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7 drought lessons from the West: 'It's all about the data'

Locked water spigot
Shutterstock Rich Lonardo
Locked water spigot in a California park

Will Sarni will be speaking at VERGE in San Jose, California, October 26 to 29.

The drought was front and center as leaders of the parched Western U.S. states came together to discuss how to mobilize their resources to combat water scarcity. 

That was the pressing question at the opening panel at the Western Governor’s Association annual meeting in June, in which I participated alongside 10 western governors. We explored the following seven recommendations from the WGA Drought Forum Report (PDF):

1. Data and analysis

Data on snowpack, streamflow and soil moisture is essential to understanding drought and its evolution. Although a great deal of information already exists, water managers could benefit from enhanced drought data collection and real-time analysis at a higher resolution.

2. Produced, reused and brackish water

Technologies exist to use produced, reused, recycled and brackish water — industrial, municipal and groundwater sources traditionally considered to be marginal or wastewater. Adoption of these technologies has been limited by inadequate data, regulatory obstacles, financial barriers, public attitudes and logistical uncertainties.

3. Forest health and soil stewardship

Better land management practices for forests and farmland may help to improve water availability and soil moisture retention. Employing these management strategies can help water resource managers and farmers make the most efficient use of the water they have.

4. Water conservation and efficiency

Public awareness of drought has drawn increased attention to water conservation strategies for municipal, industrial and agricultural purposes. Cities and farmers are implementing water-saving technologies and reducing water use to mitigate the effects of drought.

5. Infrastructure and investment

Infrastructure to store and convey water is crucial to drought management, but maintenance and expansion of that infrastructure is often difficult to fund. Westerners are looking for ways to make the most of existing infrastructure, while seeking creative solutions to develop new infrastructure with limited resources.

6. Working within institutional frameworks

Legal and regulatory frameworks sometimes can limit the ability of state, local and federal agencies to respond quickly to drought conditions, but many are working to create innovative, flexible policy solutions within existing legal structures.

7. Communication and collaboration

Communication among states, federal agencies, water providers, agricultural users and citizens is a crucial component of effective drought response. Open dialogue and information-sharing helps water users understand the challenges drought poses for other stakeholders, facilitating the opportunity for a unified response to drought.

More on data and analysis

It’s worth noting that the first of these focus areas center around data and analysis. Water is a 21st-century “wicked problem” and we need 21st-century data analytics solutions. This means making the right investments in water efficiency and reuse based upon our ability to quickly transform data into analysis, insights, decisions and actions.

While we also need better data and more real-time data on water quantity and quality, we also need to better use the data we currently have. There are too many instances where enterprises are not managing data with the more sophisticated data analytics tools available.

Using spreadsheets and presentation slides may have been adequate a short time ago but it is no longer enough. Demand for water is exceeding supply and we need to quickly respond to the “new normal.” It can only happen with better data analytics tools.

A more sophisticated analysis of current data is possible to evaluate trends and scenarios of water supply versus demand, identify actions to close any gap, allocate capital where it will have the greatest impact and return on investment and identify data needs. 

Water scarcity from the drought is unveiling the potential inadequacies in our current databases and analytical and visualization tools. However, we can’t be paralyzed by the need for more data. We just don’t have the luxury of time — we need to make better use of what we have to inform public policy and water stewardship strategies for the private sector.

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