The New Climate Bill is too Dry, and I Don't Mean Boring

Anticipated runoff changes.jpg

Whew.  I recently finished a multi-day project, reading (okay, aggressively skimming) the draft “American Power Act” released last month by Senators Kerry and Lieberman.  I was searching for any provision that might promote water conservation, but came up dry.  In my view, this bill is an important step forward and should be a basis for comprehensive legislation (which the Senate Leadership should start putting together next month), but  it’s important that this omission be remedied in final legislation.

First, a step back – what the heck does saving water have to do with climate change?  Actually quite a bit.  For one, water isn’t plentiful everywhere, and that may be changing for the worse.   The map below indicates that certain areas of the country are likely to see less runoff, which is especially bad news for places like the Southwest, where water is already in short supply.  (Yes, there are other places that will likely get wetter; that’s a post for another day.)

Colors indicate median changes in runoff interpolated to USGS water resources regions for the period 2041-2060, as compared to 1901-1970.  Percentages on map represent the degree of confidence associated with these projections.
U.S. Climate Change Science Program, Synthesis and Assessment Product 4.3 (May 2008)

In those pink and red areas, using less water to accomplish the same tasks will be critical.  So, if we can promote policies that increase the availability of water-efficient goods and services, or incentivize their use, it will be a big help for folks for whom water is scarce.

But saving water isn’t just for dry places.  Wherever you are, the water you use around the house -- to wash your clothes and dishes, to shower, to flush your toilet, and to irrigate your yard – is more than just water.  It’s energy too.  It takes energy to obtain water, to treat it before sending it to consumers, to deliver it, and to remove waste from it; and, depending on the end use, there may be energy involved in heating the water.  This “embedded” energy adds up, especially in places such as southern California, where water is delivered great distances (and over great heights) to its end users.  According to a recent estimate, electricity use by the water sector is 7.7 percent of California’s total consumption, and that excludes electricity for end uses, like heating.  And what does this energy use mean?  More often than not, it means fossil fuel combustion, which creates global warming pollution.

In a nutshell, then, saving water is a smart strategy, both to adapt to climate change that’s already occurring and will continue to occur, and to mitigate further global warming pollution.  So, that’s why water conservation belongs in a climate bill.

To date, leaders in Congress had recognized this essential connection and included a suite of water-saving provisions in prior climate bills.  The House-passed bill and the bill that went through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee earlier this year both contained a trio of provisions that would formally authorize EPA’s WaterSense program (which develops specifications for water-saving products and services seeking to display the WaterSense label), require the federal government to be a model consumer and buy efficient items when possible, and help jump-start state water efficiency financial incentive programs.  Though these requirements will not fully eliminate water waste, much less global warming, they are an important start.

For that reason, it’s unfortunate that the American Power Act omits these provisions.  I’m hopeful that their absence is an oversight, rather than the result of a policy disagreement about the importance of water efficiency, so NRDC and our partners will be pushing the Senate to ensure these measures are once again included as the legislative process unfolds.  We’ll keep you posted.