A Quantified Approach to Water Conservation

Modern technology and precise data collection help alleviate the freshwater crisis unresolved by outdated water laws and regulations.

| May 2016

River bank

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


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.”