This special edition interview of the SHINE podcast is in honor and gratitude of the earth. We are running out of water for our basic needs. There are activities and systems that may need to be hospiced out in order to reconsider the long term effects of how we’re consuming water and energy. Today I am focusing this conversation on the six solutions to water conservation with my friend Brian Richter. Brian Richter has been a global leader in water science and conservation for 40 years. In this interview, Brian shares about his journey and leadership in water stewardship and sustainability. We talk about what the current state is regarding water needs and shortages, and most importantly, how to plan for our water usage as the planet continues to warm and actions we can take to conserve water and ensure there is enough for everyone. Thank you for joining me.
SHINE podcast “Water Stewardship Creates Necessary Alliances in Leadership and Business with Greg Koch”- https://carleyhauck.com/podcast/45-water–stewardship–create–necessary–alliances–in–leadership–and–business–with–greg–koch
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The Imperfect Shownotes
0:01 Carley Hauck
Hi, welcome to the SHINE podcast. My name is Carley Hauck. I’m your host, thank you so much for tuning in. This podcast focuses on the intersection of three things: the how to be a conscious, inclusive leader, the recipe for high performing teams creating more psychological safety, trust, innovation, and belonging, and lastly, awareness practices that you can cultivate to be the kind of leader our world needs now. And when I say the word leader, or leadership, that is a title that we all can step into, because we lead ourselves every day, and how we show up at work, in our relationships with our families, with our friends, with our communities, and around the things that matter most.
And so for those of you joining for the first time, welcome, please go over to your favorite podcast subscription button and hit subscribe on the SHINE podcast so that you don’t miss any future episodes.
We are in season six. And this is a special edition interview in honor and gratitude of the earth, being that it’s Earth Day, and I am focusing this conversation on the six solutions to water conservation with my friend Brian Richter. In this interview, Brian shares about his journey and leadership in water stewardship and sustainability for the past 40 years. We talk about what the current state is regarding water needs and shortages, and most importantly, how to plan for our water usage as the planet continues to warm and actions we can take to conserve water and ensure there is enough for everyone.
Brian Richter has been a global leader in water science and conservation for more than 30 years. He is the president of sustainable waters, a global organization focused on water scarcity challenges where he promotes sustainable water use and management with governments, corporations, universities and local communities. He previously served as director of the Global Water Program at The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization. Brian has consulted on more than 170 water projects worldwide. He serves as a water advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations, investment banks, and the United Nations. He also teaches water sustainability at the University of Virginia. And he has developed scientific tools and methods to support river protection and restoration efforts. And lastly, Brian was featured in a BBC documentary with David Attenborough on how many people can live on planet Earth. I learned a lot in this interview, and I feel inspired by the actions we can all take together now. I am delighted to have you. Thanks for listening.
Carley Hauck 03:18
Hi, everyone. Thank you for joining my friend Brian Richter, the author of Chasing Water. Brian, thank you so much for being with me today.
Brian Richter 03:28
Happy to be here. Carley, looking forward to it.
Carley Hauck 03:34
Well, Brian, we just had a lovely conversation before the recording. And I’m really looking forward to talking more about all the things related to water stewardship and scarcity. But before we begin, one of the first questions I often ask my guests is, how would you describe a conscious inclusive leader? What does that mean to you?
Brian Richter 03:59
Well, first, the inclusive part. I think that and you know, I’ll answer your question through the lens of the work that I do in water, Carley, because inclusivity has really been a big issue. In our dealings with water. Historically, many of the decisions, many of the ideas that are brought forth have been primarily from a fairly limited field of expertise, and specifically from engineers. And that’s understandable historically, because a lot of our struggles with trying to make clean water available to people was for a long time, pretty much an engineering challenge. How do you build the pipes? How do you clean the water in treatment plants and that sort of thing?
But as the problems associated with water have grown over time as our populations have grown, we’ve come to realize the importance of having a much more diverse group of people and participants in that conversation about what water do we need? Where do we want to access it from? What are our concerns about it? What are their ideas for making the world better, you know, in the way that we interact with water and water sources.
And so in my Chasing Water book, I talk about, you know, the really the need to think about sort of water democracies and communities of water users that share the same water sources, and the importance of opening the doors of the decision making to to really invite a much more diverse audience, either people who need to know or want to know, you know, into that conversation.
But then the leadership part, Carley, is also equally if not more important, in many cases. Because there are some really tough decisions, typically that have to be made these days over water. Sometimes it means that somebody might need to be charged a little bit more for the service of bringing clean water to their home. And that’s fraught with political peril. Sometimes, well, there’s all kinds of decisions around water that may, you know, may have a lot of dissent. Or it may be different opinions, or it may, you know, be difficult for some people to agree with. And so, being bold and leadership is also a really, really important aspect of managing water well.
Carley Hauck 06:35
Thank you so much, Brian, that was a great answer. I hear more of the inclusion pieces, the water democracy, but then the leadership piece is really having a consciousness that’s really taken care of the greater whole. Yes, yes, just to share a little context with the listeners as to why I really wanted to have this conversation with you. So I moved to North Carolina, and 2020, shortly after the pandemic hit, and I have now relocated back to California in the last few months. And while I was in North Carolina, I was coming back to the west coast for a few months at a time. And every time I came back, I was very aware of how dry it was. And it was interesting to be in Oregon last summer, I timed it perfectly for the fires, I was there for the hottest period of time. And in fact, this is when Greg and I were actually having our conversation around water stewardship. And so Greg referred me to you because he and I had had this really wonderful conversation. And for those of you on the SHINE podcast listening, if you want to listen to that interview, it is on the podcasts, and you can look for it. It’s a special edition podcast, because we had such a long conversation. But that would be a good precursor to the conversation I’m going to have with Brian or it can even just be a follow up after you listen to this one.
And I think one of the things that has been really important to me is how can we all be good stewards of the planet, in our leadership roles in the way that businesses are acting to be more socially and environmentally responsible? But also as consumers? What can we do? Because I really believe that we all have the opportunity and frankly, the responsibility to lead or we’re not going to have a thriving world. You know, I keep seeing books and things out there that say save the planet. I’m like, No, it saved the humans, you know, the planets gonna be here. We have to awaken humanity from its slumber. And so I really wanted to talk to you based on your incredible breadth of knowledge and service, around water scarcity, to just kind of help educate me, bring more awareness, and education to the listeners and also some really important action steps that we can take now.
And so, you know, one of the things that was interesting to me is that when I was reading your book, I saw that you grew up in San Diego, and I just shared with you that I’m going to be in San Diego this summer. And as I was looking at my moving to San Diego, I was looking to see, you know what, it doesn’t make sense to me. How are they growing all of this food in San Diego? They have tons of farmers markets, more than I’ve seen pretty much in any other city. Where are they getting that water? San Diego is a desert. So could you talk a little bit about how living in San Diego inspired this path of working and supporting stewardship of water but then also, what do we do about what’s going on in Southern California? It’s a desert. Right?
Brian Richter 10:10
Sure. Yes, . So there was a defining moment in my life, when I decided that I was going to go into the, you know, the professional aspects of water, and it was in the 1970s. And we had at that time, it was the drought of record. And there were mandatory water restrictions being placed on homeowners and businesses in San Diego at that time. And I just remember having this thought, so I was in high school at that time, and, and I remember having this thought that, gosh, if I could develop some expertise, some knowledge about water, I would likely have job security for the rest of my life. And it eventually worked itself out that way.
So it most definitely my growing up in San Diego and growing up with that rigidity, the concern over not having enough water to do all the things that we wanted to do in a rapidly growing community that was needing more and more water all the time. Those things all shaped my thinking. And I think position me for the 40 years, you know that I actually have spent, you know, in this profession.
Now, to answer your question about what we can do, I think I might start with where I start with my university students. So I teach a class in water sustainability at the University of Virginia. And in the very first week of class, we walked them through an exercise that’s intended to help them understand three things. One is that I work them through an exercise where they actually calculate how much water they rely upon, on average, each day of their lives. And it’s a very, very eye opening experience, because a lot of them understand that they use water in the shower, they use water for cooking, they use water to wash their clothes and dishes. But until recently, not many people thought about the fact that we also need water to grow our food, we need water to produce our clothing, we need water in so many aspects of our lives. So that initial exercise, using a simple calculator to come up with those numbers is a very, as I said, it’s a very interesting exercise for the students to go through.
But then the second thing I want them to know about is where’s that water coming from?
What’s your local water supply? What water sources are you depending upon? And are those water sources in good shape? Or not? Or are there problems? Are we using too much of the water? Are we drying up the stream? Are we drying up the underground aquifer? Are we causing too much pollution and that sort of thing. So that’s the second part.
And then the third part is I want them to increase their awareness and knowledge so that they can become active, informed citizens of their community. And perhaps by extension, you know, of the world, as well. And so a major reason that I wrote the Chasing Water book was to try to provide some basic education about water so that anybody who wanted to learn a little bit more, become a more informed citizen could learn the basics from the book, and understand that this is how problems develop and these are some of the solutions that we can apply.
So by being aware of that, both individually, but then also thinking about their community, or, more broadly, I think that will make them a fuller human being, if you will.
Carley Hauck 14:00
So those were really wonderful questions that you asked your students and, you know, what are the calculations that you’re inviting them to actually figure out what those numbers are? And I would imagine, there’s probably a scale of this is a high amount of water consumption, this is a low amount of water, this is moderate, you’re doing good, because we will probably want to, you know, have a baseline but then you want to curve our consumption based on whether that’s high or low. And what are the water sources are right?
Brian Richter 14:34
Yes. Yeah. So there’s a couple of things that we follow up on after they’ve done that basic exercise, then we have some really interesting conversation that gets to. One of the things that this exercise makes them aware of is that different aspects of their lives and their livelihoods results in their depending upon larger volumes of water. So for instance, what stands out for almost all of them is how, how much of their personal water footprint is tied to their food.
And, and so they start to realize that boy, depending upon my diet, and what I choose to eat, has a very big influence on how much water My lifestyle is dependent upon. And the students are real quick to make that connection and it causes them to think about, ha, boy, the choices that I’m making have consequences. And that’s why it’s so important for me to connect them to, where’s the water actually coming from that was used to produce the lettuce in your salad, or, you know, the barley in your beer, or, you know, or what have you. And so that’s a big part of it.
And I also think that when they see how big their overall numbers are, it catalyzes the thinking in them that that’s an awful lot of water that each of us depends upon, and we could probably easily find ways to use less. And if they happen to live in a place where water scarcity, where water shortages are a reality, then that sort of self reinforcing awareness or knowledge. Because if they realize how each of our water footprints add up, and that that number, that volume of water that our community depends upon, is is putting a lot of pressure on the local river or the local groundwater aquifer, then they start to connect the dots, that my personal individual actions roll up to my community, which then has a tremendous amount of influence on on the water sources. And so I think that part of that awareness also brings with it an ethic. It’s built with the beginning of an ethic about what ethical responsibility means with regards to how we’re utilizing our natural resources.
Carley Hauck 17:05
Great. Thank you. So that is something we’ll pick up again later, you know, in the talk, because I know that you outlined six solutions to water scarcity of water conservation being the number one thing we can do. And that’s really what you’re inviting this awareness, this education, and then kind of new actions based on the information they’re gaining from tracking their water consumption.
But I’d like to move into the actual water that we have to use. And you know a lot about this from your work in water in the last 40 years. But I was recently reading an article that came out a few weeks ago, and they were stating that we are going to have a very dry season in the spring. This was noted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And it’s saying that, in fact, California, which is where I am right now, is returning to severe or extreme drought. And Central California is likely to be the lowest since 1922, 100 years ago. And what’s so interesting about that year, is that’s also the year when the law of the river was also signed. And that’s basically sanctioning the Colorado River, which I learned about from reading your book to seven different states, New Mexico, California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah. But as you said, in your book, which I really liked this point, those seven states were basically being given water rights. But that law didn’t take into consideration the river’s voice itself- did it really want to give away its water. It didn’t really think about Mexico. And we know that so much of our food is grown in Mexico as well. So how are they getting water?
I’d love it if you could just talk a little bit about, where are we getting the water? And, and even just I think you mentioned it. In the book, you speak a bit about though the water cycles. And I think that would be important for people to understand, you know, water budgets, water supply water withdrawal.
Brian Richter 19:26
Yeah. So one of the most, one of the most common questions that I get asked, either by my students or when I give a public presentation, Carley, is how can we possibly be running short of water? Don’t we still have the same amount of water on the planet as we’ve always had? And so it’s very understandable. We’re taught in grade school that there is this global water cycle, that water is constantly moving around the planet, and there’s water evaporating off the surface of the ocean. It goes up into the atmosphere and forms clouds, those clouds are blown over the land, and it comes down as precipitation, it comes down as rain or snow. And that cycle continues to work. And, there is no difference in the total volume of water on the planet as we as there has been for millennia.
But the thing that people have to gain some understanding of is that wherever you are in the world, you can’t access water from anywhere else and from everywhere else in the world. Okay.
Technologically, we could, so we could go to the Congo River and Africa, you’re sitting in California, dry California, you could send a tanker ship over to the Congo River and Africa and stick in a hose and fill up the tanker ship and bring it back to California. But the cost of doing so is prohibitive. Okay.
So instead of thinking of the whole world, as your water supply, you have to think about the water that’s within reach. And by reach I mean, in particular, the water that can be affordably provided to you for your water supply. Okay, so I often talk about it as your local bathtub, you know, it’s your bucket of water and, and so now, if, if there’s only a certain volume of water that is locally affordably available to then it is possible to use that water source at a rate faster than it’s being naturally replenished by that rain or snow.
Okay, so, think about it like a bathtub. If you can’t turn the water in flow up high enough to keep up with the water going down the drain, then the level in the bathtub goes down over time. And that’s basically what happens with all of our water sources, it’s a matter of the rate of use as compared to the rate of natural replenishment.
Then let’s talk a little bit about the inflow into our local water supply, how our local water supplies are being replenished. So historically, we have always had dry periods and wet periods. Everywhere on the planet, you have dry periods and wet periods. And when it gets really dry, we call it a drought. And so there is a cycling, you know that you know, you have this intermittency between wet and dry. We have to be careful not to be using too much water during those dry periods, in particular, because we’re not getting enough replenishment. The unfortunate thing about much of the Western US, so let’s just say climate change is changing that availability of water, okay. Some places are actually getting, under climate change, some places are actually getting more rainfall. But other places are getting a lot less.
Carley Hauck 23:14
Can you name some places, just for our listeners?
Brian Richter 23:17
Well, generally the Eastern US, most of the Eastern US is getting more, the same or more. And much of the Western US is getting less than it has historically. And so in much of the West, the climate science is telling us that we’re already experiencing less water supply and less replenishment of our water supplies, because of climate change. And it’s going to get worse in the coming decades. So in the Colorado River system, they’re saying that by mid century, we’re going to have 20 to 35% less water coming down the Colorado River system because of climate change.
Okay. So a lot of people, a lot of the climate scientists in particular, but a lot of the water managers and people who depend upon the water supplies in the Colorado River, are coming to realize that we used to call this a drought, a dry period. But now it’s been 22 years, and they’re the driest 22 years in the last 1200 years. So that’s the driest period in a very, very long period of time. And, but now they’re saying you know what, let’s just stop and they were calling the 20s. So because of that they’re calling the 22 year, your period of mega drought and a super super drought.
But now they’re saying let’s quit calling it a drought because the pressure from climate change is causing what they’re now referring to as long term or ratification, which means it’s just getting drier in the background. And that’s going to continue because the climate is going to continue to warm.
Carley Hauck 25:03
Well, thank you for sharing that. And, you know, one of the things I’ve also been hearing, and it’s been written about is, you know, this summer is the coldest summer you’ve ever had. Yeah, because every summer, as we continue to warm until we can get to a place, which I’m hopeful of where we can pause, you know, this continual heating of the planet, it’s going to take a lot of work. But you know, it’s already been proven that we can do it, Paul Hawken in Drawdown and in his new book Regeneration has shown that we can actually pause it, we can reverse climate change, but we all have to get on board.
But, you know, even when I was in Bend, Oregon last year, and the whole state of Oregon was on fire, and it was 93, to 108. And Greg, and I just had a conversation, and he had just come back from Washington, where there were fires and smoke. And so, you know, I basically took Bend off my summer travel spot, because I, I couldn’t, I couldn’t live and flourish in those temperatures. And I actually see it as the new norm. Kind of like what you’re saying, you know, we’ve talked about these mega storms, these mega fires that happen pretty regularly now in California and on the west coast, but I don’t think they’re a fluke anymore. They are going on for years, unfortunately.
Brian Richter 26:32
That’s right. Yeah, it is. It’s a hard pill to swallow. But it is kind of normal, that life is going to be different now going forward. And you know, and it’s a real, it’s having it’s having really, really terrible consequences, because to your point, Carley, that do, we actually have the knowledge, the technologies, the money to deal with these kinds of problems? Whether it’s to arrest climate change, or whether it’s to avoid water shortages. We know how to do that. This is a point that Greg brought out in your last interview as well, we know how to solve those problems.
The problem is that human beings seem to be innately incapable of responding at the scale and the pace necessary to deal with these problems. It’s a very unfortunate, from my 40 years of working in 47 countries around the world, I saw this just happening everywhere that people don’t respond to a natural resource calamity, shortage of water, pollution of water, until it gets so bad that it’s causing terrible, terrible problems, both for people as well as for the natural environment. And that’s extremely unfortunate, it’s extremely unfortunate that we can’t be a little bit more proactive. So let’s just take one, you know, one quick example, in the Colorado River system in the Western United States, in the 1950s, we had practically dried up the entire river system because of our use.
Okay. Now, you would think that the people in charge, the political leaders, the water managers would have said, you know, we better be careful about how much extra use of the water we’re going to allow. Because if we’re already using up the whole river, we could be in really serious trouble if we keep letting you know the need for the water grow. But no constraints were placed on it. There was no limit I talked about in the book, a cap, the concept of a cap. And that just says, you know, here’s the reliable water volume that you could safely sustainably use year after year. And you don’t want to go more than that. Or you start to have to face some really, really serious problems.
But the Colorado River just continued people just they just continued to more people came in more water got used more industries, you know, became dependent upon that water supply, more farms became dependent upon that water supply, to the point where now Carley,
we’re using more water on average each year, about 20% More water on average every year, then comes down the Colorado River system. And the only way that we can do that is because
up until the turn of the century up until about 2000 there was enough water going down the river. And we had built some really gigantic reservoirs, particularly the two biggest reservoirs in America, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. And they hold that together, you know, they hold nearly four years worth of the entire flow of the Colorado River system.
So when we got into this period after 2000, which is the beginning of the 22 year mega drought that I was referring to a moment ago, all of a sudden, we’re now in three out of four years, we’re using more water than came down the river. And the reason we’ve been able to persist with that behavior for as long as we have is we just keep taking more water out of those reservoirs.
It’s like overspending your checking account and going into your savings account to replenish it. And so we continue to do that. Now those two reservoirs are between two thirds and three quarters empty.
And this year is looking like another terrible year for runoff in the Colorado River system. And so we’re getting closer and closer to the brink, we’re actually getting closer and closer to drying up the two largest reservoirs in the United States. So and, you know, and arguably, I don’t think there’s, I don’t think there’s anybody in the science community or in the conservation community that would, that would, that would disagree with my statement that what’s being done in response is nowhere near the scale and the pace necessary to prevent this disaster from unfolding.
It’s, it’s excruciatingly frustrating for somebody like me, who spent 40 years of my life, studying these issues, learning about ways to try to avoid catastrophe, learning a ways to better manage water so that you avoid water scarcity to see this unfolding in the river system that I grew up dependent upon, is terribly gut wrenching.
Carley Hauck 32:14
Thank you for sharing that. Yeah. I’m just gonna pause for everyone to listen to that. Yeah. And so, you know, I agree with you. I’ve been brought in to create a lot of change within leadership within companies. And the only reason that I get called in is because there’s enough suffering, and they’ve hit, you know, a wall of like, we can’t, we can’t continue to do it this way anymore. You know, these departments aren’t getting along, they’re not talking to each other. It’s having, you know, huge impacts on retention on the culture, people are burned out, there’s mental health, you know, whatever. I mean, we look at even the great reset that’s happening in companies, people have had it. No, we’re at this, we got to create a new foundation of work, a new world.
I mean, I really see this moment in time. Just we have to reset everything, including our consumption practices, whether that’s, we’re eating too much meat, and all that water is going toward livestock and agriculture, like we I mean, it’s all connected, and I’d see it, but I agree with you. Oftentimes, we have to hit a certain level of suffering before we’re ready to change. And that’s one of the reasons I’m having you on the podcast. It’s one of the reasons I wrote my book. It’s one of the reasons you wrote yours. It’s like, let’s bring education awareness. Now, before, before we have to really deal with catastrophe was a word that you used. And so, when I even think about being in San Diego, it’s beautiful down there. They have tons of farmers markets, right? It’s paradise. But it’s not because water is not going to be very sustainable. I don’t even know where they’re getting a lot of that water from right now. It’s coming from the reservoir. It sounds like.
Brian Richter 34:09
Yes. Well, and so Carley, I wanted to just give emphasis to something the way that you said it, that unfortunately, the moment of breakthrough is when people say we can’t keep on going the way that we’re going. Right? We just can’t keep doing this. It’s sort of like when they finally realize that things are breaking apart, you know, that they can see the future and it’s dark, it’s not good. That’s when you have that moment. And that’s why, you know, there’s this off using oft used phrase, you know, some attributed to, you know, to Confucius about, you know, in crisis is opportunity. Right, but, but what we’re saying is it’s unfortunate that the crisis has to get so accentuated before those opportunities. Use that awareness, that willingness to say we can’t keep doing this the same anymore becomes available.
So let’s talk a little bit about San Diego.
Carley Hauck 35:16
And then let’s talk about Texas because so many people have moved to Texas. In some ways, it’s a good thing they’re moving to Texas because they’re moving out of the west where we’re running out of water. So it’s going to take some of the pressure of the water needs off of the western states. Because yes, now in Texas, but then how do we protect Texas?
Brian Richter 35:36
Yes, and it’s unfortunately, they’re going from one dry place, or one place that has water problems and moving to one that’s got them as well, unfortunately.
So there’s a couple things happening in California, in Southern California that I think are really important. So one is that they have become excellent at the practice of water conservation.
So we’re just finishing up an exhaustive study of the 30 largest water utilities that use the Colorado River system, including San Diego, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque, and so on and so forth.
And the fascinating thing, Carley, is that over the last two decades, while the populations have grown substantially, maybe by as much as a third, across those cities, they’ve been actually actually able to lower their total water use by something like a quarter. That is miraculous success. Okay. So as you know, because you’ve read my Chasing Water book, I put water conservation sort of in a league of its own, because it is so critically important to addressing these problems that you’re talking about. So the fact that these cities have become very good at Water conservation is a good thing.
They continue to do better. And that gives me some optimism, they can continue to push water conservation, and get down to their water needs lower and lower and lower.
Carley Hauck 37:32
I just want to pause this here, just briefly, just to give California a little a little, you know, woot-woot since I wanted to come back. In January, they have basically input a statewide composting program, which is going to help us you know, regenerate water, it’s also going to regenerate the soil, it’s going to take the carbon out of the atmosphere, put it in the soil, not in the water, not in the ocean. But even just where I am in the Bay Area. There are so many electric cars, you know, there’s so many I hear them all over there. And then there’s signs everywhere of severe drought, please conserve water. So you know, those messages make impact. I think they’re saying if you see something seven times in marketing, then you take action. They’re everywhere.
Brian Richter 38:22
Yes. Yeah, that’s really good. It is really, really important to communicate that. So that we can do better. Well, yes, they can continue to do better. And there are some new water management strategies that are making a difference.
One in particular, is reusing or recycling water after we’ve used it.
Carley Hauck 38:50
Okay, so a gray water system, correct?
Brian Richter 38:52
Yeah, yeah, but but even even in a larger, you know, maybe even what you might call an industrial scale. So, this way to think about it, you take a shower, all that water, you know, pretty much all of the water goes down the drain, some of it evaporates off steam, and some of it ends up on your towel, but most of it goes right down the drain.
Historically, we would then, if you’re in one of those southern California cities like San Diego, that water would have gone down the drain out to a water treatment plant to take some of the impurities out of it and then got flushed out into the ocean. Okay. Now though, this concept of reuse and recycling means that after goes down the drain, they then clean it up to a very, very high level of purity and they’re able to put it back into the water supply system.
So you have this reuse and recycling of the water taking place and requires them to not have to continually go back to the river or to go to the underground aquifer for more and more water all the time so that reuse and recycling is a very very big and growing part of sustainable water management now.
The other one that I think there are a couple of others that are worth mentioning. One is what we call in urban areas stormwater capture. So you think about all the water, all the rainfall that falls on the roofs and on the parking lots and runs down the street and gets into the gutter. And that water to you know, historically would get flushed into some waterway and end up out in the ocean. If you’re in a place like San Diego, they’re now figuring out how to capture that water and clean it up and put it into the water supply. So they call that stormwater capture.
And then the other one is, we talked about this a little bit before the recording is desalination.
So desalination is going to expand considerably. Presently, it makes up less than 2% of the world’s water supply. And the reason, the primary reason, that it’s not a big part of our water supply yet. So just for your listeners, desalination means the salting, which means taking the salt out of salty water, the easiest way to think about it is ocean water. You bring in ocean water, you take the salt out of it, you turn it into freshwater, and you can put it in your water supply system. That process is called desalination.
But the primary reason we’re not using it very much is because it becomes very expensive. Because that process of taking the salt out of the salty water requires a lot of energy and the energy costs a lot of money. And that makes the water perhaps 10 times more expensive than other sources of water. That’s been the primary limiting factor. But there are other big concerns that have to be dealt with. And one of them is in that process of removing the salt. from let’s say ocean water, you end up with a half a gallon. So you take one gallon of ocean water, you end up with a half a gallon of fresh water and half a gallon of super concentrated what’s called brine, briny solution. Okay, super, super concentrated salt, they then have to figure out some safe way to dispose of that very briny salt, well, salt, concentrated salt. And there are ways of doing it safely. But it can be difficult, and it can also be expensive to do it well. And so that’s another inhibitor on the expansion of desalination technology.
But anyway, those are some of the ways that these cities are addressing some of these problems.
Carley Hauck 42:52
Can I ask you a question about desalination, because I hear that’s a possibility to bring more water, but there’s actually a plant that is being constructed. I think they’ve gotten permits.
And it’s, it’s similar to the Poseidon Carlsbad plant, which is, you know, very close to San Diego, since we’re talking about San Diego, and that has been operating since 2015. And apparently produces about 50 million gallons of drinking water. So that’s about 10% of the San Diego county’s water demand. But they’re trying to create another one near the Huntington Beach.
And I mean, from what I’ve read about it, the environmentalists are just saying it wreaks havoc on marine life. And it just doesn’t seem like an environmentally responsible way. Like it’s, you know, it takes larvae and plankton and kit a fish are killed. And I just, there’s so many other things that are being harmed in the process of creating these plants, not to mention their billions of dollars. I’m just wondering, can we increase our efforts towards other solutions and such salinization? And I hear you’re saying, you know, it’s one of the one of the things that’s going to be increased?
Brian Richter 44:22
Yes. So, Carley, the most important argument against it is just what you just said, we should first use the other readily available solutions to their maximum potential. Okay. Water conservation is by far and away, the least expensive, safest, reliable, sustainable way of dealing with a water shortage challenge. Okay.
So in my book, one of my seven principles is to use water conservation to its absolute maximum potential. For that reason, I think, almost everywhere there is an argument to be made to the proponents of other technologies, like desalination proved to us that you’ve maximized the potential of water conservation first. And once you can credibly prove that to us, then we can have a conversation about the other alternatives. Okay. So that’s really, really important. Now. You know, there are places in the world where you know, where they’re at that crux point, Carley. Israel is the one that comes immediately to mind. They are by far and away the most water conservative country on the planet. They push water conservation in homes and businesses and farms more successfully than any other country.
Carley Hauck 46:01
This is Australia, correct?
Brian Richter 46:02
Carley Hauck 46:07
One of the leaders in my book has a water sanitation service. And he actually started that when he was in Tel Aviv. So there you go.
Brian Richter 46:18
Yeah, there you go. So there’s a lot to be learned. Another great book was written by a guy named Seth Segal, he wrote a book called Let There Be Water. And he really chronicles the evolution, the chronology of what Israel has gone through with their water management. And, you know, they’re to a point Carley where if they want to allow their population and their economies to grow, and they’ve pushed water conservation to the max, and they’ve also, by the way, are pushing water reuse water recycling to the max, then, you know, they can make one of the more compelling arguments that, that they’re going to use desalination, you know, to enable them to continue to grow their population in their economy.
So, but there, but there are, you know, I would be hard pressed to name another place in the world where they could make as strong of an argument as in Israel, you know, for going through that option.
Carley Hauck 47:28
So it sounds like we should look to Israel and model some of what they’re doing in the United States, but across the world.
Brian Richter 47:42
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. So in Israel, they use the desalinated water only in the cities. And then after the cities have used that water, they treat it and they reuse it out on the farms. And the farms are extremely conservative in how they use water. So it’s a pretty efficient system. There’s an awful lot to be learned by their example, because they’re doing it, you know, they’re, they’re pushing the level of water conservation in Israel is the gold standard.
Carley Hauck 48:08
Thank you. Well, let’s move a little bit to Texas, because so many people have moved to Texas in the past two years. And I was recently in Austin, last week visiting a friend and I was actually spending some time with John Mackey, who just stepped down from his CEO role of Whole Foods. And he and is wife Deborah, both of them have been very involved in environmental sustainability around Austin. But Deborah has been part of the Great Springs project, which is really trying to protect the aquifers, the Barton Springs, which is all around Austin.
And I couldn’t help but think about all the people that are moving to Austin. And how are we going to protect the water there, but not just Austin? Austin, I believe is going to be one of the, I think I have the stats somewhere. Let me pull this up really quick. It’s one of the fastest growing cities in Texas, but actually, Houston and Dallas and San Antonio are also really increasing in size.
So you know, you had said before, they’re moving from a dry area to another dry area. So what can we do as in preparation for the development that’s already happening there to make sure that what doesn’t happen out here happens there?
Brian Richter 49:38
Yes. So as it turns out, Austin is progressive in a lot of things, but they are very impressive in their water planning. And I even wrote a blog about this last year. Austin just completed a new 100 year water supply plan. Most cities at most they’ll look at the next 50 years, Austin decided we’re gonna look at a whole, you know, a whole 100 years ahead.
Carley Hauck 50:08
Brian Richter 50:09
Yay, Austin, they do deserve a shout out on this one, Carley. Absolutely.
Carley Hauck 50:17
And I want to read your article. And I’m sure listeners would, too, you’ll have to send it to me, and I’ll link it in the show notes.
Brian Richter 50:21
I sure will, I sure will. So they made some very appropriate projections about what climate change is going to do to their water supply, which is, ironically, another river called the Colorado River that flows right through the heart of Austin. The Colorado River, in Texas is used very, very heavily, arguably, too heavily, particularly during drought periods. So they made assumptions about how climate change is going to reduce the flow of the Colorado River, how climate change is going to reduce the natural replenishment of their underground aquifers, and conservative assumptions about how far they can push water conservation and those kinds of things.
And they arguably have put forth a 100 year water supply plan that looks like it balances out, even when I looked at it with a very critical eye, a very careful eye, it looks it looks like a good piece of work to me, I think it’s convincing that they’re going to be able to meet their growth, you know, provided the growth isn’t any any stronger than what they’re projecting in a water supply plan. But it looks like they might be able to do it. Now. I can’t say the same for the other Texas cities, you know, they’re there, they’re not in that place. And by the way, it’s one thing to put something down on paper and a plan, it’s another thing to try to implement it. So before we give Austin a full shout out, Carley, you know, the proof is in the pudding. Right? Let’s see how they do over the next 5 to 10 years. Because some of their goals are quite ambitious, and they’re gonna have to, they’re gonna have to move really, really fast in order to live
up to it.
Carley Hauck 52:05
There is massive growth happening right now. I mean, the estimations are that about 400 people a week are moving to Austin. And just being there, there’s not there’s not enough properties. So they’re having to actually move into the high rises, I can’t imagine how else they’re housing all these people.
Brian Richter 52:21
And I’d be willing to bet Carley, that whatever growth rate was, was forecast in that 100 year water supply plan, the last couple of years, probably just blew it. Because as you said, during the pandemic, there were a lot of people fleeing California, and one of the places they went was Texas, and a lot of went to Montana, you know, in other places, but they’re growing, they just got a big surge. And there’s some big companies like Tesla that are building new factories, you know, in, you know, outside of Austin as well. So they’re gonna need some more.
By the way, one of the really important things about good water planning is that you refresh it, you look at it again, on a regular basis. So, you know, they just signed, sealed and delivered the plan, I think last year, they’re going to need to look at it within the next five years and see whether or not they’re on track. Are they implementing the things they said they’re going to implement? Is the growth at the pace that they thought it was going to be? And, you know, and all of that.
Carley Hauck 53:20
Well, thank you for sharing more of that. So let’s move into the six solutions. And we’ve been talking about them quite a bit. So you talked about the six solutions to water scarcity, desalinization that we talked about. So this is kind of a last resort. You know, we have to be really focusing on water conservation. We have water importation, water storage, watershed management, and there’s one more missing, because that’s not six right? 1, 2, 3, 4. So is there one more than I’m leaving out?
Brian Richter 53:56
Yeah, water importation, desalinization, water recycling or water reuse, you know, must have been what as well?
Carley Hauck 54:05
Yes, I imagine. So you’ve already kind of spoken to that a bit. So which of these six do you want to go into in more depth? We’ve already talked a bit about water conservation. We could come back to that? Yeah. What do you think?
Brian Richter 54:20
Well, so let’s, let’s just explain a little bit more about a couple of the others just so that the listeners you know, understand what each of them mean. Okay. So, this concept of water importation is what it suggests: it’s importing water from some other place. So earlier I talked about, you know, your bathtub, your water supply comes from your local bathtub. But sometimes, and it’s important to us to not use the water in the bathtub faster than it’s being replenished. Okay. But one of the ways that you can artificially replenish your bathtub.
We already talked about desalination as one way we talked about stormwater capture is another water reuse is arguably another, you know, instead of letting it go down the drain, you just keep putting it back in the bathtub. But there’s also this concept of importing water from further away. It’s a strategy. It’s an idea that’s been used for 1000s of years.
Remember the Roman aqueducts. When the Roman towns were outgrowing their local water supply, their local bathtubs, they built these elegant engineering structures that could bring in water from another spring or another, another river at some distance 10s of miles away from the Roman town. That’s an idea that now has been taken to the extreme in many places in the world. California moves water from Northern California to Southern California. China’s completing what they call the South North water diversion project that basically moves water from the southern part of China to the northern part of China. We’re doing this, you know, we’ve been moving water around. And it is, it is a strategy for bolstering your bathtub, you know, for bringing more water in your bathtub.
But there’s two primary issues on it. One is it again, it takes a lot of energy to move water around. So imported water is expensive water. The other is that in today’s world, more and more places are becoming scarce in their available water, the people that live in those places need their available water supply, and they don’t want to see some other city or community coming in and sticking a straw in their water supply.
And so you have the potential of just spreading and worsening the water scarcity problem, if you’re trying to import water from a place that if it’s not water scarce, now, the loss of that water to the importing city might cause it to become a water scarce place. So that’s not really a good option, it can be used to some limited extent. For some minor fraction of your water supply, but it’s not one that you know, it’s certainly not one that I advocate for. Again, there are other much, much better ways of trying to bolster your water supply, or reduce how much water you need.
Carley Hauck 57:44
And then water storage. That’s another one.
Brian Richter 57:47
So water storage is really a temporary way of making more water available when you need it. So many places in the world, particularly the places where we grow food, have seasonality in terms of their available water, in terms of, think about it as rainfall. So there’s a wet season and there’s a dry season, typically, what reservoirs do is that they store up water during the wet season and they hold on to it so that we can use it during the dry season. So it’s not a long term way of increasing your water supply. It’s just a way of managing it on short timeframes, say from the dry season to the wet season. Maybe if you’ve got a really big reservoir, it can help go from a wet year to a dry year. But it’s not something that’s going to bolster your water supply for decades. And that’s really important to understand that one.
The last one that we haven’t touched on is you know, I called it watershed management. And basically the idea is that the amount of water that runs off of the landscape is dependent upon a number of things. It’s dependent upon what kind of soils are out there and how much water infiltrates or percolates into the soil. It’s also dependent upon what kind of vegetation is out there. Forest grasslands, crop fields. And you can actually change how much water runs off the landscape by changing in particular the vegetation that’s growing out there. Now, some places have been able to do this in a way that we might think of as a win-win.
So I’ll use the example of South Africa. So in South Africa, you know, maybe 100 years ago, they started importing a lot of trees from other places in the world. And particularly they started importing a lot of eucalyptus trees from Australia, into South Africa. It was for windbreaks and for erosion control purposes and that sort of thing, but those, those new trees that were introduced into South Africa took off, they started growing all over the place. They are what we refer to as an invasive species, it just invade.
Carley Hauck 1:00:15
There’s a lot in South Florida where I grew up. And there’s a lot of eucalyptus in the bay area here, too.
Brian Richter 1:00:20
Yes. And in San Diego where I grew up, yeah. So it turns out Carley, that those imported trees, those invasive eucalyptus started using a lot more water from the landscape, and had the effect of reducing how much water was running off the landscape and getting into their streams. So it decreased their water supply industry.
And so what they’re doing now, this is a great example of watershed management, because that unnatural non native vegetation is also not good habitat for the wildlife, the native wildlife there. So they are hiring particularly poor South Africans, giving them some employment opportunities, and hiring them to participate in programs to cut down those invasive eucalyptus trees. And they’re seeing very impressive results in terms of more water now flowing in their streams, something on the order of, you know, 20-25% in some of these places. So they’re improving the habitat for their need for wildlife, and increasing their water supply at the same time. And so that’s a great example of watershed management.
Carley Hauck 1:01:41
Thank you. Yeah, well, I could talk to you all day. Okay. But I’d like to kind of hone in on action steps for, for business and for the individual, you know, really focusing on water conservation. So, you know, for drier states, for example, you know, how can we really align our business operations? I don’t know, if you do any consulting? And I’m sure you did when you were working at the nature conservation. But, you know, for businesses, how can we really be mindful of how we’re using water for our products, or our supply chains?
But I’m also just, you know, I talk a lot about how we can reduce our consumption, and that that goes along with water that goes along with, you know, reducing meat and our reliance on agriculture, because that’s all taking water that’s taking more of our natural resources. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on those.
Brian Richter 1:02:50
Yeah, well, two, two thoughts come to mind with respect to businesses and corporate responsibility around water. One is that a lot of companies are doing this and I assisted, and Greg Koch was, you know, an example of one individual who I worked with very closely with him, he was at Coca Cola. And he was in charge of their water stewardship programs. He was one of these individuals within the corporate world, who was aware that the way that they use water could have consequences, or could be risky to the business, if water was becoming scarce, or if there was too much pollution occurring in the area. Being fully aware of all of those kinds of environmental consequences.
And that was one thing that, that I and a number of my colleagues worked closely with some of the largest corporations in the world, on walking them through this process of helping them to understand where their business operations were, where their supply chains were, and what was the water situation in those places. Because the first principle with them was, don’t be a contributor to a problem, okay? It’s not good for your, for your long term, business profitability. And it’s not good for your image, you know, in the communities, it’s, it’s, you know, it’s risky to be, you know, in those places, so you have to be aware of that. So that was the first step.
And, and then helping them to understand how they could reduce their water needs to the absolute maximum extent whether it was inside their factories inside a bottling plant, or whether it was out in the farm fields where they were producing sugar or other ingredients that go into the product. So, awareness first, where are you and are there problems there. Two, do everything you can to reduce your own influence on that.
But the other gigantic challenge for many of these companies right now Carley is because a lot of the places that these people have been operating in may have been okay for decades in the past. But now you’re in places like the Colorado River system, the Rio Grande, the Klamath Basin up in Oregon, the Central Valley in California could go on and on. And on the Snake River Basin in Idaho. These are places that where we’re now in a situation where we’re overusing the available water supply. We’re using it faster than it’s being replenished. Climate change is making less replenishment available. And we have to do something differently.
So we’re at that cathartic moment that we talked about a while ago, we have we can’t keep doing things, the way that we’ve been doing. It’s important for these big companies, particularly food and beverage producers, to really understand that reality that they may have been doing okay for for past decades, but the future is not good. And they need to think very carefully about whether they can continue to source their ingredients from supply chains that are going through these that are going through these water supply crises.
Now, one of the really interesting things that’s happening in the agricultural world right now currently, from my perspective, from the water perspective, is a conversation that’s emerging about, should we be growing something differently in this place, that uses a lot less water, and yet still provides economic viability for the farmers.
Carley Hauck 1:06:48
Like vertical farming?
Brian Richter 1:06:50
Vertical farming, but it can also be shifting the crops, you can go from a really water intensive crop, like alfalfa to something else that might use half as much water, you know, on each acre. And then, of course, this is all tied up with the other decisions about what foods are we demanding as a society? And are we demanding foods that require the production of, you know, in areas that are that are water scarce, or experiencing water pollution? So one of the things that’s going to be really important is for these corporations to participate in, facilitate and convene a conversation around, okay, if we’re all embracing the reality that something’s got to change, something’s got to give, then let’s have a conversation about where what we want are the future of agriculture to look like.
Carley Hauck 1:07:44
Right? Yeah, thank you. Well, there’s a lot of exciting things happening in food tech right now. And three of the leaders I highlight in the book are really trailblazers in bringing more plant based alternative proteins to market. Just might be a company you are familiar with. It’s called the just egg. And it’s made completely out of mung beans. Soybean requires a lot less water than a big chicken farm. I believe one egg is seven times the amount of water needs, then, for example, the just egg which is made completely from plant based protein, yes. So we also have to think about the plastic and all the packaging, like there’s, there’s certain water and production levels, but I’m imagining it’s still much less having, you know, these massive chicken farms, which, for one are treated very inhumanely. So I do feel like we’re we’re creating some different solutions. But as we’ve already talked about, it needed to happen a long time ago. So we’re, you know, we have a certain level of intensity and speed that needs to happen right now.
Brian Richter 1:08:56
Exactly. Exactly. Yep.
Carley Hauck 1:09:01
Well, in our parting question, what are some things that individuals could do just just like after we get off the call after they get off the call today, for example, you know, if they’re trying to understand their water use, and their water consumption, you have a lot of great questions that you talk about in your water conservation section of the book.
And so I mean, even just some of the questions I was trying to answer for myself and I and I couldn’t, for example, let’s see, hear some are there certain times of the year or certain years during which there’s insufficient water available for your withdrawal needs in the vicinity of your water use? Who is withdrawing and using the greatest volumes of water? Can you or other water users reduce water withdrawals by implementing more efficient ways to use water?
I mean, some of these I can answer for myself, I’m being silly but some people may not know how to do this. And so obviously, we have to look to our cities and even understand our aquifers, overuse, like, how do we learn that information? And how do we be a voice in our communities in our states? If water is not being utilized responsibly, I would like to inspire people to speak up.
Brian Richter 1:10:21
Yes, yes. At the risk of sounding self promotional, but I wrote the I wrote the book out of a genuine feeling of a service.
Carley Hauck 1:10:34
It’s an awesome book, plug the book I have right here. I love it. I’ve already shared it with a few people.
Brian Richter 1:10:40
I did not write it to make money, I genuinely wrote it to try to help educate people. At a very basic level, I kept thinking, how can I say every single sentence in the simplest way possible. And so I don’t assume that you know anything about water going into it. But the book can help you not only to understand some things about water, but also help you to understand what some of the questions are that you should be asking of yourself, or asking of your water provider.
In terms of some of the questions that you just mentioned, if you live in a city, it’s a good idea to figure out who provides your water, who sends your water in the pipes that comes out of your tap, you know, it’s not that hard to figure it out, you get a water bill, you know, if you, perhaps if you own your own home, or you’re renting, and get a water bill, and that tells you which company is cleaning the water and sending it to you, you know, in your home or business. And then, you know, you can go to their website, or you can just give them a call, and you can have a conversation with them about, hey, here’s some questions. I want to know, is my water source being used in a sustainable manner? Have you ever faced problems with water shortages? Have you ever faced problems with pollution? You know, just some really, really basic questions that will help to get you connected to arguably the most important resource in your life, right?
Yeah, if we’re suddenly going without water.
And so it’s really essential to just get that connection to know where it’s coming from. Whether the provider of that water is doing it in a responsible manner, if the water source is in trouble in some way, those kinds of questions are really, really important.
Carley Hauck 1:12:35
Or if it’s clean. It’s interesting, because when I was living in North Carolina, I actually was looking into how the water was being treated. And it’s so interesting, because a lot of people, you know, would talk about, oh, there’s fresh spring water. Well, the fresh spring water isn’t actually being treated, and it has lots of problems with it. I mean, people were having, what’s the word? What’s the bacteria?
Brian Richter 1:13:03
Carley Hauck 1:13:04
Yeah, thank you. But there were also a lot of additional chemicals that were being put in the water that were quite poisonous. That was not happening, where I was living in Oregon and in California. So, you know, again, it’s like, why is this happening when this water could be much cleaner? And I use a filtration system. But still, why are we putting these contaminants in the water doesn’t make any sense?
Brian Richter 1:13:30
Right, right. Yep. Yep. Well, we could do with a lot more ethical responsibility in the world. And we could do with a lot more awareness and learning. And so let’s all make it a personal challenge, to learn a little bit more about some of these things that affect our daily lives and then become informed citizens of the world.
Carley Hauck 1:13:55
And take wise action.
Brian Richter 1:13:57
Take wise actions. Absolutely.
Carley Hauck 1:13:59
Well, Brian, thank you for your time. Thank you for your service. Your students are very lucky to have you in in Charlottesville, correct?
Brian Richter 1:14:09
Yeah. So the University of Virginia.
Carley Hauck 1:14:11
Yeah, that’s a lovely, lovely town. I happen to get a chance to spend a week there so I can see why you live there. And the Shenandoah National Forest is so close and is really beautiful, right?
Brian Richter 1:14:25
That’s right. Well, Carley, thank you for doing this. Thank you for your service. This is really important to get the word out and to make people aware of where there’s some resources that are available to them.
Carley Hauck 1:14:31
And if people want to get in touch with you, I mean, obviously, we’ve talked about your book, you have a website, where would you like them to reach out to you?
Brian Richter 1:14:37
Yeah, definitely the website. So again, the blogs and a lot of you know videos and that sort of thing are there that’s sustainablewaters.org. So altogether, sustainablewaters (plural) dot org.
Carley Hauck 1:14:50
I’ll put a link in the show notes.
Brian Richter 1:14:52
There you go. Great.
Carley Hauck 1:14:54
Thank you, Brian, for your time and service to this important topic that impacts us all.
As you heard in the podcast, we need to solve water supply issues where they are with the water that we have. Brian pointed out that Israel is a great example. It’s a desert. Yet they have made smart decisions on where to use the little water that they have. They aren’t afraid to reuse water, they’ve invented drip irrigation. And interestingly, there are not golf courses or green lawns in front of every house that you might see in Arizona or Southern California.
When we’re running out of water for our basic needs. These are activities and systems that may need to be hospiced out in order to think about the long term effects of how we’re consuming for water and energy.
There are many links in the show notes that Brian and I speak about including a wonderful link to a BBC documentary that Brian was featured in with David Attenborough. They are here for you to learn to engage with and to take action. Additionally, desalination plants are a last resort environmentalists say desalinization decimates ocean life, costs too much money and energy and soon will be made obsolete by water recycling.
Currently, there is a desalination plant near Huntington Beach in Southern California. That is one of the most expensive alternatives to water brought in from the Colorado and Northern California. For those of you who care and or living in Southern California, please protest the Huntington Beach, California desalination plants. I have provided a link in the show notes for you to learn more. There are better alternatives that include water conservation such as repairing leaky pipes capturing stormwater runoff, and gray water recycling.
I am excited to see what actions we can take together to create a workplace and world that works for everyone. The shine podcast has been self sponsored since May 2019. It is freely offered. And I would love and appreciate your support to be able to continue to foster wonderful interviews with inspiring leaders bringing the science tips and evidence base to these important topics. You can donate and support me by going to my Patreon page www.patreon.com/carleyhauck, the link is in the show notes. Your generosity helps so much.
If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with friends, family or colleagues. We’re all in this together and sharing is caring. I’m so excited about some of the additional interviews coming up on the SHINE podcast. So stay tuned and until we meet again, be the light and shine the light.