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Conservation As A Critically Needed Water Supply Source

AUTHOR: David Kyler
REFERENCE: Proceedings of the 2001 Georgia Water Resources Conference, held March 26-27, 2001, at the University of Georgia. Kathryn J. Hatcher, editor, Institute Ecology, The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.

Abstract: Despite increasing controversy over water supply and water quality in Georgia, there is no state-mandated approach to conservation. Since three sectors (agriculture, power production, and industry) dominate water demand, using over 80% of the total (billions of gallons of water a year), even marginal improvements in water efficiency by these sectors could reap huge economic and environmental benefits. Yet, the state's emphasis on water conservation promotion is in domestic use, which has limited potential compared with uses for industry, agriculture, and power production. The feasibility of achieving such advancements is unknown, but given the costs and environmental risks of meeting accelerating water demand, comprehensive exploration and assessment of conservation alternatives is amply justified. The paper further develops this argument and proposes policy initiatives for achieving much needed water conservation measures in Georgia.

Surface water, ground water, and wetlands are interconnected resources that are vital to our ecosystems. There are many indications that these water resources are already being overused. For example, on the coast, by dedicating too much groundwater for one type of user (industry), we have greatly reduced the capacity of the Upper Floridan aquifer to provide potable drinking water for continued population growth. This increases the costs of providing water from other sources needed to sustain growth, while also jeopardizing aquatic and marine ecosystems that suffer from the loss of fresh water outflow from artesian wells, especially during drought.

Similarly, the dominance of power production as a user of surface water is staggering - at least half of Georgia's non-agricultural water use is attributable to this single purpose. And a substantial portion of this amount is 'consumptive' in that it is converted to steam, most of which is not returned to the same watershed or aquifer system. Because such huge amounts are pumped for industry and energy production, if more efficient methods could reduce water use by just 10%, enough water would be saved to support projected population growth for years, without over-exploiting water resources, thereby avoiding risks to aquatic life, as well as the health and jobs of state citizens.

Further, it is quite likely that the cost of achieving these conservation improvements would be substantially less than testing, tapping, and treating water from other sources, like deep aquifers. Given these facts, the absence of a strong commitment to water conservation in state policy is conspicuously troubling. Significant amounts of state funding have been dedicated to needed research on the Floridan aquifer, developing criteria for surface water pollution discharge, and other aspects of water resource management. Yet, to date, state-sponsored conservation efforts have been limited to education promoting more responsible water use, primarily targeted at residential (domestic) users, a relatively small segment of total water demand.

There has been no comprehensive study of water conservation alternatives, nor any analysis of the feasibility of achieving improved efficiency in water use by those sectors using the lion's share of our resources. Investment in even marginally upgraded processes for agriculture, industry and power producers could conceivably generate benefits far greater than any comparable policy intended to help meet growing water demands. Due to their massive combined demand, even modest improvements in the efficiency of water use in these sectors would achieve far more effective results than major conservation advancements by other user groups. Based on the most recent state data available, a 10% advance in efficiency by power companies and industry would be equivalent to at least a 40% improvement by municipal, residential and commercial users.

Some Examples Cooling water is needed in large quantities for conventional power generation methods (fossil and nuclear fuels) and for many industrial processes. For years, hybrid cooling systems have been available, which combine water and air to extract waste heat, thereby reducing water needed for cooling. Also potentially feasible are multiple-stage water recycling processes that recapture and filter water after it has been used in industrial operations.

In agriculture, much progress has been made with drip irrigation, but the type of equipment used in tilling, planting, and harvesting limits the application of this method. Like all such technology, new processes with improved water efficiency can have considerable initial cost for capital and set-up. The degree to which it is feasible to use such technology depends on several parameters that are dynamic and often case-specific. Some of these variables are subject to the influence of public policy, which can therefore be used to induce or accelerate improvements in the efficiency of water use.

Consider the following:
  • Cost of capital (interest) -
    Lower interest rates favor borrowing to invest in new equipment IF market and public incentives are sufficient.
  • Value of water and aquatic resources -
    Placing appropriate priority on the public value of water resources would justify state incentives for reducing water use. Tax rebates for conservation or a tax surcharge penalizing excessive use are just two examples. If policy makers are resolute in their commitment to improving water-conservation efficiency, they could adopt a combination of incentives, including outright subsidy through grants, or a combination of selective grants, loans and tax incentives.
  • Lifespan of new equipment -
    The longer new equipment will last, the less the annualized cost of installing it, and the greater its budget advantage. Due to continually changing technology, however, determining equipment lifespan may be complicated by the foreseeable emergence of still newer, better alternatives that, in effect, may make today's preferred improvements prematurely obsolete. Once again, public policy could be structured to provide incentives to industry for upgrading when public benefits justify it, based on routine periodic reassessment of feasibility.
  • Adaptability of existing equipment (retrofitting) -
    Some equipment lends itself to being modified to achieve improved water efficiency at a much lower cost than replacing it altogether. This may prove to be an acceptable intermediate option to attain improvements sooner without the cost burden of major investments in complete retooling. State tax policy, grants, and loans could be used to promote such conversions.
  • Incentives for switching to new processes -
    Both profits and public policies can induce desired results by providing the means to pay for upgraded technology that reduces water use. But without appropriate public policy, it is unlikely that management would give priority to re-investing profits to reduce water use.
  • Caution on water pricing -
    Although water pricing could be used to encourage investment in water conservation, this is an area of policy that could lead to disastrously undesired outcomes. Unless water use (or withdrawal) fees are explicitly tied to specific user segments, each having strictly controlled volume limits, such policy could create unintended advantage for those having greatest ability to pay, placing unfair burden on those of modest income.
An Ultimate Solution Based on the experience of other states and nations, we are amply justified in pushing for aggressive state policy supporting alternative energy generation methods, which use little if any water. By replacing steam-generation plants with wind and solar technology, we could drastically reduce water demand. At the same time, we would be improving air quality by proportionate reductions in various pollutants (including mercury and sources of acid rain) as well as greenhouse gases.

Moreover, this conversion would be a boon for economic activity, further justifying state policy in its support. In the meantime, Georgia should adopt a policy of denying permits for speculative (≥merchant≤) power plants, which are primarily intended to serve the energy needs of other states and the profit motives of outside investors. Such projects use huge amounts of Georgia's increasingly scarce water resources, pollute our air, and generate only a handful of jobs.

As a general policy, Georgia must reconsider how it allocates natural resources to serve the public interest. We can no longer afford to make erroneous assumptions about the benefits of private investments without more discerning assessment of their true costs and benefits to Georgia citizens. Such evaluation is both fiscally and environmentally responsible, and essential to our state's future.

Conclusions

Until a comprehensive assessment is completed, it is impossible to accurately predict the potential public benefit that is feasible by reducing water use in agriculture, industry and energy production. More investigation must be done to evaluate the technical alternatives, their costs, and the most effective means to implement the desired changes though public policy.

At the very least it seems evident that additional permitting for major water withdrawals should be withheld until this investigation is carried out. We need to get smarter about water management in Georgia - sooner rather than later. This makes good sense for both our environment and economy.

Steps needed to achieve this include:
  • Adopting and enforcing an aggressive water conservation policy by requiring applicants to demonstrate how they will improve water-use efficiency through implementation of conservation plans.*
  • Based on the results of a comprehensive statewide assessment of conservation feasibility by major user group, the state should adopt tax incentives, loans, and/or grants consistent with findings.
  • We must choose economic development options that are compatible with our natural environment while preserving our quality of life within the sustainable capacity of natural systems. To ensure that this happens we should adopt criteria for investing state loans and grants for job creation in ways that are environmentally responsible - as indicated by water use, water protection, and other dimensions of sustainability.

    *Conservation plans are adopted in the 24 counties that use the Floridan Aquifer, but EPD does not refer to them in making permitting decisions.
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