The Illusion of Abundance

Oct. 1, 2009
Go ask one of your neighbors about green and what they are doing about it.

By Dave Angelo

Go ask one of your neighbors about green and what they are doing about it. You do't need to say much more and they will know exactly what you are talking about. Most people recycle. Everyone is aware of oil and gas prices, the need to conserve, hybrid cars, the debate over conventional fossil fuel power plants versus wind power versus nuclear power. Everyone has an opinion.

After that discussion, ask them about water. Unless they are somehow involved in the industry, I guarantee that you will get a blank stare and the question – what do you mean about water? The average person has no idea about the issues surrounding water. They are doing nothing to conserve water and treat it as a precious resource. They have no idea how much their water supply is being subsidized by the government, and they surely are not aware of the alarming fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of people die every day around the world from the lack of clean water. Is there another disease or illness that takes that many lives every single day? Can you imagine if the equivalent number of people died every day in plane crashes, or died because of traffic light malfunctions? I would imagine that the awareness level would be quite high, and a solution would be very quick.

I lived in Tulsa back in the late 80s and was talking to a geologist that worked for one of the oil companies. We were discussing the then oil crisis (the price of oil dropped from $40 per barrel to under $10, causing an economic crash for anyone involved in the oil business), and I asked the question about the world oil reserve. At least for me, I was convinced that we would run out of oil during my lifetime. His response was not to worry about it, and that we would run out of fresh water long before we ran out of oil. At the time, I knew nothing about any water issues. I do't know if he was stretching a point to make a point, or if he really understood the crisis we were headed for with the world water supply, but that statement stuck with me all these years. And, he was right.

People understand the issue with oil because they are directly impacted. When the price of oil goes up, we all pay more at the pumps for gas. The actual cost of water supply does not work that way. The average person in this country only pays a fraction of the actual cost. Even while I was in Beijing talking to one of the water authorities, they complained about the same issues. In their city, the average person only pays 20% of the actual cost to deliver that water.

Federal handouts have never been a good solution. Our industry needs to move away from reliance on the federal government and become more self reliant through full cost of service rates. While no one wants to pay more for services, necessity does drive innovation. Paying for the full cost of water will certainly create awareness with the general public and that will ultimately drive the overall costs down either through conservation, more productive use of water or through innovation. If we were paying 50 cents a gallon for gas today, do you think anyone would be driving Smart Cars?

Australia is running out of water. Everyone there is aware of it and the water crisis has become a national issue. Desalination plants are being built as fast as possible and even some experts do not think that will be enough. Environmentalists are working to find solutions and ways to make these plants work versus standing in the way and finding reasons they cannot work. Billboards are up everywhere, showing what the lakes looked like 10 years ago when they were full of water, and what they look like today. It is mandatory that new homes are required to collect rain water that is used to flush their toilets. There is no room for debate when everyone agrees that unless immediate action is taken, there will be no water. Unfortunately, it took a crisis to reach this point.

While you are talking to your neighbor, mention the fact that in spite of $1 trillion having been spent on water compliance issues over the last 30 years:

    – 45 to 50 million Americans are exposed to unsafe water
    – One-half of the U.S. major watersheds have serious water quality issues
    – One-half of the communities do not comply with CWA or CSO laws
    – 218 million Americans live within 10 miles of polluted waterways

Also mention that at least 2.6 billion people – some 41 percent of the global population – do not have access to any sort of basic sanitation facilities. As a result, millions suffer from a wide range of preventable illnesses, such as diarrhea, which claim thousands of lives each day, primarily in young children. Of the 14 countries I traveled to last year, there were only three countries where you could drink the water from the tap – and one of those countries was Canada. It is often said that the way we treat our children today sends a signal to future generations of children we never meet. The very sad thing is that the solution is known and doable. Simply not enough is being done.

Conditions in the United States are starting to mirror Australia. The population in the South East has doubled since 1960, while the water used over the same period of time has tripled. Reservoirs around the country are at historic lows while demands are at historic highs. Are we going to wait until the water supply becomes a crisis before this issue is properly addressed on a national level? What is it going to take to create the awareness with the general population that water needs to be treated as a precious resource? Necessity is the mother of invention, but do we have to wait until we are in a crisis mode before we take real positive steps to a solution? Somehow, this issue needs to begin with public awareness and that needs to happen long before we get in a serious crisis mode. WW

About the Author:
Dave Angelo is the current Chairman of WWEMA and Vice President and General Manager at Fairbanks Morse Pump Company.

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