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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Drought Is Consuming the Western U.S., but Water Technologies Offer Lifelines

Climate change projections for the western U.S. offer stark pictures of drought, but water technologies offer opportunities to tackle this emerging crisis.
By Kate Zerrenner

It’s only April, but in parts of the U.S. Southwest, it already feels like summer. With temperatures in the upper-90s last week and virtually the entire western half of the U.S. in drought, it seems we can prepare for yet another year of record-breaking weather.

Parts of Texas have yet to recover from the deadly winter storm two months ago while now facing an onslaught of hot, dry days punctuated by the upcoming hurricane season. It’s not unprecedented: Texas last saw such a severe winter storm in 2011, followed that summer by the worst year of the state’s multiyear drought which included 90 days of 100 degrees-plus temperatures and catastrophic wildfires.

But although most of Texas is in drought, the biggest area of concern is the Southwest, where some scientists say that states are in the throes of a megadrought, meaning an intense drought that lasts for decades or longer. In recent years, it has felt like a continuous drought, occasionally punctuated by rainfall relief. It brings to mind the saying attributed to a meteorologist in the 1930s, who said Texas is “a land of eternal drought, interrupted occasionally by biblical floods.”

The problem is, those eternal droughts and biblical floods have gained intensity in the last century. Climate change projections for the region from Texas to California present a stark water picture.

Climate change, drought and economics

The western U.S. is also home to rapid economic growth. According to the Census Bureau, 11 of the 15 fastest growing cities are in western states, in particular across Texas and Arizona. Unfortunately, climate change also threatens the economic wellbeing of those states.

Recently, the Institute for Public Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law conducted a survey of 738 economists, Gauging Economic Consensus on Climate Change, which found that the benefits of taking action on climate change far outweigh the costs. This aligns with recent findings that the U.S. could save $8 trillion if Paris Climate Agreement targets were met compared to business-as-usual, and that figure is considered conservative. This is not wholly unexpected when we look at the number of multi-billion dollar natural disasters over the past few years, from the $16.6 billion in damage attributed to California wildfires in the fall of 2020 to the $133.8 billion cost of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 - and everything in between.

Further, according to the same study, more economists are on board with taking urgent action as climate models are consistently proven right in terms of increased intensity and duration of extreme weather events. Drought, in particular, has devastating cascading effects. Drought directly has an impact on agriculture, which could lead to depressed economies in farming communities as well as increased food costs for society overall.

Droughts also pose problems for the power generation sector: in hydroelectric power as well as fossil- and nuclear-powered electricity, which all rely on considerable amounts of water for generating electricity. Less critical, but no less important for local economies, are the effects on water recreation and the businesses that support it, from boat rentals and sales to restaurants and shops that cater to the participants.

Cities, especially in the drought-riddled west, will increasingly compete with these sectors for water. More straws in smaller pools could lead to conflict, as already witnessed in the long-standing tri-state water wars in the southeastern U.S. Further, economic booms will be limited if companies can’t rely on water being available for their operations. Luckily, cost-effective solutions already exist to address these problems.

Cost-effective water technologies for taking on drought

The energy-water nexus offers cost-effective carbon emission reductions. At the utility level, wastewater and drinking water utilities often comprise 30 to 40 percent of a city’s electricity demand. Because the majority of our electricity is generated using water- and carbon-intensive fossil fuels, deploying energy efficiency in those utilities’ operations is a win-win: It reduces energy demand (and lowers bills), which lowers carbon emissions, and it also reduces both operating costs at the water utility level and loss of non-revenue water.

Further, water efficiency projects could potentially deliver the same carbon and energy demand savings as traditional electric utility energy efficiency programs, but at considerably lower costs. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, most electric utilities still pursue the age-old energy solutions in a silo, rather than partnering with water utilities for deeper emissions reductions.

Other opportunities abound for the energy-water nexus at water utilities. Floating solar - sometimes called “floatovoltaics” - reduces evaporation rates of retention ponds and keeps the solar panels cool and thus increases their efficiency. Biogas collection at wastewater treatment plants reduces methane emissions and can power systems with net-zero energy. Smart grid technologies can reduce leakage rates, which are as high as 40 percent in some areas, decreasing both the lost revenue and the energy and water that are literally flushed away by treated water not making it to its intended target. All of these are proven technologies, and with appropriate policy direction and investment opportunities, will only become more cost-effective the more they’re deployed.

If the majority of over 700 economists who study climate impacts on the economy feel the need to take action is urgent, even more so than five years ago. They reiterate that governments and businesses should deploy every weapon in their arsenal to prevent economic disaster from unmitigated climate change.

We are past the point of simply looking at inside-the-fence energy efficiency solutions at electric utilities. We need an economy-wide approach, and the water sector has vast potential and nearly unlimited opportunities to contribute. A more holistic approach to the energy-water nexus from both sides of the coin simply makes cost-effective sense. And for drought-stricken areas, conserving every last drop has never been more important.

Image credit: Olivier Chatel/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner