The Water Future of Cities Will Become More Dire

water scarcity, Adelaide, Australia, water conservation, water recycling, San Diego, San Antonio, Phoenix, water strategies, rural urban partnerships, Leon Kaye, rural urban partnerships, water stewardship, water stewardship
San Diego is investing in two desalination plants

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and four universities recently completed a study that sounds an ominous note for the future of many cities’ water supplies. At least half of all cities with a population of over 100,000 are in regions beset by water scarcity. Many of these cities have long depleted their surface and groundwater sources.

To that end, the study covers the water infrastructure of four cities: Adelaide in Australia and Phoenix, San Antonio and San Diego in the U.S. The study explores various rural-urban partnerships that showcase how cities can work with farmers to adopt irrigation conservation technologies and therefore free up water for environmental and urban use.  By working with local farmers to reduce their water consumption, cities save money by reducing the need to import water long distances while the farmers reduce expenses on water-related costs.

While the growing stresses of populations coupled diminishing water supplies is obviously problematic, this convergence also demonstrates how the future looks bright for clean water technology entrepreneurs–while businesses now are tasked with ensuring they are part of conversation over water conservation.

So what are each of these four cities and surrounding regions accomplishing and what are the challenges in the years ahead?


Australia has long been ravaged by drought, and Adelaide is no exception. For decades much of the city’s water has come from the Murray-Darling River, and that source has been stretched to the limit. Adelaide has since turned to aggressive water conservation measures and water recycling–and a desalination plant running entirely on clean energy will soon open. But the desalination plant will cause prices of water to spike even further, and the study notes how 15 percent of the city’s households struggle to pay their bills.

Meanwhile 75 percent of Australia’s water is devoted to agriculture, and the study’s authors insist the city should explore working with farmers to enact water conservation programs to bridge the gap between Adelaide’s water demands and current supply.


Despite the Colorado River’s ongoing depletion, the nation’s sixth largest city still relies on importing water from this source–with the result of continued environmental degradation and the energy required to haul the water such a long distance. Despite ongoing conservation measures, half of local water consumption goes to outdoor landscaping. While water recycling is increasing at an incremental level, the study calls for more of it as well as ramped up conservation within local farms as well as the city.

San Antonio

This city of 1.4 million had long relied on one huge aquifer for its water supply, but has since leased water rights from other sources. San Antonio has since leased other aquifers to meet the demands of a growing population, but has led on water recycling efforts. The city is mulling desalination of brackish water and seawater, which the study insists is too expensive compared to expanding agriculture water conservation efforts.

San Diego

California’s second largest city faces huge logistical and geographic challenges: it is surrounded by desert to the east, Mexico to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west and another crowded municipality (Orange County) to the north. Add the decreased imports from northern California and the Colorado River and at first glance it is easy to see why the city is investing in two desalination plants. But the study also touts San Diego as a leader in collaboration with the agriculture sector: the city long ago reached an agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District. For 10 years farmers in the Imperial Valley have received compensation for installing smarter irrigation technologies. Incidentally, nearby Orange County’s work on water stewardship and recycling is a model many cities including San Diego could follow.

In sum the study’s authors insist that a return to sourcing more local supplies of water is what cities need to keep their businesses in operation and leave residents with an ample supply of water. But such an assumption assumes farmers, who generally enjoy hefty political clout and are frequently resistant to change, will agree to such conservation measures.

Two facts are certain as the reader concludes reading this study: 1) municipalities will have to become smarter about their water strategies if they are going to remain economically viable and attract and retain businesses 2) massive or token conservation aside, companies that can provide technologies to clean and reuse water at a cost-competitive rate will have ample opportunities in the near future as cities struggle to provide water to a thirsty population. Otherwise, a long term trend witnessing companies leaving the southwest and west coast for regions with more reliable sources of water is not out of the question.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Wikipedia]

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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