Rethinking a finite resource

July 1, 2022

National Hockey League teams in the United States and Canada annually use 300 million gallons of water to operate their arenas. Most facilities use a surprising amount of water. Yet facility managers, much like everyone else, might take water for granted.

When people turn on the tap in the morning, out comes a limitless supply of high-quality water for less than the cost of cell phone service or cable television. Most people think that water is like air, infinite and inexhaustible.

On the contrary, it is finite and exhaustible. Even though water is critical to the operations of facilities, most FMs only think about water once a month, when they pay the bill from the municipal water department or, less frequently, from a private water company regulated by a state public utility commission. Increasing water scarcity around the world, fueled by overuse of rivers and aquifers and exacerbated by climate change, demands that FMs pay more attention to the reliability of their water supplies.

the paradox of water scarcity

The hydrologic cycle teaches that the amount of water in the biosphere is constant. Humans can neither make nor destroy water. People today are drinking the same water as the dinosaurs did when they roamed the Earth. How, then, can water be scarce if the amount of water is constant? The answer to this paradox is that water is not where it is needed, when it is needed, in the form that it is needed.

Consider two examples. In the Boston, USA, metropolitan area, every time someone flushes a toilet, the waste is sent to a treatment plant on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. The plant treats on average 380 million gallons per day. The treated water is put into nine-mile-long tunnels and discharged into Massachusetts Bay. That water is unavailable for reuse until the hydrologic cycle completes another turn, which could take hundreds of years.


Second, groundwater provides a major source of water. In many states, more than half the population depends on groundwater for their drinking water supply. Groundwater begins as rain or snowmelt and percolates into the ground into aquifers. Think of an aquifer as a giant milkshake glass and each well as a straw in the glass. Many states permit a limitless number of straws in the glass, which encourages overuse of the aquifer. Water that Mother Nature deposited over thousands of years, humans have extracted in mere decades. This tragedy of the commons has produced pernicious results, including ground level subsidence. In California’s Central Valley, the surface of the land has dropped more than 30 feet in some places.

Just as oil lubricates the global economy, so does water. Misuse of this precious resource, so essential to life itself, has created water security problems around the world. In Iran, mismanagement caused serious water scarcity that led, in 2021, to protests that the government forcefully crushed.

the challenge of population growth

A 2019 United Nations report predicts that the global population will rise from about 7.6 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050. Where will mankind find the resources, especially water, to support another 2 billion fellow inhabitants of Earth? This challenge is compounded by climate change. As the climate warms, it will take more water for farmers to produce the same amount of food. With hotter temperatures, evaporation increases and plants go to seed too quickly.

climate change and water

Warmer temperatures producing drought and forest fires is the most visible evidence of climate change. The epicenter of climate change involving sea-level rise is Bangladesh in South Asia. Warmer air temperatures have increased ocean water temperatures, providing more fuel for cyclones in the Pacific and hurricanes in the Atlantic. A country with a population of 164 million on a landmass the size of New York State, Bangladesh lies at the head of the Bay of Bengal, on the largest river delta on Earth. As cyclones push storm surges 50 or 60 miles inland, melting glaciers in the Himalayas cause rivers in Bangladesh to flood. It is getting hammered from both sides.

Nearly one-quarter of Bangladesh is less than 7 feet above sea level; two-thirds is less than 15 feet above sea level. Most Bangladeshis live along coastal areas where alluvial delta soils provide some of the country’s best farmland. A 3-foot rise in sea level would submerge almost 20 percent of the country and displace more than 30 million people. Climate change has created a new category of human rights: climate refugees.

Similar but not as dramatic examples are occurring along coastal areas of the United States. New Jersey’s coastal islands and Florida’s southeast coast face staggering challenges from rising sea levels.

the situation in the United States

The reliability of U.S. water supplies varies across the country. Much has been written about the Southwest, especially the Colorado River Basin. Less well known is the exponential growth of groundwater wells in the Midwest and the East. Lax groundwater regulation has incentivized farmers to drill high-capacity irrigation wells. There are now more than 10,000 center-pivot irrigation wells in Georgia, which is one of the most humid states in the country.


The typical solution to U.S. water shortages has involved diverting water from rivers, building a dam or drilling a well. But many rivers are already on life support. The flows, even in major rivers such as the Rio Grande and Colorado, dwindle to nothing before they reach the ocean. There have been so many dams built that it is difficult to find a river system with a good dam site and water not already spoken for. New wells are seldom a sustainable option. In short, business as usual is not a viable response to water shortages.

There is no reason to despair, however. Tools are available to keep water shortages from becoming a catastrophe.



Conservation remains the low-hanging fruit. Mankind should use water more carefully. Consider two examples. First, using a home or office kitchen food disposal for two minutes a day uses 150 gallons of water every month. Instead of using that water to get rid of food scraps, put the waste in the trash or a compost bin. Second, turn off a light. A single 60-watt incandescent bulb that burns 12 hours a day may annually use as much as 6,300 gallons of water to produce the electricity. To save water, turn off a light. Better yet, switch to LED bulbs, which use one-sixth of the energy of incandescent ones.


Another important tool is to reuse water from treatment plants. The state of Arizona has pioneered using reclaimed water for power plants, golf courses, farms, parks, highway medians, mines and industrial facilities. The new Salesforce tower in San Francisco is making substantial reuse of water from toilets and showers.

The City of Los Angeles announced in 2018 that it would begin to reuse the water from its Hyperion Treatment Plant. The outflow from Hyperion is equal to the seventh-largest river in the U.S.

At this point, there is seldom a need to use this water for drinking — though the technology is there to do so safely. More important is that people stop thinking of it as “wastewater” and recognize it as a major tool in addressing water shortages.


Not quite the holy grail but still a valuable tool, technology exists to remove salt from ocean water or brackish groundwater aquifers. But there are three impediments to widespread adoption of desalination. First is cost. The membranes used in reverse osmosis (RO) are expensive and require frequent replacement. Second, RO uses substantial energy to create enough pressure to push water through the membranes, and it takes water to generate that electricity. Finally, municipalities face a brine disposal problem with the salty water left over from the RO process. A large quantity of highly saline water dumped into a coastal estuary will face regulatory challenges and resistance from environmental NGOs.

Despite these considerable hurdles, desalination has a place on the menu of options. If a community faces severe water shortages and few options for new supplies, it may find that desalination deserves careful consideration.

price signals

There is no commodity charge for water. Literally. When a city water department or a private water company sets up a rate structure, it is based on a cost-of-service principle. At the end of the month, the revenue stream should equal the cost of providing the service (with a slight bump for the for-profit water companies).

To make matters worse, the rates seldom factor in those new sources of water, such as from a reclaimed system, which are often far more expensive than traditional supplies. U.S. water infrastructure has been woefully neglected. The money from the 2021 infrastructure bill is a good down payment on bringing water systems up to modern standards. But a much bigger investment is needed, and state and local governments are ill-equipped to come up with the funds.

The price for water should include increasing block rates to ensure that those who use high quantities of water bear the true costs of their profligate consumption. That structure should protect low- and modest-income people by guaranteeing them access to water for basic needs. The richest country in the history of the world should recognize a human right to water.

the era of water reallocation

A final tool in the chest is to use the power of markets to bring about a reallocation of water from lower-value to higher-value uses. Water law must be modernized to incentivize trade between willing sellers and buyers. The water available for trade will often come from farmers for a very simple reason. Farmers consume 75 to 80 percent of U.S. water. A good percentage of this water is delivered through flood irrigation, which is notoriously inefficient, and is used to grow low-value crops, such as alfalfa or cotton.

A water market must be sensitive to the impact on rural communities. A farmer who sells out may do well for himself, but that sale creates transaction costs for everyone else in the agricultural economy, including farm workers; seed, pesticide and fertilizer suppliers; and farm implement dealers. Local governments may suffer a decline in tax revenues and neighboring farmers may be harmed from dust carrying weed seeds from fallowed land. It makes sense, then, for a state agency to have authority to regulate trades over a specified size.


Another kind of market draws on capital from municipal and industrial users to underwrite modernization of farm infrastructure. A shift from flood irrigation to drip or micro-irrigation would allow a farmer to grow the same amount of product with less water. But these systems are frightfully expensive for farmers, who are often land-rich and cash-flow poor. However, to municipal and industrial users, that expense is little more than a rounding error.


The U.S. faces daunting water supply challenges, but there is reason for optimism. A combination of conservation, reuse, desalination, price signals and market forces provides a powerful set of tools to address water shortages. All that is needed is the moral courage and political will to act.