A Quantified Approach to Water Conservation

Modern technology and precise data collection help alleviate the freshwater crisis unresolved by outdated water laws and regulations.

By Joe Whitworth

May 2016

River bank

Persistent drought, pollution runoff into rivers and inefficient water allocation have left our freshwater resources in a critical state.


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In Quantified (Island Press, 2015), Joe Whitworth discusses our current freshwater crisis. Whitworth, president of The Freshwater Trust, advocates for a quantified conservation approach that maintains the inspirational movement started in the 1970s, while recognizing that today’s economy requires new solutions. The following excerpt from “Chapter Two: Leading in a World of Permanent Scarcity” discusses the need for change, and introduces readers to the quantified conservation method.

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A Twenty-First-Century Water Policy

If you’ve ever tried to remodel an old house, at some point you’ve probably run into problems. The replacement windows you needed may not have matched the standard sizes currently available. The old plumbing system may have used smaller-diameter pipes. Or perhaps the foundation and framing weren’t built according to today’s standards. After a while you probably realized the difficulty of maneuvering within the confines of the hand-me-down constructs you were given to work with. But you kept on tinkering anyway because the alternative would have meant tearing the whole thing down.

In the same way, the laws and regulations that govern water in the United States were developed during different eras with different sets of priorities without fully contemplating how they would appropriately toggle with all the others. They’re a complex web that’s no longer getting us the desired results, and we need to reset to address the priorities of our current era. The demand for water is outpacing the supply. Groundwater tables are shrinking faster than they’re being recharged. And our watersheds are becoming increasingly damaged from agricultural runoff and other nonpoint source pollution. The reality is that the house we built no longer meets our needs. Yet we keep tinkering around the edges, making small modifications, when what we really need is a brand new house — one that allows us to tackle the twenty-first-century problems we face.

Ideally, a highly informed U.S. Congress ought to respond to the current era of water realities by passing a national act that integrates our water laws into a single, comprehensive policy. Surface water, groundwater, and water quality should be considered in unison, and their administration put under a single federal agency, to optimize the resource for environmental and economic gain. Given that water is arguably the most pressing resource crisis of the twenty-first century, it’s disheartening to think that we lack a comprehensive policy for dealing with it. Instead, we’re forced to sift through the clutter of various laws and regulations and do the best we can, which is absolutely the wrong mindset. As Winston Churchill so appropriately put it during World War II, “You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

A Quantified Approach at Every Level

Although it’s important to push for integrated laws at the national level, in the meantime, there’s still a tremendous amount that government officials can do. For starters, they can mandate that everything be quantified to ensure that every taxpayer dollar spent renders a dollar in actual environmental benefit. In other words, they can require that outcomes be measurable and that twenty-first-century tools be used to monitor governments’ success in achieving these goals. Given the scale of environmental problems we face, we can no longer afford to take a procedure-based approach. We need to demand strong outcomes, and technology can help get us there.

With today’s technology, we can precisely identify the baseline from which we’re starting, and we can do it in real time. And once the baseline’s set, we can track what environmental improvements we make or what ground we’re losing. And if we’re losing ground, we can quickly make the needed adjustments, measuring again to make sure we’ve got it right this time. With tools such as geographic information systems (GIS) and light detection and ranging (LIDAR), for example, we can manage the impact of logging on watersheds via satellite or plane in real time and at less cost. Rather than physically driving to a site to survey the impact of a recent logging operation, we can use GIS and LIDAR to obtain precise images that allow government officials to make better decisions about the effect of these cutting operations on nearby watersheds. If a handful of trees are logged next to a river, they can see it. And if there’s a landslide, they can see that too. They can also precisely measure the effect trees planted next to a river will have on water temperatures both today and as the trees grow larger over time.

Similarly, we can use data and analysis to focus spending on the projects that have the most impact. When restoring rivers, for example, it’s no longer necessary for government agencies to work with every landowner who borders a watershed, as many governments do today at substantial cost. Instead, governments can save time, money, and effort by targeting only the landowners who are creating the biggest problems for the river. We can combine a Google Earth platform with public data to visually pinpoint which specific landowners are sending the most agricultural runoff into our streams and rivers. We can then determine which specific conservation practices on which specific plots of land would keep the most fertilizer out of nearby streams and rivers. For instance, would it be better to plant cover crops to absorb the excess fertilizer, or would a buffer strip of trees do the trick? Using quantified conservation, we can instantly determine that planting cover crops would keep 324 pounds of phosphorus out of the stream, whereas the filter strips would keep 162 pounds from reaching the water, and so on. Armed with precise data such as this, we now know where the greatest potential lies, and administrators looking to get the greatest uplift for the least cost can strategically provide incentives to the highest-polluting farmers to update their land management practices. We all conceptually understand that each piece of land is different, but we now can understand precisely how it is different and which specific strategies will render the greatest benefit. Although filter strips have been used more widely, the fact is that cover crops can do more good in certain scenarios. Engaging this precision allows us to replace subjective preferences with objective results needed to hit environmental targets and manage budgets so we can extend every conservation dollar we spend.

With data and analysis, we can also make water withdrawals in places that have the least impact on the river system. For example, the Columbia River serves as a superhighway for salmon, yet it’s the small tributaries that contain critical quantities of water where the salmon spawn and rear. By developing a relational equation to determine the actual salmon benefit for a bucket of water in the small stream versus a bucket of water from the main-stem Columbia, we could convert irrigators to a more reliable water source while increasing the water in the small creeks where fish need it most. This would allow us to better manage where and when water withdrawals occur.

Of course, quantified conservation isn’t limited to river restoration. Governments can use it to improve their results on almost any environmental project — whether it be to protect our forests, reduce the impacts of climate change, or increase wildlife habitat. And honestly, it’s a complete no-brainer. Governments are already spending taxpayer money. At the very least, this money should be spent in a smart way. Just think if a pollster stopped the average person on the street and asked, “Do you want government to spend your money in such a way that they can precisely secure the intended results? Or would you prefer that government generally apply it in the direction of a problem with no worry of quantified results?” Even if the person on the street couldn’t tell you how many senators there are in Congress, and even if they weren’t able to place Washington, D.C. on a map, they’d still get that one right. Simply put, there’s no logical reason why anyone wouldn’t want to know what their public dollars are getting.

From Quantified by Joe Whitworth. Copyright © 2015 Joe Whitworth. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.