I was excited to be invited to attend the California H2O Women’s Conference in Santa Barbara last week. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with women in the water space and learn about the impressive accomplishments of women in this industry!
The two-day event was filled with big picture conversations connecting with women working in all aspects of the water sector, particularly focused on California. Brenda Burman, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation and first woman to hold this position, gave the keynote address, setting the tone for the conference.
Many conversations centered on the water management challenges facing California as it deals alternatively with droughts and floods in rapid succession. However, discussions also moved to the broader water sector, as California’s challenges reflect many of the larger water issues facing communities in the rest of the U.S. and the world as a whole. It is, after all, reported as the world’s sixth largest economy in its own right. Key takeaways include:
Successful Water Management: Making the Whole Function Better than the Sum of its Parts through Collaboration and Cooperation.
With over 2,900 community water systems spread across nine regions, the California water landscape is very fragmented and can be combative, with users looking out for their own interests and wary of working with neighboring water districts. The Western U.S. has a complicated history of conflict over water rights and infrastructure projects, a history reflected in the realities of water management compromises today as hydrologic realities mean that long standing water management plans have to be revisited. As a result, communities within the same basin are reluctant to risk their own water supplies, even in times of localized water excess, in order to improve water use efficiency across the basin as a whole. Building trust between water users is critical as the industry pursues new management strategies like groundwater banking and water reuse.
As the water sector moves forward to tackle new challenges, like those brought on by climate change, barriers to new solutions will include public acceptance of management strategies and legal and regulatory restrictions on their adoption, in addition to the more traditional technological and engineering challenges water managers have faced historically. Therefore, it is critical to bring experts with a wide range of backgrounds into the water sector and facilitate interdisciplinary discussions.
Resist the Temptation to Think of Water Planning and Management in the U.S. as “Done”
Because we are fortunate enough to live in communities where water reliably comes to our homes and businesses at the turn of a tap, there is a sense that we have “solved” water management issues in the U.S. However, there is a still a lot of room for improvement – in underserved communities, in improving operating efficiencies, and in enhancing affordability.
A discussion facilitated by Cindy Wallis-Lage of Black & Veatch, focused on the sixth of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which targets universal and equitable access to safe drinking water and sanitation services by 2030. Although most people may attribute this goal to developing countries, the reality is there are communities across the U.S. that do not have reliable access to these services and crisis like that in Flint, Michigan, highlight the need for ongoing vigilance and maintenance of our critical infrastructure.
Preparing for an Uncertain Future with Climate Change: Possible and Critical
The water sector will be facing new challenges from the imminent effects of climate change and the need for improved resiliency across water management systems will force us to move on from the status quo. While it may be hard to pinpoint exactly what the effects of climate change will be in specific cities or water management districts, water managers will undoubtedly be facing increased variability in the future and must prepare water users for this reality. It will be much more cost-effective to invest now in preparation for a range of possible futures than to recover from a disaster after it strikes.
Conferences like this will go a long way in connecting water experts across fields and with varied perspectives on water management challenges. I was honored to meet other women in water leaders and look forward to many productive future collaborations.
Erin Bonney Casey is a Research Director with Bluefield Research, a market research and insight firm focused exclusively on supporting companies addressing opportunities in water. Learn more about how Bluefield is helping companies make more informed decisions with data-backed intelligence at bluefieldresearch.com.