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Democratized, distributed and digital: 2019 will be transformative for water

Awareness and action are no longer the sole domain of insiders and industry professionals.

It’s that time of year to look forward to what may come in the world of water.

First, a macro view. I believe the greatest change for 2019 will be in how we view and value water. Progress in the past has tended to move at a snail’s pace but actually may have picked up speed in 2018. Water scarcity concerns of the type experienced by Cape Town, South Africa, and water quality matters such as those illustrated by the Flint, Michigan, crisis have drawn attention to systemic failures in how water is managed and delivered in both developed and emerging economies.

The change is becoming more noticeable as the public sector implements changes in public policy to address water risks and climate risks. Two examples to emerge from California are The Open and Transparent Water Data Act and The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (PDF) (SGMA). Initiatives such as 100 Resilient Cities provide a roadmap and tools to address these risks. 

AB-1755 would require state agencies to "create, operate and maintain a statewide integrated water data platform that, among other things, would integrate existing water and ecological data information from multiple databases and provide data on completed water transfers and exchanges." Without data and actionable information, it is difficult if not impossible to manage water in a sustainable manner. 

The SGMA legislation creates a framework for sustainable, groundwater management, or put another way: "management and use of groundwater in a manner that can be maintained during the planning and implementation horizon without causing undesirable results." Further, "SGMA requires governments and water agencies of high and medium priority basins to halt overdraft and bring groundwater basins into balanced levels of pumping and recharge. Under SGMA, these basins should reach sustainability within 20 years of implementing their sustainability plans. For critically overdrafted basins, that will be 2040. For the remaining high and medium priority basins, 2042 is the deadline."

Another fundamental change is that awareness and, more important, actions are no longer the domain just of the water sector and water professionals.
Elsewhere, we will see where the Colorado River Basin winds up with regards to the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan: the seven basin states that depend on it for water supplies — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — have until Jan. 31 to develop and agree on a strategy. If they don’t, the federal government will intervene to deal with an anticipated shortage looming by 2020. 

How this unfolds is important nationally and globally because the situation provides insights as to how the public sector is adjusting (or not) to the reality of water stress. 

The economic importance of the Colorado River can’t be overstated: the Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming — equivalent to about 1/12 of the total U.S. domestic product. Clearly, the Colorado River’s contribution is important to the national economy. According to one analysis (PDF), is estimated that if 10 percent of the river’s water were unavailable, there would be a loss of $143 billion in economic activity and 1.6 million jobs in just one year. 

Perhaps the economic value (natural capital) of the Colorado River will sharpen the minds of those responsible for regulating its use — the private sector that depends upon the river for business growth and civil society.

We will have real progress only when civil society acknowledges that water is undervalued (or not valued), requires investment to ensure quantity and quality and is essential for economic development, business growth, ecosystems and social well-being. This pivot will require greater transparency in water supply, demand, public policy and a change in how we talk about water. In the future, the language might not refer to "the drought" but instead might center on "overallocation" or the impacts of climate change. 

I believe we are seeing this pivot, and I expect that 2019 will be an important year when it comes to finally valuing water.

Now to a more granular trend I’m focused on for 2019: democratized, distributed and digital water.

Certainly, technology alone is not the answer to addressing 21st century water challenges. Equally, if not more important, innovation is urgently needed in public policy, financing, business models and partnerships. However, significant technology shifts are transforming water and enabling innovation in these other areas.

For example, new sources of water supply and access to data and actionable information are moving us toward democratization and distributed water systems. What I mean by this is that we are in the process of bypassing centralized water infrastructure and regulatory agencies in not only delivering water but also in providing data and actionable information. 

Schemes for delivering water through on- and off-grid air moisture-capture systems such as those designed by Water-Gen and Zero Mass Water; or for providing digital solutions (data and actionable information) on water quantity and quality to consumers through digital services such as those offered by Conservation Labs and spout are within reach or currently commercially available.

Distributed water treatment systems such as those sold by Organica and Fluence, to name a few, have emerged as viable alternatives to centralized options. Combine on- and off-grid air moisture-capture technologies with these water treatment systems, and we now have a broader menu of technology options for communities and cities. These distributed systems also factor into building 21st-century resilient cities. 

2019 will be an important year when it comes to finally valuing water.
A few other observations. While I still maintain that water stewardship has stalled, there are positive signs, such as the Alliance for Water Stewardship gaining traction and an increased focus on value and not just risk mitigation as drivers for investment in water stewardship and strategy, such as those explored in the WWF’s "Water Stewardship Revisited" report.

Another fundamental change is that awareness and, more important, actions are no longer the domain just of the water sector and water professionals — such as those involved with water-intensive industries, water and wastewater utilities, public water agencies and water NGOs.

This is a critically important shift.

Innovative partnerships will continue to bring in outsiders from the water sector to develop new businesses and technology solutions. Two to watch are the collaboration between techstars and the Nature Conservancy and the lab created by ABInBev’s innovation arm, ZX Ventures. These two partnerships are important to watch because they illustrate innovative partnerships between the tech startup community and an NGO (in the case of the former), and a global beverage company and an investment fund (the latter model.) Both strive to bring in entrepreneurs from outside the sustainability and water stakeholder groups.

I remain hopeful that 2019 will bring an acceleration in scaled solutions to water scarcity and poor quality in the United States and globally, and that digital water technologies will be transformative. 

Best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2019. Onward! 

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