Water Efficiency Planning: It all starts with good data

By: Caroline Goodbody

Nearly two thirds of the country remains locked in severe or higher level of drought and there is no end in sight.

I began to understand the scale of the problems facing our water systems while working for US Senator Ben Cardin. Senator Cardin is chairman of the Environment & Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife, which exposed me to the policies that surround water issues. When I wrote speeches or talking points, I would write broad umbrella statements like, “Water is essential to life, economic development, and growth,” and follow with a few facts and figures to impress whatever audience he was addressing. I knew that proper water management was important, but my understanding was only surface deep. I never had time to really explore the issue in depth and had to assume what the experts were telling me was correct.

After completing my first year in Yale’s MBA/MEM program, I had a couple of goals in mind when I looked for my “dream” internship this summer. The first was to learn the hard facts and specifics behind those grand statements I had written: I wanted to know where the numbers came from. The second was to learn how water issues are addressed outside of government, especially in the corporate sector. I was lucky to find a near – perfect fit with the EDF/AT&T Water Efficiency Project.

When I joined the team in May, AT&T and EDF had already completed the pilot phase of the project to identify opportunities to reduce water (and save money) by improving the efficiency of cooling towers on its buildings. AT&T’s Senior Energy Manager Tim Fleming explains the project in more detail here.

The next phase of the project was scaling up implementation of these findings within AT&T and more broadly. One of the tasks I was asked to take on was estimating the potential water savings that could be achieved if buildings in a dozen specific cities improved the efficiency of their cooling tower operations. These estimates help in making the case for why these cities would want to add this approach as part of overall water reduction plan.

While I knew this task would take time, I thought it would be doable and – since we were just aiming for ballpark figures – I believed would be fairly straightforward. Given how important water is to “life, economic development, and growth,” I was sure that the USGS and local governments keeps track of how much water is being used and who is using it.

So I was pretty surprised at how difficult it was to find data that allowed me to make “apples to apples” comparisons. Sometimes regional water demand would be broken down by sector; other times not. Even if water use was broken down by sector, states did not always use the same methods or definitions in determining water withdrawals and consumption. Sometimes there would be city estimates, and other times, the best I could find was regional or county level data. Finding recent data was also a challenge.

As I was combing through state and regional reports I was convinced that I was missing something. But when I dug further, and looked into methodologies, I would often find researchers making statements like, Quantification of water demand and its significance is limited by significant gaps in available data and analysis. Water has no federal data agency comparable to the Energy Information Administration that projects alternative demand scenarios,” or something along the lines of, Although the power sector is the largest user of water in the nation, national statistics on the consumption and withdrawal rates of individual power plants are characterized by inconsistencies and scarcity.”

Really?

Even though there is a universal understanding that water is essential to our economy, we have remarkably limited understanding of water use at both local and national levels. We cannot count on our water resources being reliable and predictable without accurate and comprehensive data. Water is important not just because we need it to drink and grow crops, but also because of the big role it plays in energy production. My colleague Kate Zerrenner covers this in a recent post.

The problem this lack of knowledge poses to policy makers and city planners is obvious – as populations grows, cities need to understand the constraints of local resources. But this information is important for decision makers in other sectors – including businesses. Businesses need to be able to count on a reliable source of water and a predictable source of energy.

Conquering our water challenges will be a challenge no matter what we do, but it will much easier if we have better data. And – as cliché as it sounds – will require every sector and company to look into its own facilities and find ways to reduce its water footprint. AT&T has already stepped up the plate and shown that tracking its water use and making small adjustments can save it money and mitigate future risk. The question now is, when will other businesses and government step up?

Caroline Goodbody is a joint MBA/MEM student at Yale University.

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