plan or national board to look at long-range water planning."

Further, says Roberson, "sometimes it's not a question of not having enough water; it's not having it in the right place." In regions where water is scarcest, such as California, resource management is more widely practiced.

"For Southern California, water conservation really has become an ethic and a way of life," notes Debra Sass, a spokesperson for Metropolitan Water District of California, a regional wholesale water agency. "It was born of a drought and shortages and the realization that water would not be unlimited forever."

Lisa Lawson, corporate communications manager for utility Southern California Water Co., adds that water companies in the region have long-range strategies to develop local resources. "We're trying to move toward self-sufficiency within the local areas we serve," she says.

For most U.S. utilities, however, supply management efforts tend to focus on water conservation and new desalinization technologies. Says Roberson, "I think the long range [strategy] is more trying to invest in these technologies to use alternate resources and then ¼ trying to preserve the fresh water for drinking water," he says.

One way to do that, Roberson notes, is to encourage water conservation in farming. "This is a real rough figure, but of the fresh water in the United States, about 90 percent is used for industrial/agricultural and about 10 percent for drinking water. So I don't think population growth is a big issue here in the U.S. I think [the issue is] really to work with the agricultural community and get them to use the technology to maximize the use of water," he says.

Regina R. Johnson is managing editor of Public Utilities Fortnightly.

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