272 Multi-Benefit Resources

Managing the Unmeasured – Colorado River

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by Michael Cohen

Key Takeaways

  • Despite the severity of the current water crisis in the Colorado River and decades of management, research, and litigation, basic facts about the river, such as the exact number of people it supports , remain unknown.
  • A detailed accounting of where and how we use Colorado River water must be prioritized.


It’s all hands on deck for the Colorado River Basin. Nearing a quarter-century of drought (better described as a continuing shift to an ever-hotter and ever-drier climate), the most famous and important river in the West faces an existential crisis.

Seven months ago, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called on Colorado River water users to decrease their use by 15-30% — in one year. Without such extraordinary efforts, the two major Colorado River dams—Hoover and Glen Canyon—could lose their ability to produce hydropower in less than a year and a half. Even more concerning is that the continued decline of storage at Lake Powell could threaten the ability to pass water through Glen Canyon dam, diminishing flows through the iconic Grand Canyon and accelerating the decline of Lake Mead.

In response, farmers offer not to farm, cities pledge to conserve more water, and groundwater recharge operations forsake storing water underground, to compensate for the long-term overuse of supply, exacerbated by continuing decline of that supply. Simply put, every acre-foot of water matters to prevent the system from collapsing.  

One might think that because the Colorado River is one of the most tightly managed and scrutinized rivers on the planet, we would have a detailed account of how every acre-foot is used and accounted for, how many people and users rely on the river, and where those uses take place. Yet, despite the severity of the current crisis and decades of management and research and litigation, basic facts about the river and the basin remain unknown, challenging efforts to better manage the system and avert the imminent crisis.

Water Use

Surprisingly, we do not know how much Colorado River water is used each year, especially in the Upper Basin. In the Lower Basin, Reclamation carefully measures releases from Hoover Dam and withdrawals to the Las Vegas metropolitan area – as well as diversion and delivery points downstream – but generally estimates unmeasured return flows[1]  “by multiplying a water user’s diversion by an unmeasured return flow factor.” The volume of unmeasured return flows is only about four percent of total Lower Basin consumptive use but exceeds Nevada’s total use. The actual error here is likely very small, but it does suggest that the precision of Lower Basin consumptive use records exceeds their accuracy.

While the annual Lower Basin Decree Accounting reports enjoy broad credibility, Upper Basin water use accounting is much more challenging and less accepted. As Reclamation notes in its periodic Consumptive Uses and Losses report, the reliability of Upper Basin water use and loss estimates “is affected by the availability of data and the current capabilities of data evaluation.” Reclamation also notes that “Quantitative measurements of water use were used wherever available, but the majority of the basin water use was theoretically calculated. In the tributary areas of the basin, records of diversions and return flows are not complete enough to allow direct calculation of consumptive water use.” The Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) notes, “Historically, the Upper Division States (UT, CO, WY, and NM) have used multiple methods to estimate water use for irrigation, but these estimates were not consistent at an interstate scale that would be helpful to water managers and decision-makers, nor could the data be generated in a timely manner.” These sentiments reflect long-standing challenges to estimating flows past hundreds of different diversion points, as well as surface and sub-surface return flows. In June, the UCRC adopted a new method to measure agricultural consumptive water use in the Upper Basin.

Uncertainty about actual Upper Basin water use challenges efforts to quantify annual shortages. For example, Upper Basin decision-makers claim to have suffered from almost one million acre-feet (MAF) of shortages in 2021. But determining exactly where those shortages occurred, by how much, and the economic impacts of such shortages, is difficult. For example, the State of Colorado’s Division 5 (the Colorado River headwaters sub-basin) recorded 234 “administrative calls” (curtailments) in 2021, but the records do not include the volumes associated with these calls or whether those curtailed were able to divert their requested water at some later time.

Water Supply

Many agencies estimate Colorado River flows and total water supply for the system, ranging from short and long-term snowpack and precipitation to “natural flows” and ‘’unregulated inflows.” One federal agency’s unregulated inflow forecasts account for physical factors such as precipitation and soil moisture and reservoir impacts (such as evaporation and change in storage) and measured (but not unmeasured) diversions, while Reclamation’s “unregulated inflows” account for both measured and unmeasured diversions. Reclamation estimates “natural flows” – the conventional measure of Colorado River annual water supply – based on Water Use (see discussion above) and its unregulated inflow forecasts, adding an element of uncertainty. Conventionally, Colorado River flows reflect an annual volume at Lee Ferry – the dividing point between the Upper and Lower basins, more than 765 river miles upstream from where the river used to meet the sea. Between Lee Ferry and Imperial Dam (630 river miles downstream), more than 1.2 MAF of “natural flows” would contribute to the river’s total discharge. That is, discussions about Colorado River supply typically ignore Lower Basin inflows that add another ten percent or so to the Lee Ferry volume – flow that is all consumed before the river reaches the sea.

Tribal Water Rights

The Colorado River basin is home to 30 federally recognized tribes, who have more than 3.2 MAF of recognized water rights. Twelve of the tribes still have unresolved water rights claims within the basin that could increase total settled tribal water rights well beyond 3.6 MAF. Recognition of unresolved water rights is long overdue and challenges efforts to estimate the location of future demands and uses as tribes develop their water rights and/or lease them to other users, again leading to significant uncertainty for Basin decision-makers.

Irrigated Acres

Colorado River basin water irrigates between 5 and 5.7 million acres of farm and ranch land – methods for measuring such acreage vary, and actual irrigated acreage changes year to year based on market conditions and water availability. A little more than half of the irrigated acreage exists within the hydrologic basin (though not within the institutional basin – see Basin  Boundaries below). While new methods will improve understanding of both the extent of irrigated acreage and the amount of water used, we still don’t have a credible number for the number of acres irrigated within the basin, acres irrigated with Colorado River water that lie outside the basin, or the acreages of different crops. As we noted in our 2013 report, “the various agencies that report water and land use information for the Colorado River basin use a host of different terms that are often not comparable. The frequency and timing of many of these measurements are rarely synchronized.”  It is important to be explicit here—for the sector that uses 70-80% of the Colorado River’s supply, we do not have a detailed understanding of just how many acres of agricultural land are irrigated with that water. As far as we know, no one has attempted another comprehensive accounting of irrigated acreage since our 2013 report, which seems long overdue.


Conventionally, 40 million people use Colorado River water, an estimate from a 2012 report. But a decade later, we’ve learned that nearly seven million people in Southern California thought to use Colorado River water lack any physical connection to the river – the plumbing simply doesn’t exist to deliver water to them. On the other hand, the basin is home to some of the fastest-growing cities in the country – the combined populations of Arizona and the Las Vegas metropolitan area grew by almost 2 million people from 2010 to 2020. The conventional population estimates also mix direct use of Colorado River water (and its tributaries) with groundwater pumped from the basin. How many people actually use Colorado River water (or more accurately, water from the Colorado River basin)? Given the significant growth experienced and projected, we should know this number and we don’t. But it’s much less than 40 million.

Basin Boundaries

Scope – boundaries – matter as we measure and attempt to manage elements such as water use, exports, and water demands. Reclamation’s traditional map of the Colorado River basin excludes a large portion of the river’s former delta and the watershed draining to that delta, because it is a terminal basin that does not return flows to the river, even though the river flowed there repeatedly via gravity over millennia. This means that the basin’s institutional and hydrologic boundaries are not the same and means that millions of acre-feet of water that flow via gravity to the former delta are considered “exports” from the system – and that hundreds of thousands of acres irrigated with this water are deemed outside of the basin.

Boundaries also confound population estimates, because exports to Southern California and Wasatch Front and Front Range water agency service areas have often been counted as contributing to the use of their total service area populations, even if the plumbing doesn’t exist to deliver that water or if only a few molecules of basin water actually enter the service area. (For more discussion on the importance of boundaries see this blog post.)

Operational Neutrality

Reclamation’s August 24-month study “most probable” projection of Lake Mead’s December elevation determines the shortage tier for Lower Basin contractors and for deliveries to Mexico and helps set the operational tier for coordinated reservoir operations for the following calendar year. The 24-month studies show the projected physical elevations at each reservoir. In 2022, the August 24-month study “most probable” projection put Lake Mead’s December elevation at 1040.78’, which would have triggered 0.2 MAF of reductions in California and more than a MAF of total reductions in the Lower Basin and Mexico.

However, because Interior took actions to protect the elevation of Lake Powell and reduced releases from Glen Canyon Dam in 2022 by 0.48 MAF, the projected physical elevation at Lake Mead no longer determines the shortage tier. Instead, Reclamation now uses a separate and unpublished projected elevation, modeling the elevation of Lake Mead “as if” the 0.48 MAF had been delivered (“The reduction of releases from Glen Canyon Dam in water year 2022 (resulting in increased storage in Lake Powell) will not affect future operating determinations and will be accounted for “as if” this volume of water had been delivered to Lake Mead”), to determine shortage tiers and reservoir operations. That is, what is actually measured at Lake Mead is no longer the value that determines actual management and operations. Until the 24-month studies include a new column showing “operationally neutral” elevations, they won’t reflect future shortage triggers for Lake Mead.


What does this all mean? It means that as we respond to the declining reservoirs and risks of falling below power pool in the next year and a half, decision-makers won’t be armed with accurate or precise data on where and how we can reduce demands, especially in the Upper Basin. It may be difficult to identify just how we can get to the 15-30% reduction in uses as demanded by Reclamation if we don’t know exactly how much water we’re using now. Every acre-foot matters. That demands a detailed accounting of where and how we use Colorado River water. 

[1] Unmeasured return flows are defined as “Mainstream water that has been diverted and which flows back to the Colorado River or the Colorado River Aquifer as measured or unmeasured flow and is available for use in the United States or in satisfaction of the Mexican Treaty Obligation”.

Water Advances on Global Climate Agenda at COP27  

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Water Advances on Global Climate Agenda at COP27  
Pacific Institute featured at COP for water resilience thought leadership, innovative tools 

Dr. Amanda Bielawski & Jason Morrison


Key takeaways: 

  • For the first time, water was visible in the final UN Climate Summit COP declaration
  • Water solutions play a pivotal role in both climate mitigation and adaptation, with attention moving more toward adaptation at COP27. 
  • The transformative change and radical collaboration needed are at the heart of the Pacific Institute’s work advancing water resilience. 


As the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) closed in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, the science was grim. At the same time, water management’s role in climate mitigation and adaptation—the heart of the Pacific Institute’s work—was more widely recognized than ever before.  

Photo: UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell shared opening remarks at COP27. Photo credit: UN Climate Change (COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh to Focus on Delivering on the Promises of Paris | UNFCCC) 

Climate mitigation progress falls short, placing more emphasis on adaptation 

COP27 closed with the stark recognition there may be no feasible path to reach the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree goal. New research finds the last eight years are projected to be the warmest eight on record. Climate mitigation efforts have simply not progressed quickly enough—with devastating impacts felt primarily through the water cycle in the form of intensifying flooding and drought. 

“United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres opened COP27 by acknowledging the world is approaching a tipping point—and urging a focus on rapid implementation of solutions: “The good news is that we know what to do and we have the financial and technological tools to get the job done . . . We need all hands on deck for faster, bolder climate action.”   

Photo: Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the opening of the ​​​​​​​Climate Implementation Summit at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. UNFCCC/Kiara Worth 

Water breaks new COP barriers 

While the water agenda rose in prominence during COP26 last year in Glasgow, it broke through new barriers this year at COP27. Visible in both the Blue Zone and Green Zone, water was recognized during negotiations as a powerful solution to address climate change both through mitigation and adaptation.  

Notably, this is the first time the final COP declaration directly acknowledged the critical role of water and its many co-benefits: 

“. . . Recognizing the critical role of protecting, conserving and restoring water systems and water-related ecosystems in delivering climate adaptation benefits and co-benefits, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards . . .” 

The final declaration also urged Parties to include water in adaptation plans: 

“. . . Emphasizes the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring water and water related ecosystems, including river basins, aquifers and lakes, and urges Parties to further integrate water into adaptation efforts . . .” 

Now in its second year, the Water and Climate Pavilion united more than 40 international organizations, as well as Indigenous leaders, youth, and academics—to advance water on the climate agenda. 

The Pacific Institute played a key role. Across more than a dozen sessions, many of them attended remotely, Pacific Institute colleagues shared water resilience thought leadership and innovative tools to build water resilience. 

Photo: Jason Morrison, Pacific Institute President and Head of the CEO Water Mandate, (left) pictured with Vania Paccagnan of CDP (right), discusses the role of corporate action to build water resilience at COP27.

If climate is the shark, water is the teeth 

To many, COP27 may feel like a far-off meeting. But, for millions of people around the world, decisions made during COP27—and decisions made by the public and private sector leaders every day of the year—will directly impact their personal lives and livelihoods. This is especially true through human interactions with water. As has been stated, “If climate is the shark, water is the teeth.” 

A growing swell of research—some of it conducted over the past 30-plus years by the Pacific Institute—is unpacking the specific relationships between climate change and the water cycle. The science is clear. Climate change is intensifying water-related disasters, such as floods and droughts, which have affected millions and cost billions this year alone.  


Photo 1: Aerial view of summer 2022 floods in the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan in Pakistan. Photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe. Photo 2: Lake Powel on August 16, 2017, (left) and on August 6, 2022 (right). Photo credit: NASA. Photo 3: © UNICEF/Kate Holt; Somali women and children stand outside temporary tents in the Dagahaley refugee camp near the Kenya-Somalia border. 

The evidence is visible before us:  

Climate change is projected to increase the severity and frequency of these sorts of droughts and floods even further into the future, compounding an already concerning water crisis.  

Transformation to water resilience—the heart of the Pacific Institute’s work 

During the run-up to COP27, Christiana Figueres, who led the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) when the 2015 Paris Agreement was adopted at COP21, called for a new mindset and radical collaboration across sectors. Figueres wrote: “One company or one government alone cannot make the kind of difference we need; the transformations must be systemic and exponential, and delivered with justice in mind.”  

This type of transformative change and radical collaboration are at the heart of the Pacific Institute’s work. 

In 2019, the Pacific Institute announced an organizational goal to “catalyze the transformation to water resilience in the face of climate change” by 2030. This forward-looking goal builds on more than 30 years of thought leadership on climate-water connections. Long before this connection was recognized in mainstream policy discussions, the Pacific Institute conducted early research, made early warnings, and proposed some of the earliest solutions. 

During the early 1990s, climate-water assessments were conducted both domestically and internationally—from the Bay Area of California to the Nile River Basin in Africa. In 1990, the Pacific Institute conducted one of the earliest assessments of sea-level rise impacts for the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2009, this analysis was expanded to cover the entire California coast, becoming a significant lever for policy change. 

Photo: Area of San Francisco Bay Threatened by a 1-meter Sea-Level Rise: Southern Portion. From 1990 Pacific Institute report. 

In advance of COP26 in Glasgow, the Pacific Institute launched its Water Resilience Issue Brief, calling on decisionmakers across the private and public sectors to rapidly scale solutions. Many solutions stem from what our colleague, Dr. Peter Gleick, Senior Fellow and Co-Founder of the Pacific Institute, describes as the “soft path” for water. This more-sustainable framework calls for decentralized infrastructure, innovative and efficient use of technology, the protection of ecosystems, and reversing the policy inertia historically focused on endlessly increasing water supplies. Some of the specific solutions include integrating nature-based solutions (NBS), which offer multiple co-benefits, as well as increasing inclusion of water efficiency and reuse approaches. Recent Pacific Institute research found water efficiency measures could reduce urban water use in California by up to 48 percent, while also playing a critical role in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  

Building an equitable movement powered by collective action  

At COP27 and beyond, the Pacific Institute is convening and equipping decisionmakers, including utilities, corporations, and public policymakers, to serve as key levers of change. In all cases, we call for equitable approaches that prioritize the most impacted stakeholders, especially frontline communities often disproportionately impacted by climate change, as well as the natural environment. 

During COP27, the Pacific Institute advanced this work during a wide range of sessions. Our colleague Dr. Peter Gleick provided an assessment of the integrated nature of water, climate, and food challenges for the Science, Technology, and Society session organized by the Japanese government.    

Many sessions also focused on the pivotal role the corporate sector must play by reducing water impacts of their operations and value chains—and by uniting through collective action. The Pacific Institute is proud to partner with the United Nations Global Compact in leading the CEO Water Mandate, which unites more than 200 companies to build water resilience. This work was front and center at COP27: 

All hands on deck 

As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in his COP27 opening remarks, “The good news is that we know what to do and we have the [tools] to get the job done.”  

As we see the water-related impacts of climate change ravage communities around the world—from Pakistan to the US West—one thing is clear. The risks of not acting quickly enough are simply unacceptable.  

Indeed, we have the tools. Through transformative change and radical collaboration, now is the time to rapidly accelerate one thing: action. 


Contributions made to the Pacific Institute by December 31 will be matched dollar for dollar up to $100,000. 

Advancing Innovative Water Efficiency Solutions at the WaterSmart Innovations Conference 2022

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Key takeaways 

  • Innovative water efficiency solutions not only reduce water use; They also offer multi-benefits, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving water equity. 
  • Pacific Institute research finds water efficiency efforts could reduce California’s urban water use by up to 48%.
  • Cross-sector collaborations uniting utilities, companies, and NGOs can effectively advance water efficiency solutions.

Pacific Institute research and innovative solutions related to water efficiency and conservation were recently featured at the 2022 WaterSmart Innovations Conference and Exposition in Las Vegas. From October 4 to 6, technical sessions covered a spectrum of water efficiency and conservation topics, including advancing the adoption of water-efficient products, alternative water supplies, and marketing and outreach.

Pacific Institute researchers presented three technical sessions on innovative water management approaches that save water and build long-term water resilience, while providing a range of related multi-benefits, including saving energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and supporting low-income communities. Below are summaries of the three Pacific Institute presentations and key takeaways. 

Harnessing the Power of Water to Meet
Energy and Climate Goals 

Heather Cooley, Director of Research, Pacific Institute

As conventional water sources become constrained, communities are considering more energy-intensive options, threatening to increase water’s energy and greenhouse gas footprints. Using California as a case study, this session drew on new data to develop future scenarios of water supplies and demands to estimate water’s energy and greenhouse gas footprints. For instance, key finding from Next10 report found that more comprehensive water conservation and efficiency efforts in urban California could reduce water related electricity usage by 19 percent, natural gas use by 16 percent, and GHG emissions by 41 percent cumulatively between 2015 and 2035. While focused on California, the methodology and results can help inform decisions for communities across the western United States and beyond. 

“Water and energy are intricately connected – we use energy across the water management cycle. This energy use results in greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change. Urban water efficiency offers the greatest reductions in water-related energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.”

– Heather Cooley, Director of Research, Pacific Institute

Read more about the future of California’s water-energy-climate nexus here 

The Untapped Potential of California’s Urban Water Supply: Water Efficiency, Water Reuse, and Stormwater Capture 

Dr. Sonali Abraham, Research Associate, Pacific Institute

This session highlighted the results of a recent Pacific Institute study that quantified California’s potential to significantly expand urban water efficiency, water reuse, and stormwater capture solutions. When implemented, these solutions can both reduce inefficient and wasteful water uses and expand local water supplies. Previous assessments have proven these options are also more cost effective than traditional approaches, which are also increasingly difficult to implement to expand supply. Tapping this potential would help solve California’s long-standing water problems and provide added benefits.  

“California has made progress to reduce water use, but more is needed in the face of intensifying drought and climate change. Efficient technologies and practices can reduce California’s urban water use by 30% to 48%.” 

– Dr. Sonali Abraham, Research Associate, Pacific Institute 

Read more about the untapped potential of California’s urban water supplies here.  

Advancing Water Efficiency in Low-Income Housing: Southern California Case Study 

Cora Kammeyer, Senior Researcher, & Dr. Christine DeMyers, Research Associate, Pacific Institute

This session shared results from a cross-sector project in which corporations, NGOs, and water utilities worked together to install and monitor remote leak detection technology in three low-income apartment buildings in Southern California. The session covered the estimated water, energy, and cost savings from the project; stakeholder perspectives; and how the unique set of partners came together to make the project happen. The session also shared learnings from project implementation, including the project design and how to effectively partner across sectors.  

“With this project, we’re helping affordable multi-family housing properties realize the multiple benefits of participation in conservation and efficiency programs. The leak detection technology we are piloting saves water, reduces utility bills, and improves building maintenance workflow.”  

– Dr. Christine DeMyers, Research Associate, Pacific Institute 

Learn more about the project here.


To learn more about Pacific Institute’s work and keep up to date on future presentations and events, visit pacinst.org/presentations and sign up for our newsletter at pacinst.org/newsletter. 

Saving Water Makes Cents

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Water Efficiency Efforts Have Potential to Save Hundreds for Households and Millions for Communities, But Equity and Access Issues Must be Addressed 

By Heather Cooley, Morgan Shimabuku, and Dr. Christine DeMyers

Key takeaways 

  • For the past 30 years, water rates in the United States have risen faster than inflation and all other utility rates, adding to the struggle faced by millions of people across the nation to pay water and sewer bills. 
  • More efficient devices and climate-appropriate plants can immediately cut household utility costs by hundreds of dollars annually, reducing the financial burden of water access.  
  • Water efficiency is also frequently the least expensive source of new water for communities. Water efficiency investments reduce the need for expensive new water and wastewater infrastructure, saving communities hundreds of millions and in some instances billions of dollars in capital costs and millions more in annual operating costs. 
  • A major equity issue remains, as lower-income households face barriers to access water efficiency programs. More work is needed to ensure full and equitable access. 

Water efficiency supports affordability for households and the larger community 

People across the United States are struggling to pay their water and wastewater bills. While water isn’t always the largest utility bill for US households, over the past 30 years, water rates have risen faster than inflation and other utility costs. This rising trend is expected to continue due to deferred maintenance, emerging contaminants, climate change, and the rising costs of construction among other factors.    

A new Pacific Institute white paper, “Advancing Affordability through Water Efficiency,”finds water conservation and efficiency improvements improve water affordability for both conserving households and the larger community. Using national data on utility rates, the study shows that reductions in household water use provide an immediate reduction in water bills and, in some instances, wastewater and energy bills for the conserving household. Because water efficiency is typically less expensive than developing new supplies, case studies from the western United States show that water efficiency also helps utilities avoid the need to build expensive new water and wastewater infrastructure, resulting in lower utility bills and connection fees for the broader community over the long term. 

Water affordability for conserving households 

Water efficiency measures can result in an immediate reduction in household water bills and, for certain measures, wastewater and energy bills. Replacing old, inefficient devices inside the home, including showerheads, clothes washers, and toilets, could cut a household’s utility bills by $242 to $408 per year. For those homes with grass in hot, dry areas, installing plants suited to the local climate could provide additional savings on water bills. These savings are based on national average rates for water, wastewater, and energy and would be even larger for those living in communities with higher utility rates.  

Importantly, for some measures, energy bill savings can be significant – even greater than water and wastewater bill savings. A WaterSense-labeled showerhead, for example, is estimated to reduce household water use and wastewater production by 2,700 gallons per year. Using national average water and wastewater rates, this translates to a savings of $16 per year on water bills and $19 per year on wastewater bills. But showerheads save hot water – and the energy required to heat that water. We estimate that household energy bill savings for a WaterSense-labeled showerhead can be $30 per year! 

“A more-efficient showerhead alone can save $16 in water, $19 in wastewater, and $30 in energy bills annually.”  

Water affordability for the larger community 

Water efficiency can also provide long-term cost savings for the larger community by delaying or eliminating the need for new, costly water supply and treatment infrastructure—costs that would be passed on to a utility’s customers. The report examines long-term cost savings by synthesizing results from several recent avoided cost analyses from the Alliance for Water Efficiency. These analyses compare a conserving scenario (i.e., the cost of water with efficiency measures in place) to a non-conserving scenario (i.e., the cost of water without efficiency measures in place).  

“Water efficiency typically represents the least expensive source of new water for communities.” 

The water and wastewater costs avoided by water efficiency vary from community to community. For example, in Gilbert, Arizona – a small but rapidly growing town near Phoenix – water conservation and efficiency reduced water use from 244 gallons per person per day (gpcd) in 1997 to 173 gpcd in 2015. This reduction in water use resulted in savings of $341 million in capital costs for water and wastewater infrastructure and an additional $3.67 million per year in operating costs. In the absence of water efficiency, combined water and wastewater bills would have been 6.1% higher (averaging $657 compared to $619 per year) and connection fees 82% higher ($17,000 compared to $9,500 per connection).  

Los Angeles has seen even greater cost savings from water efficiency improvements. There, per capita water use declined from 180 gpcd in the early 1990s to just 110 gpcd in 2016, avoiding additional water supply, treatment, and pumping costs totaling more than $11 billion. In the absence of water conservation and efficiency, customer water bills would have been more than 36% higher. Comparable levels of wastewater savings were also realized. 

Making water conservation and efficiency programs accessible to everyone  

While all households benefit from water efficiency improvements, the greatest cost savings are provided to conserving households. Yet, studies show that customers and households from lower income brackets and other hard-to-reach groups, such as renters, are less likely to participate in conservation and efficiency programs. This is because most utility-sponsored efficiency programs are focused on owner-occupied, single-family households with disposable income. For example, rebate programs require participants to pay the up-front cost for the more efficient device before receiving any monetary compensation, which can take several months. These programs are cost prohibitive for households that cannot afford the up-front investment. Greater effort is neededto ensure water conservation and efficiency programs are accessible to everyone, including low-income households, renters, and those in multi-family housing.  


The findings from the report can inform policy decisions at the utility scale up to the federal level. For greater water efficiency and, thus, greater cost savings for all, the report recommends:   

  • Increase investments in water efficiency improvements. Water efficiency typically represents the least expensive source of new water and can help to improve community water affordability. Yet, funding for water efficiency is far less than for other sources of new supply. Federal, state, and local governments should increase investments in water efficiency to levels commensurate with other water supply options. 

  • Design water efficiency programs to be accessible to customers in lower income households. For example, utilities can provide vouchers for discounts on water efficient devices upon sale, rather than offer rebates weeks or even months after purchase. Another approach is to provide fixtures and appliances at no cost to qualified households through device giveaways and direct-install programs. This program in Seattle, for instance, offers free water-saving toilets for income-qualified homeowners. Free leak detection services for income-qualified households can also help reduce water bills by catching leaks.  For instance, in Sacramento, the Leak Free Sacramento program helps low-income residents make water repairs that increase efficiency free of charge. Utilities can also offer mechanisms to deliver conservation-related cost savings to renters. Finally, as illustrated in this report from River Network and the WaterNow Alliance, partnerships with community-based organizations help utilities build trust and overcome cultural barriers.     

  • Improve communications about the costs avoided by water efficiency improvements. Several studies sponsored by the Alliance for Water Efficiency have used avoided cost analyses to powerfully communicate the utility- and community-wide scale of monetary savings associated with water efficiency improvements. Water suppliers should develop and periodically update avoided cost analyses to share this information with ratepayers and elected officials. This will help increase public support for conservation and efficiency investments and programs. 

  • Improve demand forecasting to avoid building unnecessary and costly new water supply and treatment infrastructure. Accurate demand forecasts are essential for fully realizing the benefits of water efficiency improvements. Yet, water suppliers routinely overestimate demand by forecasting that water demand will increase when it remains unchanged or even declines. Forecasters should regularly examine water-use trends, assumptions within their models, and the accuracy of past projections, and adjust their models as needed.  

Increasing water efficiency is a proven strategy for stretching limited water resources. The Pacific Institute’s new white paper, “Advancing Affordability through Water Efficiency,”highlights the role water efficiency can play in advancing affordability for conserving households and the broader community. It also underscores the critical importance of designing efficiency programs that are fully and equitably accessible to all.

Pacific Institute Launches New Water and Climate Equity Strategy for United States

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Pacific Institute Launches New Water and Climate Equity Strategy for United States 

Dr. Shannon McNeeley, Dr. Amanda Bielawski, Heather Cooley 

Key Takeaways

  • The United States has not adopted the Human Right to Water, while millions of people across the country lack access to clean, reliable water or basic plumbing, and tens of millions rely on water systems with Safe Drinking Water Act violations. 
  • The strategy responds to research needs at the intersection of water insecurity, climate change impacts, and social equity. 
  • Collaborative approach to feature co-designed research working to support frontline communities through their partner networks. 
  • This strategy builds on Pacific Institute’s longstanding work on water equity and the Human Right to Water. 

Throughout the world and in the United States, water insecurity and climate change both disproportionately affect frontline communities—those who are impacted first and worst from climate change. Historically disadvantaged and marginalized communities, including rural communities, low-income communities, and communities of color, often suffer the most from environmental injustices related to climate change and lack of safe and reliable water from household and community water systems. However, the intersection of these challenges—the impacts of climate change on our ability to equitably meet the needs for water in overburdened and underserved communities moving forward—is not well documented or broadly understood. 

Today, the Pacific Institute formally launched its new Water and Climate Equity (WCE) strategy designed to address community and decision maker needs by focusing research and outreach efforts on the nexus of water insecurity, climate change, and social inequity. The work aims to inform decision makers on the realities of the situation and highlight climate-resilient strategies to address the humanitarian water crisis in the context of current and future climate change. 

This Water and Climate Equity work is one of three Pacific Institute focus areas supporting the Institute’s organizational goal to catalyze the transformation to water resilience by 2030. The Pacific Institute also focuses its research on nature-based solutions and water efficiency and reuse. The Institute plans to integrate equity throughout its research over time 

Water insecurity realities 

More than 2.2 billion people globally lack access to safely managed drinking water (United Nations, 2019), while millions of people in the United States are without clean, reliable water, lack basic plumbing, or rely on water systems with Safe Drinking Water Act violations.  

Today, the Human Right to Water is formally recognized by the United Nations, the State of California, and dozens of global businesses. Yet, the United States as a whole has yet to recognize the Human Right to Water or meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), climate action (SDG 13), or reduced inequalities (SDG 10). 

Responding to community needs with a collaborative, co-designed research approach  

Communities and community-serving organizations have long called for rigorous and empirical science-based research as a core strategy for protection from the negative impacts of climate change. To ensure the strategy was guided by community voices and needs, dozens of interviews were conducted with leaders working with and for frontline communities on water and climate justice issues. Responding to communities’ expressed needs for such research, the Pacific Institute will engage in a co-designed approach with communities through their support networks. This approach will include the collaborative co-development of research questions, project design, outcomes, and decision-support tools.  

The collaborative approach aims to cross-pollinate leading ideas and practices with community needs and priorities across diverse regions and stakeholder groups. Co-designed research will result in technical insights and culturally appropriate and feasible recommendations for both frontline communities and their supporting networks and organizations. The work will aim to strengthen existing networks that mobilize science for environmental justice and the co-production of applied research and decision-support tools that are accessible and usable by those who need them the most. 

Research focus and outcomes 

Through collaborative research, the Pacific Institute will specifically examine the effects of climate change on small and medium-sized water and sanitation systems in frontline communities with water systems particularly vulnerable to climate change. The Water and Climate Equity strategy will analyze the distributional effects of environmental policy, as well as the equity and fairness of environmental policy processes pertaining to water systems in frontline communities. While this work will initially be focused on the United States, it may later be expanded to other geographies through the Pacific Institute’s international work and networks.  

The overarching research questions include: 

  • How will climate change, as a risk multiplier, exacerbate water-related risks for marginalized and low-income communities and communities of color, and how will this change or intensify those risks and responses in the future? 
  • What are some viable ways to make the water and wastewater systems serving these communities more equitable and climate-resilient? 
  • What are the barriers and opportunities for implementing those solutions in frontline communities? 

The desired outcomes of this work initially include: 

  • Providing evidence-based research and climate-resilient strategies for frontline communities on small to medium rural and disinvested urban water systems in the United States. 
  • Elucidating the lack of the fulfilment of the Human Right to Water and WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) in the United States. 
  • Integrating equity throughout Pacific Institute’s other programmatic areas, including research on nature-based solutions and water efficiency and reuse, as well as its efforts to advance corporate water stewardship. 

Building on existing expertise through partnerships 

Recognizing and respecting that there are already many individuals and organizations working in this area both in the United States and globally, the Pacific Institute’s research team will both build upon existing expertise and form strategic partnerships wherever possible. While the primary focus will be on climate-resilient water systems for frontline communities, target audiences will include: 

  • community-based organizations (CBOs) that support frontline communities; 
  • water and climate equity-focused non-governmental organizations (NGOs); 
  • water utilities; 
  • local, state, federal, and tribal policymakers; and 
  • corporate leadership. 

This work will target those who have the most leverage and obligation to provide water security and fulfill the Human Right to Water. It will rely on close partnerships with key supporting organizations and decision makers who would benefit from technical expertise and added capacity to conduct needed analyses.   

The Pacific Institute is already closely partnering with the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN) to assess climate change impacts and preparedness needs in small, rural communities in the United States. It is also partnering with DigDeep on assessing the impacts of climate change on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) in frontline communities throughout the United States. 

Pacific Institute’s longstanding work on water equity 

The Pacific Institute has been a strong voice for water equity for more than three decades. During the 1990s, the Pacific Institute called on global policymakers to formally recognize water as a human right. The Pacific Institute has also focused on related issues, such as drought equity, water affordability, and clean drinking water for disadvantaged communities.  

The new Water and Climate Equity strategy launched today formally adds the climate change context to this longstanding water equity work by specifically exploring how climate change will exacerbate water stress for low-income communities and communities of color across the United States while highlighting solutions and strategies for water resilience in frontline communities by 2030 and beyond.  

For more information, visit the Pacific Institute’s Water and Climate Equity page here.    

Ensuring Water Conservation and Efficiency Programs Are Accessible to All—In California and Beyond

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Ensuring Water Conservation and Efficiency Programs Are Accessible to All—In California and Beyond

Morgan Shimabuku, Pacific Institute Senior Researcher 
Jessi Snyder, Self-Help Enterprises Director of Community Development 

Key Takeaways: 

  • Ensuring water conservation and efficiency programs are accessible is a challenge worth tackling to save water and money, especially for households and communities that need it most. 
  • Funding these programs can be a challenge. This blog looks at state and federal opportunities, with a focus on California, where the legislature is considering a $200 million budget item for two low-income, direct-install water conservation programs. 
  • There are several barriers to implementing water conservation and efficiency programs that are accessible to everyone. But there are already many creative solutions to overcoming these barriers to create access for people of all incomes. 

Californians and others in the Western United States need to save water. This is true now amidst a historic megadrought, and it will continue to be true when this drought ends.  

But many water conservation and efficiency programs aren’t accessible to low-income households. This is in a nation where, in 2020, 18.4% of households earned less than $25,000 per year, which is just under the federal poverty level for a household of four people. Research has shown that hard-to-reach groups, such as renters or low-income families, are less likely to participate in these programs.  

This challenge is worth tackling. Making such programs more widely accessible would both help those struggling to afford their utility bills and save water. Notably, these water savings would occur immediately and into the future, helping provide immediate relief for households, as well as building long-term water resilience and contributing to system-wide affordability. 

The challenge: Multiple barriers to water conservation and efficiency programs 

There are several barriers to ensuring water conservation and efficiency programs are accessible to all. These include: 

  • Not designed for limited-income customers: First, some utilities have strong conservation and efficiency offerings, but these programs are not readily available to customers with low to no income. As an example, rebate programs require participants to purchase new, efficient devices and then wait weeks to months before being partially reimbursed or given a credit on their utility bill. For those with limited income, bearing the cost upfront is not always possible and is a deterrent to participation. 
  • Narrow eligibility requirements limit participation: A second type of barrier exists when utilities have low-income-specific efficiency programs, but they have narrow or burdensome eligibility requirements that limit participation. Renters and people living in multifamily housing are more likely to have lower incomes than those living in single family housing. Yet, many programs are not available to people in multifamily housing, in part because they often do not pay their water bill directly. Also, onerous proof-of-income requirements can create barriers to participation in these programs.  
  • Lack of capacity to offer programs: A third type of barrier, common for customers of small water systems, is that some water utilities lack capacity and resources needed to offer any water conservation and efficiency programs. This challenge is most apparent in rural communities, but also can be found in small urban systems.  
  • Trust and cultural barriers: Finally, trust and cultural barriers may exist for some customer groups, especially those that have been historically marginalized or left out of conservation and efficiency efforts. 

Good news: Solutions exist  

The good news is that there are creative solutions to overcome these barriers. These include: 

  • Vouchers replacing rebates: Water utilities already offering conservation and efficiency programs can design them to be more accessible. For instance, instead of offering rebates for efficient device purchases, utilities can provide vouchers at the point of sale. This change would eliminate the need for a reimbursement process, identified as a major barrier to implementation.  
  • Device giveaways and direct-install programs: Another option is to offer fixtures and appliances at no cost for qualified households through device giveaways or direct-install programs. Long Beach Water in Southern California, for example, is piloting a direct-install sustainable landscape program for homeowners living in low-income designated census tracts. Elsewhere in California, the City of Sacramento also offers a free leak-detection audit program that includes free device installations for low-income, single-family households in designated disadvantaged communities. Notably, this program is only offered to homeowners of single-family dwellings. As a result, it remains inaccessible to renters and those living in multi-family housing.  
  • Multi-family housing solutions: While there are several challenges to delivering conservation and efficiency programs to renters and people living in multi-family housing, some utilities are exploring new models related to housing affordability more broadly, adding in the conservation and efficiency benefits. In New York City, for example, the Department of Environmental Protection includes water conservation and efficiency as an eligibility criterion for receiving the Multi-Family Water Assistance Program credit. Housing projects must, among other requirements, prove the average rent is affordable to households earning up to 60% of area median income, the property has been part of certified affordable housing efforts for a minimum of 15 years, all buildings have automated meters, and high-efficiency fixtures are installed in at least 70% of units. These requirements incentivize efficiency improvements and long-term affordable housing in New York City. 
  • Alternative proof of eligibility: To reduce barriers created by proof-of-income, water utilities can accept proof of participation in existing low-income programs such as CARES, Medi-Cal, or others. There is also the option to allow for self-verification of income qualification, with annual audits of a subset of participants to assess validity. A third approach, already in use by Long Beach Water and City of Sacramento, is to create eligibility based on geographic location of a household in a community identified as disadvantaged or low-income through state or federal surveys.   
  • Partnerships with related programs. Another solution that can help reduce multiple barriers to these programs is through partnership with existing organizations already delivering low-income direct-install programs. Partnering with energy conservation organizations, as some water utilities already do, is an effective opportunity to piggy-back on the existing program infrastructure and circumvent the challenging process of income qualification. This can be especially helpful for small water systems with limited capacity for offering their own programs. Energy utilities regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) are required to offer their low-income customers an energy efficiency direct-install program, called the Energy Saving Assistance Program (ESAP). ESAP has delivered energy efficiency upgrades at no cost to nearly 2 million income-qualified households since 2015.1 In some places, these upgrades include water-saving devices as well, although device offerings have been limited. Partners, particularly community-based organizations (CBOs), also offer trust-building opportunities. These opportunities can improve customer communication and recruitment. The Building Blocks of Trust by the River Network and WaterNow Alliance offer key components of successful utility and CBO partnerships.  

Funding opportunities from state and federal governments 

Securing funding for these programs can be challenging, but there are both federal and state funds that may help. From the federal government, funding through state-led Clean Water State Revolving Funds are eligible to provide loans and grants for water efficiency projects 

Some states are making efforts to address the challenge as well. In California, the legislature is considering up to $200 million to fund water efficiency assistance for low-income households. Advocates are proposing to split this funding in two ways. First, $150 million could supplement the energy utility ESAP, growing the program’s water conservation offerings to include, whenever possible, high-efficiency toilets and clothes washers. The other $50 million could fund a complementary grant program at the Department of Water Resources for new direct-install water efficiency programs for low-income households. Advocates estimate these programs could save the state billions of gallons of water per year and save the participating households tens of millions of dollars per year on their water and wastewater bills.  

The power to act 

With water utilities, energy utilities, CBOs, and state and federal agencies all on board, we can create opportunities for everyone to help save water in California and beyond. This will benefit not only the individuals themselves, but also their communities, utilities, and ecosystems. Amid the water crisis, exacerbated by climate change, we must forge these—and other—new solutions to stretch scarce water resources to meet the needs of all water users. 

Self-Help Enterprises is a nationally recognized community development organization whose mission is to work together with low-income families to build and sustain healthy homes and communities. Since 1965, Self-Help Enterprises’ efforts have touched the lives of over 55,000 families. 

¹ESAP statistics provided to Pacific Institute from Ed Osann (NRDC), obtained 4/21/2022 from K. Kulkarni, Senior Regulatory Analyst (CPUC), via email from CPUC. 


California non-functional turf irrigation ban provides businesses an opportunity to step up on sustainability

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California non-functional turf irrigation ban provides businesses an opportunity to step up on sustainability  
By Cora Kammeyer and Dr. Sonali Abraham


Pacific Institute research finds conversion of CII landscapes to more sustainable landscapes in California could save between 340,000 and 400,000 acre-feet of water per year. 

Key takeaways

  • New emergency drought regulations ban irrigation of non-functional turf on commercial, industrial, and institutional (CII) sites across urban California.  
  • The ban presents a unique opportunity for California’s business community to demonstrate sustainability leadership through proactive drought response.  
  • By transforming to more sustainable landscaping, businesses can contribute to immediate drought relief and long-term water resilience, while achieving corporate sustainability goals, cutting costs, and providing additional community co-benefits.  
  • Pacific Institute tools and resources can help businesses explore options and get started on a landscape transformation.  

A new ban on non-functional turf irrigation in California—part of recently announced emergency drought regulations—provides a unique opportunity for California’s business community to demonstrate sustainability leadership through proactive drought response. On May 24, 2022, the California State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) adopted an emergency regulation in response to ongoing and intensifying drought conditions across the state. This regulation comes in response to Executive Order N-7-22 signed by Governor Newsom asking for increased water conservation that includes specific mandates for urban water suppliers and select water users. The Executive Order and ensuing regulation include specific actions targeted at the commercial, industrial, and institutional (CII) sector, which includes commercial businesses, manufacturing and distribution, hospitals, government buildings, and other institutions.  

Banning irrigation of non-functional turf  

The State Water Board’s emergency drought regulation imposes a temporary ban on irrigation of non-functional turf with drinking water on commercial, industrial, and institutional (CII) properties. It does not include turf irrigated with recycled water and specifies that the irrigation ban should not harm the health of trees or other non-turf plantings. California is not the first location to take such actions. This short-term drought regulation is coming shortly after Las Vegas moved to permanently ban irrigation of non-functional turf.  

What is “non-functional turf”? 

As defined by the state, “non-functional turf” is solely ornamental and not regularly used for recreation. It includes areas not in active use but still requiring maintenance, such as street medians and office parking lots. Non-functional turf does not include sports fields or turf regularly used for human recreational purposes or for civic or community events. 

What properties does the non-functional turf ban apply to? 

This ban applies to, for example, offices, stores, malls, manufacturing facilities, and warehouses, as well as schools, hospitals, government buildings, and other institutions. It also includes large apartment buildings and common areas owned by homeowners’ associations but not individual residences. 

Opportunity for businesses to demonstrate sustainability commitment  

While banning irrigation of non-functional turf is an important short-term response to a severe drought, we also must address the long-term problem of vast expanses of water-intensive turf across California communities. Over half of urban water use in California goes to landscape irrigation, and that portion is much higher in the hot, dry parts of California.  

During the last California drought, we saw some commercial and industrial sites across the state making this transition, which helped California’s urban communities meet then-Governor Brown’s emergency drought mandate of reducing water use by 25 percent. But we can and must do more.

Commercial and industrial sites are disproportionately landscaped with turf compared to residential sites, and replacing turf with efficiently irrigated, climate-appropriate plants can reduce landscape water needs by 70 to 80 percent.

Unlocking untapped water savings potential  

According to Pacific Institute research, conversion of CII landscapes to more sustainable landscapes in California could save between 340,000 and 400,000 acre-feet of water per year – and a ban on non-functional turf could help to realize some of those savings. By drawing CII water users’ attention to landscape management, the new emergency drought regulation provides an opportunity for transformations from unsustainable, nonfunctional turf into more sustainable landscapes. By heeding this call and embracing landscapes better suited to California’s climate, businesses can publicly demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and help meet their water stewardship goals and other sustainability targets.  

Achieving corporate sustainability goals, cutting costs, and providing community benefits 

The numerous benefits of sustainable landscapes can improve the cost-effectiveness of a landscape transformation project and provide an opportunity to publicly demonstrate the company’s commitment to the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.

For example, Pacific Institute researchers are working with one California commercial site spending $300,000 per year to irrigate eight acres of non-functional turf. Transforming that turf to sustainable landscaping would cut the site’s water use by 70-80 percent, saving nearly $200,000 per year on water bills.

This turf transformation would also help the company achieve its sustainability goals, while providing a range of co-benefits, including stormwater retention, site beautification, urban heat reduction, carbon sequestration, pollinator habitat, employee education, and maintenance cost savings.  

 Pacific Institute tools help companies take action 

With the right tools, guidance, and encouragement, California businesses are well-positioned to help lead the way on the transition to more sustainable, drought-resilient urban landscapes. The Pacific Institute’s sustainable landscapes guidebook provides simple, step-by-step guidance aimed specifically toward businesses in California. The guidebook includes information on turf replacement, installation of bioswales and rain gardens, permeable pavement, green roofs, and rain tanks and cisterns. Self-assessment worksheets on current landscape conditions, decision-making, and drivers for landscape transformation walk the user through the process; infographics like the one above illustrate the benefits of sustainable landscapes.  

Adapting to a more arid future 

Given that California is one of the largest economies in the world, California businesses have an especially important role to play in helping address the state’s water challenges. Businesses can start with simple, cost-effective actions like landscape transformations on their properties. California’s water crisis is not a unique story. Outside of the US, almost every continent is experiencing some level of drought. Actions taken and lessons learned in response to water scarcity in urban California can be shared and transferred to help other water-stressed cities around the world.   

Pacific Institute Statement on White House Action Plan on Global Water Security

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Pacific Institute Statement on White House Action Plan on Global Water Security
Dr. Amanda Bielawski, Dr. Peter Gleick, Jason Morrison

Today’s announcement of the White House Action Plan on Global Water Security is a step in the right direction for building water resilience both in the United States and around the world. The Pacific Institute’s longstanding research on water conflict underscores the reality that water is an increasing cause of conflict in the world, further intensifying due to climate change. Its research also continues to highlight the role innovative solutions, including nature-based solutions, water efficiency, and water reuse, will play in ensuring global water security for all. 

The Pacific Institute applauds the Action Plan for using a broader definition for “water security” that recognizes the role of climate change on water systems, while acknowledging the need to prioritize water for both people and ecosystems. This view moves closer to “water resilience,” which the Pacific Institute defines as “the ability of water systems to function so that nature and people, including those on the frontlines and disproportionately impacted, thrive under shocks, stresses, and change.” The Pacific Institute calls on decisionmakers to address the more holistic view of water resilience, in addition to both water security and water sustainability. 

Additionally, the Pacific Institute applauds the new plan for:  

  1. prioritizing climate resilience and enabling equitable WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) services for all;  
  2. prioritizing the protection of water resources and water-related ecosystems, including through nature-based solutions; and  
  3. focusing on the role of water in facilitating transboundary cooperation.  

The Pacific Institute calls on decisionmakers across the public and private sectors to commit to achieving water resilience by rapidly scaling solutions. These solutions include implementing water efficiency and reuse strategies to reduce reliance on energy-intensive or unreliable water sources. They also include integrating nature-based solutions for water with traditional grey infrastructure. In all cases, the path to water resilience must be achieved through a lens of equity, prioritizing all stakeholders, including frontline communities and the environment.  

Additional resources: 

Water Resilience Issue Brief 
Water Conflict Chronology 

Innovative urban water strategies offer vast opportunity for California drought relief and longer-term water resilience

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Innovative urban water strategies offer vast opportunity for California drought relief and longer-term water resilience


Dr. Amanda Bielawski, Heather Cooley, Dr. Peter Gleick, Dr. Sonali Abraham, Dr. Anne Thebo, and Morgan Shimabuku

Key takeaways

  • California is in its third year of severe drought exacerbated by climate change. There is a wide gap between water use and local water supplies.
  • New research from the Pacific Institute shows California could reduce urban water use by 30% to 48% by increasing investments in urban water efficiency measures.
  • The same research shows California could also boost local non-traditional water supplies – more than tripling our current water reuse levels and significantly increasing stormwater capture approaches.
  • These innovative approaches are cost-effective and technologically feasible, offer valuable co-benefits, and are already being implemented across many California communities. They are part of a broader transition to water resilience.
  • New report: “The Untapped Potential of California’s Urban Water Supply: Water Efficiency, Water Reuse, and Stormwater Capture”: View report here. View the full infographic here.

Throughout California, innovative urban water strategies—water efficiency, water reuse, and stormwater capture—are already finding success in many communities. These cost-effective and technologically feasible strategies reduce urban water use (currently 6.6 million acre-feet per year), while boosting local water supplies. As a result, they can help narrow the gap between how much water urban California now uses and how much water is available. Combined, they provide an opportunity for shorter-term drought relief and long-term water resilience. (Read more about water resilience in the Pacific Institute’s Water Resilience Issue Brief here.)

Dramatic numbers show untapped potential to implement urban water strategies

A new analysis, “The Untapped Potential of California’s Urban Water Use,” released today by the Pacific Institute quantifies the potential to scale these strategies across urban California:

  • Reducing water use through water efficiency: The report finds California could save 30% to 48% of its urban water use, by implementing and expanding water efficiency measures, including replacing inefficient clothes washers and other appliances with high-efficiency models, replacing lawns with climate-appropriate plants, and reducing losses in water distribution systems. The analysis finds these efficiency measures could reduce California’s urban water use by 2.0 million to 3.1 million acre-feet per year.
  • Increasing local water supplies through water reuse: Municipal water reuse could be more than tripled in California, significantly adding to local water supplies. While an estimated 728,000 acre-feet of municipal wastewater are currently reused annually for groundwater recharge, irrigation, and other beneficial use across the state, the new assessment identifies the potential to increase statewide reuse to 2.5 million to 2.8 million acre-feet per year.
  • Increasing local water supplies through stormwater capture: While there is no statewide estimate of the amount of urban runoff now captured, it’s clear there is significant opportunity to capture more. The new analysis finds urban stormwater capture potential in the state ranges from 580,000 acre-feet in a dry year to 3 million acre-feet in a wet year in urban areas overlying public supply aquifers.



During a report briefing this morning attended by hundreds of water leaders and stakeholders in California, across the United States, and internationally, the Pacific Institute highlighted some current success stories in each of these areas.



In San Francisco, a Public Utilities Commission ordinance requiring higher efficiency plumbing fixtures to be installed whenever housing is sold to a new owner is projected to save more than 2.5 billion gallons cumulatively through 2045. Meanwhile, a water reuse facility proposed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California would produce up to 150 million gallons of water daily, boosting local non-traditional water supplies by 170,000 acre-feet (55 billion gallons) per year. Read more about these—and other—examples in this infographic.



And, in the Fresno area, more than 150 stormwater retention basins recharge more than 15 billion gallons of groundwater annually (on 10-year average).  Read more about these—and other—examples in this infographic.

Part of a broader transition to 21st century water resilience thinking

What might we learn from these examples? As California enters a third year of severe drought—intensifying due to climate change—these strategies could be a game changer for the future. Rapidly scaled across the state, they could provide future drought relief for millions of Californians. Thinking more broadly, they also provide valuable co-benefits. For instance:

  • By increasing local supplies, communities can effectively reduce reliance on imported water.
  • These approaches can also leave more water for nature, protecting threatened ecosystems.
  • By reducing energy required to collect, move, treat, and use water, these strategies also have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Given their benefits and co-benefits, these innovative urban water strategies must be part of a systemic transformation to a 21st century water management model focused on resilience, not only for California, but for drought-prone regions across the US West and the globe that are facing the debilitating impacts of water extremes intensifying due to climate change.

How do we rapidly scale these ideas?

Innovative urban water projects like those referenced above in San Francisco, Southern California, and Fresno offer inspiration for more to come. So, how do we push for these strategies to be scaled fully and quickly across California–and beyond?

The study includes detailed policy and practice recommendations for water utilities and suppliers, as well as local, regional, state, and federal agencies and policymakers. These recommendations include increasing state and federal funding, expanding local water agencies’ customer incentive programs, pursuing ordinances, focusing programs on long-neglected low-income households and communities, and providing technical support. To see the full list of detailed policy and practice recommendations, download the report here.

Whatever role you play in our water systems, we invite you to see what part you might play—in increasing investments in and implementation of these urban water strategies. You will be building a more water resilient California along the way.

Learn more about water resilience in the Pacific Institute’s Water Resilience Issue Brief here.

See the full infographic below.



Snowpack Report Underscores Need for Transformative Changes to Address Record-Setting California Drought

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Heather Cooley, Dr. Peter Gleick, and Dr. Amanda Bielawski

Key Takeaways:

    • The severe California drought is continuing for a third year, and there will be major consequences for ecosystems, agriculture, and urban and rural water users across California. 
    • Droughts are becoming more severe and persistent, creating extreme water management challenges for California. 
    • Emergency short-term measures are necessary but will not be enough. We must also make systemic, transformational changes to build longer-term water resilience. 
    • Available solutions should be rapidly scaled across the state. We must accelerate efforts to cut wasteful and inefficient water uses, increase investments in water reuse and stormwater capture, and prioritize efforts to provide safe water and sanitation to frontline communities. 

April 1st marks the end of the wet season in California. It’s also the day the California Department of Water Resources announces key seasonal snowpack measurements and makes projections of water availability for the rest of the water year. 

Today, the news is extremely bad and is a call to action to do much more — and to do some things much differently. 

After record-breaking drought conditions in 2020 and 2021, 2022 has been another bleak water year for California. The 2022 snowpack is far below normal — less than 40% of average following a drier than normal winter — for the third year in a row. Major reservoir levels are also far below normal. Shasta is at less than 40% of capacity and less than half of where it should be on April 1st; Oroville, the largest reservoir in the State Water Project, is at less than half of capacity and only two-thirds of where it normally is. These numbers are stark indications that the severe California drought of the past two years will continue for at least another year. 

The broader water-climate connection 

The fact that climate change is water change has never been clearer. A new study found the last 22 years in the southwestern US have been the driest since the year 800, with human-caused climate change accounting for more than 40% of the current 22-year megadrought. 

Comprehensive conservation and efficiency measures will be required.

The water-climate challenges facing California and the US West are similar to those now facing many other regions around the world. As temperatures continue to rise and storm patterns change, we are seeing changes in extremes of both floods and droughts, and unprecedented impacts on natural aquatic ecosystems. We’ve also learned in the last few years that the computer models our state and federal agencies use to allocate and distribute water do not adequately account for the climate changes we’re already seeing on the ground. These changes include the rapid disappearance of even our limited snow and the rising temperatures in our rivers fatal to endangered and threatened fisheries. These models must be updated immediately. 

More action needed to safeguard California’s vulnerable water systems 

California has made laudable progress in reducing water use during recent years. However, today’s snowpack announcement should serve as a loud alarm bell, calling for California to do much more — and to do some things quite differently. 

More than 400 of the state’s water agencies were ordered earlier this week to implement Level 2 water shortage contingency plans, which vary by agency. But the state has not issued mandatory reductions in water use during this three-year drought as it did during the last drought. While voluntary reductions have helped some, the choice not to implement statewide aggressive conservation and efficiency measures in the hope this year would be wet has left less water in our reservoirs and groundwater aquifers, and for ecosystems than it would otherwise have been. 

Given the realities of today’s snowpack report and ongoing drought projections, comprehensive conservation and efficiency measures will be required to meet the basic needs of all Californians for safe and reliable water, to maintain even minimal protections for stressed ecosystems and fisheries, and to support key sectors of the economy. 

Embracing innovation to build longer-term resilience 

Emergency short-term measures are needed but will not be enough. Take shorter showers. Load dishwashers and washing machines full before running them. Let your lawns go brown. But we must also make systemic, transformational changes to our water systems; abandon the 20th century model overly reliant on unsustainable water withdrawals; and transition to a 21st century model using innovation to build long-term resilience. Replace inefficient appliances. Repair leaks. Get rid of non-functional grass and install low-water-using gardens. Invest in water reuse and stormwater capture everywhere. 

We must shift our urban water infrastructure to a 21st century system.

The good news is that we know what to do. Many communities across California are already implementing innovative water strategies to support near-term drought relief and long-term improvement in reliability of local water supplies. Without these efforts, our water challenges would be much more severe. Rapidly scaled across the state, these strategies can set California up for a more drought resilient future. 

  • Urban Water Systems: A new Pacific Institute report to be released on April 12th provides updated estimates of the untapped potential to improve urban water-use efficiency and expand urban water reuse and stormwater capture. This potential is large, but requires new actions, investments, and policies. Just as we must decarbonize our old energy system to address climate change, we must shift our urban water system to a 21st century system of high efficiency, comprehensive water reuse and stormwater capture, ecosystem protection, and guaranteed access to safe water and sanitation to all.  
  •  Rural Water Systems: Governor Newsom’s Executive Order, released earlier this week, provides much-needed protection for those that rely on groundwater, including rural water systems. It requires local authorities to coordinate with Groundwater Sustainability Agencies before permitting new wells to ensure they do not compromise existing wells or infrastructure. We must also accelerate drought preparedness through the development of water shortage contingency plans for small systems. Learn more in this recent Pacific Institute report.
  • Agriculture: California agriculture has made progress in improving crop productivity and revenue per unit of water used, but much more must be done. In particular, efforts to bring unsustainable groundwater overdraft back into balance, as required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), must be accelerated. Continued improvements in irrigation efficiency, soil moisture monitoring and management, and cropping patterns must also be accelerated. 

Today’s snowpack report and drought projections must spur us all, from our state agencies to our water utilities to individuals, to take new and innovative actions. As we take steps to address drought and build more resilient water systems, we must do so in a way that prioritizes actions that ensure equitable access to clean, affordable, and reliable water supplies for all.  

More resources 

To learn more about drought in California, visit californiadrought.org. This Pacific Institute website compiles information and resources on drought to help understand, plan for, and implement sustainable solutions. Further information about drought, climate change, and resilience-based solutions is available in a range of Pacific Institute reports.

We also invite you to join the Pacific Institute April 12th at 9 a.m. (PT) for a briefing highlighting results from a new analysis quantifying dramatic opportunities to reduce the gap between water supply and use through innovative, cost-effective, and technologically feasible urban water strategies. Register here

World Water Day Focuses Attention on How Water is Underappreciated — Especially Groundwater

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Heather Cooley, Rebecca Olson, and Dr. Amanda Bielawski

Key Takeaways:

  • Groundwater accounts for 99% of liquid freshwater but is being depleted at an alarming rate
  • Groundwater depletion creates equity challenges and threatens the realization of the Human Right to Water
  • The Pacific Institute advances solutions for groundwater resilience, including increasing water-use efficiency and expanding urban water reuse and stormwater capture

Around the world, people and nature rely on groundwater for survival. The newly released United Nations World Water Development Report 2022 underscores humanity’s reliance on this resource, noting groundwater currently provides about half the volume of domestic water and a quarter the volume of irrigation water withdrawn globally.

But it’s the frequent invisibility of this water source that often adds to the challenge of its governance and management. While 99% of the liquid freshwater on the planet is in the form of groundwater, it remains somewhat out of sight — and too often out of mind.

While 99% of the liquid freshwater on the planet comes in the form of groundwater, it remains somewhat out of sight and too often out of mind.” 

As surface water becomes scarcer, more people are turning to groundwater to meet their water needs. Because of this, groundwater is being depleted at an alarming — and unsustainable — rate. Recognizing its critical importance, World Water Day 2022 specifically focuses our attention on this water source — and what we must do to protect it.

Depletion risks

Depleted groundwater aquifers can take thousands of years to be replenished by rain, snow, and other sources. This option can be off the table when an aquifer becomes so depleted it loses its capacity to store water.

Depleted groundwater aquifers can take thousands of years to be replenished by rain, snow, and other sources. This option can be off the table when an aquifer becomes so depleted it loses its capacity to store water.

In the U.S., the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches across parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming, illustrates this concern. A history of groundwater overdraft threatens to deplete the aquifer. Once depleted, it’s estimated the Ogallala Aquifer could take more than 6,000 years to be naturally replenished.

Pacific Institute study highlights groundwater impacts in California’s San Joaquin Valley

In California, groundwater has experienced a steep decline in some areas from overpumping, and climate change is creating additional pressures. Chronic groundwater overdraft has led to falling groundwater levels, dry wells, land subsidence, decreased groundwater storage capacity, decreased water quality, and stream depletion.

A 2021 Pacific Institute study highlighted connections between California groundwater management and local communities’ ability to access water — with significant water equity concerns. California‘s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was created to help protect groundwater, but the study showed minimum groundwater thresholds defined by SGMA would leave many people vulnerable to losing their water access. The analysis, which focused on California’s agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley, revealed the region’s groundwater sustainability plans often failed to protect shallow wells. These wells are relied on by many, especially people served by small community water systems and household wells.

The study showed an estimated one million people are served by water systems that have at least 30% of their wells vulnerable to minimum thresholds as defined by SGMA. Small water systems and water systems serving populations whose households make less than $75,000 a year were found to be more likely to have impacted wells. In this way, the study underscored the potential for groundwater management to threaten the realization of California’s Human Right to Water.

The study showed an estimated one million people are served by water systems that have at least 30% of their wells vulnerable to minimum thresholds as defined by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.”

Solutions: Urban and agricultural water efficiency measures can reduce groundwater pressures

The good news is that a wide range of strategies can reduce reliance on overtapped groundwater aquifers. Water efficiency improvements in urbanized areas and on farms can allow us to continue to provide the goods and services we want — with less water.

Efficient irrigation is one of several strategies proven to enhance soil moisture on farms.

On farms, efficient irrigation technologies, improved scheduling, and practices that enhance soil moisture are proven strategies for growing crops with less water. Weather-based irrigation scheduling, for example, uses data about local weather conditions to determine how much water a plant needs. Likewise, drip irrigation slowly releases water from tubing near the plant’s roots to allow for the precise application of water and fertilizer.

And in urbanized areas, repairing leaks, installing efficient appliances and fixtures, and replacing turf grass with native and drought-tolerant plants can dramatically cut water use. Past efforts have enabled many water supply utilities to maintain or reduce water use while meeting the needs of a growing population and economy. The City of Los Angeles, for example, uses about 15% less water today than it did in 1970, while serving 1.2 million more people.

“The City of Los Angeles uses about 15% less water today than it did in 1970, while serving 1.2 million more people.”

Replacing turf grass with native and drought-tolerant plants can dramatically cut water use. Photo credit: Bennymarty, iStock

Laudable progress has been made to reduce groundwater demand by using water more efficiently. But much more can be done. For instance, expanding the use of new local surface water supplies, including water reuse and stormwater capture, can also play an important role in reducing pressures on groundwater.



The Pacific Institute will release a new analysis in April quantifying dramatic opportunities to reduce the gap between urban water supply and use through innovative efficiency, reuse, and stormwater capture strategies.

Sign up here to attend the report briefing April 12 at 9 a.m. (PDT).

Nature-based solutions  can also provide specific benefits for groundwater. These solutions, which use or mimic natural processes, include strategies such as restoring natural ecosystems to naturally store or filter water. The Pacific Institute’s guide “Benefit Accounting of Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds” outlines benefits of nature-based solutions specifically related to groundwater quantity and quality.

Building groundwater resilience

Groundwater is essential to achieving a wider range of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 6 which calls for clean water and sanitation for all. Photo credit: United Nations

Groundwater is a key resource to meet the water needs of people, nature, and community economies. It plays a specific role in ensuring the Human Right to Water is fulfilled — for all. Groundwater is also central to achieving a wider range of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), interlinked with more than 50 SDG targets related to water, climate, and other global challenges.

As demand for groundwater is only projected to grow — with further threats from the changing climate — we must take decisive steps to protect this fragile resource.

Water Conflicts Continue to Worsen Worldwide 

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Pacific Institute Water Conflict Chronology Updated 

Dr. Peter H. Gleick
Pacific Institute Senior Fellow & Co-Founder 

Violence over water resources continues to worsen. 

In the past few years, severe droughts in India and Iran have led to a big increase in conflicts over access to irrigation and domestic water and to demonstrations against water diversions from one community to another. The violence and war between Russia and Ukraine that worsened in 2014 and expanded again with the Russian invasion just a few weeks ago have included attacks on civilian water systems and the use of water as a weapon. Growing population pressures combined with worsening ethnic and religious conflict in sub-Saharan Africa continue to lead to hundreds of deaths a year from violence between pastoralists and farmers over scarce water resources. And computerized water systems are experiencing growing cyberattacks that threaten water safety, quality, and reliability. 

These are just some of the findings of the newly released update of the Water Conflict Chronology, the most comprehensive open-source database on water-related violence, from the Pacific Institute. The Pacific Institute has been compiling and maintaining data on water conflicts since the late 1980s, and the latest update, released in mid-March 2022, brings the number of events to over 1,300, going as far back as the earliest known water war, in ancient Mesopotamia, 4,500 years ago.  

The Water Conflict Chronology outlines how violence over water takes three forms.  

  • Trigger: Access to and control of water can be a “trigger” for violence, such as the demonstrations and riots in Iran in 2019, 2020, and 2021 over the diversion of water away from the Zayanderud river in the city of Isfahan, and growing numbers of killings over access to irrigation water in India and Pakistan during severe droughts. 
  • Weapon: Water and water systems can be “weapons” of violence, such as when armed groups in Libya cut off water to Tripoli by attacking water pumping stations, or when Israeli settlers flooded Palestinian olive groves with sewage in 2019, or when the FBI in the United States arrested neo-Nazis for plotting to poison water supplies in an effort to ignite violence in 2020. 
  • Casualty: Water and water systems can be “casualties” of violence when they are attacked during conflicts that may start for other reasons. Yemen’s civilian water infrastructure has been repeatedly attacked during the war there. Israeli settlers and military have reportedly destroyed a wide range of Palestinian agricultural irrigation systems, water tanks, and water sources over the past three years. Egyptian hackers launched a cyber-attack on Ethiopian water systems in June 2020 in opposition to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and that same year Israel reported several cyber-attacks on Israeli water infrastructure. Water tanks, dams, and water utility equipment have all been attacked in recent incidents around the world. 

These incidents are on the increase. Figure 1 shows the number of entries by year since 2000, broken out by the type of conflict or violence. As the data show, the number of incidents has been increasing, dominated by water as a trigger of violence, with a substantial number of entries where water and water systems have been casualties or targets of violence. 

The data in the Chronology also point to both the importance of reducing violence associated with freshwater, and to identifying strategies that might be effective. Among the most important tools for reducing water conflicts would be accelerating efforts to meet the Human Right to Water, declared by the United Nations in 2010, and to provide basic safe water and sanitation for everyone – an objective of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The failure to meet basic human needs for water contributes to the tensions over access to water, especially during droughts and extreme events. Strategies to enhance and enforce protection of civilian water infrastructure during war, including existing international laws of war such as the Geneva Convention and its 1977 Protocols, could reduce the intentional targeting of water systems during conflicts. Diplomatic efforts should also be ramped up to help resolve disputes over shared international water systems and over rights to water and land, such as the longstanding conflicts in Africa between pastoralists and farmers.  

Finally, the growing threat of human-caused climate change is already worsening water conditions around the world, deepening droughts, enhancing flooding, and disrupting water infrastructure. A key strategy to reduce the risk of water conflicts around the world must also include efforts to slow and eventually stop climate change and to reduce the severity and extent of now unavoidable impacts on water. 

Fresh water is a vital resource, necessary for all aspects of a sustainable future, including meeting basic human and ecosystem needs and providing the goods and services all societies want. Unless strategies for moving from water conflict to water cooperation are pursued and implemented, violence associated with freshwater resources seems likely to continue to increase. That’s not the path we want to be on. 


With Another Dry Year Looming, California Moves to Set New Urban Water Use Standards

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By Cora Kammeyer, Sonali Abraham, and Heather Cooley  

Key Takeaways 

  • Per 2018 legislation, California State agencies are developing water use standards for all urban water suppliers in the state.  
  • In November, the California Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board issued recommended standards to the legislature for residential indoor water use.  
  • Pacific Institute analysis shows most urban water suppliers are already below the recommended 2025 residential indoor water use standard.  
  • It is critical that California adopt strong, forward-looking water use standards given the current drought and climate crises. 

After record-breaking drought conditions in 2021, California is looking at another bleak water year in 2022. Despite the mid-December precipitation, over 90% of the state is still in severe drought, and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced an initial 0% State Water Project allocation for the first time ever. In October, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide drought emergency and urged a voluntary 15% reduction in water use for California cities. So far, most areas are falling short of the target, and mandatory cutbacks are likely for next year.  

In November, amid the deepening drought, the DWR and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) issued joint recommendations to the California State Legislature for new indoor residential water use standards, along with a study supporting the recommendations (hereafter the Indoor Residential Water Use Study, or IRWUS).  

Background on Urban Water Efficiency Legislation  

As background, in 2018, the California legislature passed and Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill 1668 (Friedman) and Senate Bill 606 (Hertzberg). This bill created a new framework for setting customized water use targets for urban water suppliers in California.  

In AB 1668 and SB 606, the State of California made a commitment to use the best available data and information to set water efficiency standards for urban water suppliers. When the bills were passed, limited data were available on indoor water use and 55 gallons per capita daily (gpcd) was selected as a placeholder for the residential indoor standard. The legislation directed the state agencies to conduct necessary studies and jointly recommend a standard by 2021 that reflects current best practices.  

New Urban Indoor Residential Standards 

Using four detailed analytical approaches, the IRWUS estimated that statewide indoor water use averaged 48 gpcd between 2017 and 2019, well below the 55 gpcd placeholder standard. Indoor water use is expected to decline because of plumbing codes, appliance and fixture turnover, and new housing – so called “passive conservation.” The IRWUS projected that median and average indoor water use would decline to about 44 gpcd by 2030 without any active conservation efforts. Based on the study’s findings, the agencies jointly recommend that the indoor residential standard remain at 55 gpcd through 2024 and decline to 47 gpcd in 2025 and to 42 gpcd starting in 2030.  

Active conservation – like utility rebates, conservation-oriented rate structures, and education programs – can provide additional water savings, though the IRWUS did not attempt to quantify the active conservation potential.  

Indoor Residential Water Use in California 

The Pacific Institute analyzed data reported by water suppliers in their Electronic Annual Reports (EARs) for 2017 through 2019 to get a sense of how water suppliers would stack up with the new standards. The EAR is an annual survey of public water systems that collects water-system information, including water use by sector. The EAR does not contain estimates of indoor water use, as this is not measured directly; however, indoor use can be inferred from these data using a methodology validated by DWR in the IRWUS. 

Figure 1 shows current indoor residential water use and the recommended water use standards. Current residential indoor use is shown as a box-and-whisker plot. Between 2017 and 2019, indoor residential water use averaged 48 gpcd (shown as an ‘X’ in the blue box), with a median value of 45 gpcd (shown as the dotted line near the middle of the blue box). For 75% of water suppliers, indoor water was 54 gpcd or less (as indicated by the top of the blue box). For 25% of water suppliers, it was 39 gpcd or less between 2017 and 2019 (as indicated by the bottom of the blue box). The upper and lower ‘whiskers’ point to the upper and lower extremes in the data. 

These data show that 78% of water suppliers were already below the current indoor standard of 55 gpcd between 2017 and 2019. Likewise, 56% of suppliers were below the 2025 standard of 47 gpcd, and 37% were below the 2030 standard of 42 gpcd. 


indoor water use graph
Figure 1: Current statewide residential indoor water use and new recommended standards for 2025 and beyond. *

*Note: Outliers that were “outside of the whiskers” are not shown in the figure. 

Establishing Forward-Looking Urban Water Use Standards 

The indoor standard is the first in a series of urban water use standards that will be submitted in 2022 in adherence with the 2018 legislation, “Making Water Conservation A California Way of Life.” Recommendations for water use standards on residential landscapes, large commercial landscapes, and water loss will follow the indoor standard during the coming months. While the indoor standard will be considered and adopted by the legislature, the remaining standards will be considered, revised as needed, and adopted by the SWRCB. Together, these standards will establish water budgets for every urban water agency in California. Regulations require that every urban water supplier meets their water budget, but there is flexibility in how to achieve it. For example, a water supplier can exceed the indoor standard as long as the total water use objective is met.  

It is vital that the State adopt strong, forward-looking standards to ensure greater levels of water efficiency and conservation given the current drought and climate crises facing California. We will face more severe droughts and hotter temperatures in the years to come, putting greater pressure on water resources. Robust water efficiency standards will help ensure that the state’s drinking water supplies are available for essential uses, and not wasted. This is true not just for California, but also for the Western U.S. and many other arid regions around the world. In the face of increasing drought frequency and intensity in these places, water efficiency is the most cost-effective source of “new” water supply, and is critical tool for building long-term water resilience.  

For more information about the California drought and California cities’ water use, visit www.californiadrought.org. To read more of the Pacific Institute’s work on water efficiency, visit www.pacinst.org/water-efficiency-and-reuse 

COP26: A Bold Step Forward for the Water Resilience Agenda

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Jason Morrison
President, Pacific Institute, & Head, CEO Water Mandate 

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow marked a welcome change in the way water is included in global climate dialogue. Now in the rearview mirror, it’s clear the water agenda received significantly more attention than during previous COPs, and that resilience and adaptation are gaining powerful traction alongside climate mitigation.

In line with the Pacific Institute’s 2030 goal to catalyze the transformation to water resilience, the Institute was a major player at COP26, convening several sessions at the first-ever Water for Climate Pavilion. In advance of the conference, the Pacific Institute also published a Water Resilience Issue Brief to extrapolate on the critical need for building water resilience in the face of climate change. This brief has received significant interest, including this front-page piece in the Los Angeles Times and this “Resilience is More than a Buzzword” interview.  

During the COP26 conference itself, on Energy Day, the Pacific Institute co-convened the session “Water Pathways to Reduce Energy Use and GHG Emissions,” highlighting new research on the water-energy-climate nexus. Director of Research Heather Cooley outlined how climate change places pressure on water resources and how water decisions impact energy usage and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Watch the session here. 

Corporate water stewardship’s role  

The corporate sector’s role in building water resilience was also front and center at COP26. The Pacific Institute advanced this work at the conference through its role as the Co-Secretariat of the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate. The CEO Water Mandate was a Core Partner of the Water for Climate Pavilion and an active participant during a range of COP26 sessions, highlighting corporate action and innovative thinking on water resilience with new climate-focused audiences. 

  • During Finance Day, the most watched of the Water for Climate Pavilion, the CEO Water Mandate, in collaboration with the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), launched the Water Stewardship Acceleration (WaSA) ForumThe WaSA Forum aims to foster policy, finance, and corporate dialogue towards water stewardship acceleration. Watch the session here. 
  • During Nature Day, along with partners, the CEO Water Mandate presented work on nature-based solutions (NBS). This presentation specifically focused on best practices to quantify NBS co-benefits, strengthening the investment case to put real funding for nature on the table. Watch the session here. 
  • Later, on Climate-Resilient WASH Day, the CEO Water Mandate hosted a session with partner WaterAid focused on the Mandate’s WASH4Work consortium. This session highlighted how companies are increasingly recognizing how their actions on water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) need to be future proofed in the context of climate change. Watch the session here. 
  • Finally, on Resilience and Adaptation Day, the CEO Water Mandate highlighted the Water Resilience Assessment Framework, a tool that helps stakeholders jointly understand the climate resilience of the water systems where they operate. Watch the session here. 

Corporate sector leadership from the Water Resilience Coalition 

The CEO Water Mandate’s collective action initiative, the Water Resilience Coalition (WRC), was also a visible presence at the climate conference. Since its 2020 launch, the WRC has gained notable traction, increasing membership from 11 to 27 companies. Since its inception, the WRC has also introduced the Net Positive Water Impact (NPWI) framework, a new standardized approach to quantify water positivity consistently across companies at global scale. WRC member companies commit to achieving NPWI based on three specific dimensions—water availability, quality, and access—in water-stressed basins where they operate by 2050 through a combination of investments in their own operations and through collective action.  

During COP26, the WRC welcomed two new companies—LG and Braskem—to its membership, while also formalizing partnerships with UNICEF and the European Space Agency (ESA). CEOs of WRC leadership companies also united for the Coalition’s second CEO Circle meeting. During this high-level, direction-setting gathering, CEOs agreed on the WRC’s 2030 Roadmap for Collective Action, including specific 2030 goals:  

  • Increase WRC corporate membership to 150 companies, representing one-third of global corporate water usage. 
  • Expand co-funded collective action projects from 11 basins today to at least 100 water-stressed basins around the world. Collective action projects unite business, NGOs, and the public sector to build water resilience through nature-based solutions, regenerative agriculture, wastewater recycling, water reuse, and other climate-positive approaches. 
  • Achieve NPWI in at least 100 basins that support water security for 3 billion people.  
  • Provide resilient water and sanitation (WASH) to at least 100 million people. 

The post-COP26 way forward 

COP26 marked an important milestone in advancing the call for water resilience as part of climate adaptation. However, COP26 is not the finish line. It is, rather, an inflection point. 

With each passing month, intensifying floods and droughts tangibly illustrate how climate change manifests itself most directly through the water cycle, with damaging impacts to people and nature. Significant and swift action is required to ensure water resilience is fully integrated into the highest levels of climate policy discourse—and ultimately achieved.  

During the year ahead looking toward 2022’s COP27 in Egypt, the Pacific Institute will continue to advance the transformation to water resilience—through both public policy advocacy and its leadership role in corporate water stewardship. 



The U.S. Infrastructure Plan: Water Components 

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Peter Gleick, Amanda Bielawski, and Heather Cooley 

On November 5, 2021, the U.S. Congress passed President Biden’s major infrastructure bill, HR 3684, the $1.2 trillion ‘‘Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.” The President is expected to sign the bill into law. The bill is the largest single federal investment in infrastructure in a generation, with the funds to be expended over five years. It aims to rebuild and replace failing, aging, and outdated water, energy, transportation, and communications systems. As the first significant federal investment in climate resilience, it also begins to address the growing consequences of climate change, including intensifying extreme weather events, increasing temperatures, and rising sea levels, on communities throughout the United States.  

One key component of the Act is the set of proposals to address the wide range of water-related challenges facing the United States. This Pacific Institute analysis provides an overview of how the Infrastructure Act addresses these challenges. The Pacific Institute will also issue a more detailed Issue Brief. 


  • The Act dedicates approximately $82.5 billion for a wide range of critical water investments. The largest water-related investments are for improvements in safe drinking water and sanitation.  
  • The new Infrastructure Act provides a shift away from the 20th century primary focus on building major dams and water diversions toward a more sustainable and resilient approach. 
  • The new legislation helps correct some of the historical inequities previous infrastructure bills have perpetuated on frontline communities, who are disproportionately impacted by water insecurity. 
  • The water system investments provided by this new Act are important steps in the right direction. They are not, however, enough—alone—–to prepare water systems to become fully resilient, as they need to be to withstand the stresses and shocks of climate change. 


The United States faces several severe and worsening water problems, including: 

  • old and deteriorating water infrastructure for safe drinking water and wastewater treatment; 
  • new contaminants that are neither regulated nor controlled; 
  • failure to provide modern water services to millions of people; 
  • growing impacts from severe droughts and floods, intensifying as a result of climate change; 
  • water shortages for farms and rural communities; 
  • destruction of aquatic ecosystems, fisheries, and wetlands; and  
  • increasing risks of both climate change and conflicts over water resources around the world. 

Continuing to neglect these water problems will further impoverish and sicken this and future generations, while increasing threats to our economy and food supply. Conversely, smart water policies are projected to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, improve public health, address long-standing disproportionate impacts on frontline communities, and speed economic recovery.   

In September 2020, the Pacific Institute released a set of water-related recommendations for the new administration. Some of the most important of these recommendations are: 

  • delivering clean, affordable drinking water to everyone in the United States, with a focus on removing remaining lead water pipes and service lines;  
  • modernizing and updating existing federal laws that protect drinking water and regulate water pollutants;  
  • preparing for the increasingly detrimental consequences of extreme weather and climate disasters;  
  • protecting and restoring natural aquatic ecosystems; and  
  • improving access to safe water and sanitation in frontline communities, including on Tribal lands.  

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act 

The new Infrastructure Act addresses many of the priorities laid out in the Pacific Institute’s recommendations. It provides the most comprehensive opportunity to help tackle America’s water problems this century. Of the $1.2 trillion authorized to be spent over five years, the Act dedicates approximately $82.5 billion for a wide range of critical water investments. Table 1 provides only a broad overview of the major water-related priorities in the bill. More details will be available in a new Pacific Institute Issue Brief. 

The largest water-related investments in the Act are for improvements in safe drinking water and sanitation throughout the country, including around $24 billion in grants over five years directly to the states under the existing Federal Water Pollution Control Act and Safe Drinking Water Acts. An additional $15 billion is provided for projects to replace lead water pipes and service lines, like those responsible for the severe contamination incident in Flint, Michigan, and remaining lead pipes in other cities around the country. Another $9 billion is allocated for addressing a set of new, dangerous, and unregulated pollutants, including perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl and other “emerging contaminants,” long neglected by current federal law. 

Federal infrastructure investments have historically supported the construction of major water-related infrastructure projects, such as dams, aqueducts, irrigation systems, and river and port transportation systems. The current bill is no exception. A major difference, however, is that the new investments refocus funds to modern, 21st century priorities that increasingly involve a longer-term water resilience view. For instance, the bill includes investments in some nature-based solutions, including ecosystem restoration, as well as water efficiency, water reuse, flood and drought programs, dam safety, and rural communities. In this way, we see a shift away from the 20th century primary focus on building major dams and water diversions toward a more comprehensive and integrated approach. Read more about the Pacific Institute’s view on water resilience in this blog and Issue Brief. 

In the current bill, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agencies traditionally charged with managing the nation’s federal waters, are authorized to spend approximately $25 billion over five years for a wide range of these new investments. Another $2 billion is set aside for specific regional water protection programs in the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound, Long Island Sound, Gulf of Mexico, South Florida, Lake Champlain, Lake Pontchartrain, Southern New England Estuaries, and the Columbia River Basin. 

Water science also receives support in the bill. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture are authorized to spend around $3.9 billion for new hydrologic science and modeling programs to help predict, detect, and prevent extreme events and wildfires that destroy watershed health and water quality, and for a range of ocean programs. 

Importantly, the new legislation corrects some of the historical inequities previous infrastructure bills and federal water policies have perpetuated on frontline communities, who are disproportionately affected by water insecurity. For example, Section 50108 of the bill requires the EPA Administrator to submit to Congress a comprehensive report on municipalities, communities, and Tribes that must spend a disproportionate amount of household income on access to public drinking water or wastewater services or that have unsustainable levels of water-related debt. Importantly, the report must also include the Administrator’s recommendations for how best to reduce these inequities and improve affordable access to water services. The EPA must also provide grants to states and Tribes to help schools test for and remediate lead in drinking water (Section 50110), and grants to improve water quality, water pressure, or water services on Native American reservations by prioritizing projects addressing emergency situations occurring due to or resulting in a lack of access to clean drinking water that threatens the health of Tribal populations (Section 50111).  

Other Water Infrastructure Investment Highlights 

Support is also provided to expand the careful management of stormwater and the sophisticated treatment and reuse of wastewater, two priorities identified by the Pacific Institute for addressing water challenges across the United States: 

  • Section 50202 (“Wastewater Efficiency Grant Pilot Program”) provides funds for the EPA to establish a wastewater efficiency grant pilot program to carry out projects that create or improve waste-to-energy systems.  
  • Section 50203 (“Pilot Program for Alternative Water Source Projects”) amends the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to support projects that use water, wastewater, or stormwater or treat wastewater or stormwater for groundwater recharge, potable reuse, or other purposes.  
  • Section 50204 (“Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Reuse Municipal Grants”) amends the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to support project funding for projects in rural communities or financially distressed communities for the purpose of planning, design, and construction of treatment works for stormwater and other polluted waters.  
  • A new federal Interagency Working Group will be established to coordinate actions to advance water reuse across the United States (Section 50218). 

Many other sections of the Infrastructure Act tackle water issues and will be summarized more fully in the forthcoming Pacific Institute Issue Brief, including projects to:  

  • reduce the vulnerability of US water systems to cyberattacks, improve water-efficiency programs, and expand job training, diversity, and opportunities in the water and wastewater sectors (Section 50211); 
  • improve water data sharing (Section 50213); 
  • expand groundwater recharge and protection (Section 50222); and 
  • satisfy long-neglected water rights obligations to Native American tribes (Section 70101). 

Finally, there are additional investments provided in the Bill for non-water projects that provide water co-benefits. A few examples include:  

  • Section 40804 (“Ecosystem Restoration”) provides $2.1 billion over five years for a wide range of projects to improve the ecological health of land and waters, including detecting and removing invasive species, restoring streambeds, improving water quality and fish passages. 
  • Funds allocated to the states for transportation projects also provide some support for flood protection and aquatic ecosystem restoration, and the assessment of transportation and coastal risks from extreme floods, droughts, and sea-level rise (Section 11405). 
  • A “Healthy Streets Program” includes support for “cool” and “porous” pavement that will mitigate some of the impacts of rising urban temperatures and reduce stormwater risks (Section 11406). 
  • A National Academy of Sciences study will be prepared on best management practices for stormwater, especially to reduce runoff pollution associated with severe storms (Section 11520).  
  • Support is provided for improved coordination between the United States and Canada along the Columbia River to ensure continued non-carbon electricity generation from hydroelectric plants, to “increase bilateral transfers of renewable electric generation between the western United States and Canada,” and to rehabilitate and enhance hydropower and irrigation functions at Columbia River dams (Section 40113). 
  • The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy will prepare technical assessments of the opportunities for, among other things, “improving efficient use of water in manufacturing processes” (Section 40333). 
  • The “Natural Resources-Related Infrastructure, Wildfire Management, and Ecosystem Restoration” section (Section 40801 et al.), provides $250 million over five years to decommission and clean up old Forest Service roads to restore passages for fish and other aquatic species, taking account foreseeable changes in weather and hydrology and to support other projects in the National Forests that improve the resilience of roads, trails, and bridges to “extreme weather events, flooding, or other natural disasters.”   


As with all federal legislation, the final bill was a compromise, shifting priorities based on political and financial considerations. Many important investments in initial versions of the bill were watered down. For example, earlier drafts included far more money to help remove legacy lead drinking water pipes. While the $15 billion provided in the final bill is a start, far more funds will have to be found to complete that vitally important job.  

It’s important to point out that the ultimate success of these investments to address U.S. water problems will depend on how the authorized funds are actually allocated and spent. Success will also depend on the ability of federal agencies, states, local communities, and Tribes to create and mobilize jobs, find additional investments, and implement needed projects.  

The water investments provided by this new Act are important steps in the right direction. They are not, however, enough—aloneto prepare U.S. water systems to become fully resilient, as they need to be to withstand the stresses and shocks of climate change. This will require an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensure people and nature have the water they need to thrive and all communities are protected from intensifying water-related disasters. 

Table 1  

Selected Water-Related Infrastructure Investments in HR 3684, the ‘‘Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.” 

(Includes most, but not all, fund authorizations related to U.S. freshwater resources. Most authorizations are over five years. See bill for specifics and details.) 










DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE:  Natural Resources Conservation  Service 



Operations and Applications Programs 



Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations 



Watershed Rehabilitation Program 



Emergency Watershed Protection Program  






DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 



Research and Facilities 



National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund grants



Restoring marine, estuarine, coastal, or Great Lakes ecosystem habitat, protecting ecological features and coastal communities from flooding or coastal storms



Coastal and inland flood and inundation mapping and forecasting, water modeling activities  



Data acquisition activities pursuant to the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 



Wildfire prediction, detection, observation, modeling, and forecasting, for fiscal year 2022



Study of soil moisture and snowpack monitoring network in the Upper Missouri River Basin 



Marine debris assessment, prevention, mitigation, and removal 



Marine debris prevention and removal through the National Sea Grant College Program 



Habitat restoration projects thru the Coastal Zone Management Act, including ecosystem conservation 



Habitat restoration projects through the National Estuarine Research Reserve System including ecosystem conservation 



Improved and enhanced coastal, ocean, and Great Lakes observing systems 



Regional Ocean Partnerships (ROPs) to coordinate the management of ocean and coastal resources  



Consultations and permitting related to the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Essential Fish Habitat 



Restoring fish passages, removing in-stream barriers and providing technical assistance pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006  



Wildfire prediction, detection, forecasting; supercomputers for weather and climate model development for drought flood, and fire; coastal, ocean and Great Lakes observing systems; and Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery 






DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 



Construction projects  



Major rehabilitation, construction, and related activities for rivers and harbors



Water-related environmental infrastructure assistance 



Construction, replacement, rehabilitation, and expansion of inland waterways projects 



Previously approved construction projections under federal legislation; Aquatic ecosystem/Restore fish and wildlife passages  



Aquatic ecosystem restoration projects, for multi-purpose projects  



Coastal storm risk management, hurricane and storm damage reduction projects, and activities targeting States that have been impacted by federally declared disasters over the last six years



Inland flood risk management projects 






Additional funds authorized for the Army Corp of Engineers 



Investigations by the Secretary of the Army through the Chief of Engineers to undertake work authorized under the Water Resources Development Act of 1974



Mississippi River and Tributary projects, including emergencies and disasters 



Operation and Maintenance (over a three-year period) 



Emergency Regulatory Programs 



Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies; Expenses 



The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Program Account for dam safety 









Bureau of Reclamation (Water and Related Resources) 



Feasibility studies and construction of previously approved water storage, groundwater storage, and conveyance projects. Includes small-scale storage and groundwater projects 


 $ 1,150,000,000  

Major rehabilitation and replacement of water infrastructure including funds for dam failures, dam rehabilitation or replacement 



Rural water projects previously authorized by an Act of Congress, in accordance with the Reclamation Rural Water Supply Act of 2006 


 $ 1,000,000,000  

Water recycling and reuse projects 


 $ 1,000,000,000  

Implementing the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan and the Drought Contingency Plan for the Upper Colorado River Basin 



Multibenefit habitats, protection against invasive species, restoration of aspects of the natural ecosystems, enhancement of commercial, recreational, subsistence, or Tribal ceremonial fishing, or enhancement of river-based recreation



Water desalination projects and studies authorized  or approved for construction funding by an Act of Congress before July 1, 2021; or selected for funding under the program 



Safety of dams in accordance with the Reclamation Safety of Dams Act of 1978 



WaterSMART grants in accordance with the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009  



Financial assistance for watershed management projects in river basins adversely affected by Bureau of Reclamation projects 



Design, study, and construction of aquatic ecosystem restoration and protection projects  



Endangered species recovery and conservation programs in the Colorado River Basin in accordance with public law  



Central Utah Project Completion Account 






Bureau of Indian Affairs (Projects on Indian Lands) 



Construction, repair, improvement,  maintenance of irrigation and power systems, dams, sanitation, and other facilities  









Environmental Programs and Management programs 



Great Lakes Restoration Initiative 



Chesapeake Bay 



San Francisco Bay 



Puget Sound 



Long Island Sound 


 $ 106,000,000  

Gulf of Mexico 



South Florida 



Lake Champlain 



Lake Pontchartrain 



Southern New England Estuaries 



Columbia River Basin 



Other geographic activities which includes Pacific Northwest 



National Estuary Program grants 



The Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan 



Class VI Wells permitting  



Battery Recycling best practice and labeling programs 






EPA Major Safe Drinking Water and Contaminants Grants 



Clean Water State Revolving Funds under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act 



Drinking Water State Revolving Funds under the Safe Drinking Water Act 



Capitalization grants for lead service line replacement projects and the identification, planning, design, and replacement of lead service lines



Clean Water State Revolving Funds under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to address emerging contaminants



Capitalization grants for the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds under the Safe Drinking Water Act to address emerging contaminants in drinking water with a focus on perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances 



Addressing emerging contaminants in underserved communities, under the Safe Drinking Water Act  






EPA Additional Safe Drinking Water and Federal Pollution Control Act Funding 



For authorized purposes of the Safe Drinking Water Act in addition to amounts otherwise authorized to be appropriated for those purposes 



For authorized purposes of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in addition to amounts otherwise authorized to be appropriated for those purposes 






Pacific Institute Launches Water Resilience Issue Brief, Calls on Decision-makers to Rapidly Scale Water Resilience Solutions in Build-Up to COP26 

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Pacific Institute launches Water Resilience Issue Brief, Calls on Decisionmakers to Rapidly Scale Water Resilience Solutions in Build-Up to COP26

October 29, 2021

Amanda Bielawski, Heather Cooley, Jason Morrison, Gregg Brill  



Never before have the global water and climate agendas been so closely linked. More than 30 years ago, the Pacific Institute made some of the earliest projections about how climate change would wreak havoc on the water cycle. Today, we see many of these impacts before our very eyes. Amid climate change, intensifying floods and droughts have affected people, nature, and economies. Further illustrating the water crisis, SDG 6 for water is “alarmingly off track,” an estimated 2.2 billion people (about a quarter of the world’s population) lack access to safe drinking water, businesses face material water risks to their direct operations and supply chains, and ecosystems are suffering. 

“The Pacific Institute conducted some of the earliest groundbreaking research linking climate change and water systems.” 

COP 26 advances water-climate connections 

As we approach COP26 in Glasgow, we recognize how pivotal this United Nations Climate Change Conference will be in advancing water on the global climate agenda. After decades of work by water leaders to integrate water and climate solutions, COP26 presents a unique moment in time 

Notably, more than 25 years ago, long before this climate-water connection was widely recognized in mainstream policy, the Pacific Institute conducted some of the earliest groundbreaking research linking climate change and water systems. It also issued some of the earliest warnings to policymakers and corporate leaders, while advancing solutions toward water security and sustainability. And in 2019, it announced an organizational goal to catalyze the transformation to water resilience in the face of climate change. 

“After decades of work by water leaders to integrate water and climate solutions, COP26 presents a unique moment in time.”

Launch of Water Resilience Issue Brief 

Today, in support of its organizational goal and in anticipation of COP26’s historic opportunity to unite water and climate leaders, the Pacific Institute launches its Water Resilience issue brief. The Pacific Institute defines “water resilience” as the ability of water systems to function so that nature and people, including those on the frontlines and disproportionately impacted, thrive under shocks, stresses, and change. Water resilience builds upon the concepts of water security and sustainability, while recognizing that water systems must be able to respond to stresses and shocks, including those increasingly caused by climate change. While climate change is a primary driver of this focus, water resilience can address a wide range of environmental, social, economic, and political pressures on water. 

Building on an increasingly robust literature, the Pacific Institute finds that water resilient systems are often comprised of a combination of six characteristics:  

  1. Robust 
  2. Redundant 
  3. Flexible 
  4. Integrated 
  5. Inclusive 
  6. Just and Equitable 

Recognizing water resilience is not measured as a binary condition but along a spectrum, we find that the more of these six components a water system has, the more resilient it will be. 

Urgent call to policymakers and corporate leaders 

Most critically, we call upon decisionmakers across all segments of society to commit to achieving water resilience by rapidly scaling solutions. These solutions include integrating nature-based solutions with grey infrastructure, as well as increasing investments in water efficiency and reuse. In all cases, the Pacific Institute calls upon this work to prioritize all stakeholders, especially frontline communities often disproportionately impacted by climate change, as well as the natural environment. 

“Most critically, this Issue Brief calls upon decisionmakers across all segments of society to commit to achieving water resilience by rapidly scaling solutions.”

The Pacific Institute provides a range of open-source tools and resources to support uptake of these solutions, many of which will be highlighted during COP26. These include two key starting points for those considering investments in nature-based solutions: a guide on Benefit Accounting of Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds and the NBS Benefits Explorer tool. Additionally, the Water Resilience Assessment Framework (WRAF) is a method to be used, either individually or collectively, to gain insight into how to measure progress towards long-term water resilience and prevent shocks and stresses from becoming crises. Finally, the Pacific Institute launched a comprehensive assessment that identified the critical importance of water efficiency and reuse for reducing water-related greenhouse gas emissions. 

Mobilizing the business community  

During COP26, as the Co-Secretariat of the Water Resilience Coalition, the Pacific Institute will partner with the United Nations Global Compact and CEOs of major global companies to launch a bold new vision for water resilience. Represented by 25 CEOs with US$3.28 trillion in market capitalization, the Water Resilience Coalition is elevating global water stress to the top of corporate agendas and leading large-scale collective action. By 2030, these CEOs aim to drive positive water impact across 100 water-stressed basins globally, improving lives for more than 3 billion people living with water insecurity. In this way, the Water Resilience Coalition is a powerful lever to mobilize the broader business community in moving—collectively—toward a more water resilient world. 

2030 guiding vision 

The Water Resilience Issue Brief informs the Pacific Institute’s 2030 organizational goal to “catalyze the transformation to water resilience in the face of climate change.” It also aims to advance understanding and achievement of water resilience by governments, policymakers, businesses, NGOs and other water policy and practice actors. 

“The water-related impacts of climate change call for bold and immediate action.” 

Climate change calls for bold and immediate action. The need for rapid changes in policies and practices along with new investments has never been greater than it is today.  

Read the Water Resilience issue brief here

More information about how the Pacific Institute can support the public and private sector in this critical task is available at www.pacinst.org




Building Resilience Faster at World Water Week 2021 

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By Jason Morrison 

As the co-secretariat of the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate, the Pacific Institute is pleased to be a leading contributor at the upcoming World Water Week. Through the CEO Water Mandate, the Pacific Institute is mobilizing business leaders to support water resilience at global scale—through increased implementation of nature-based solutions, collective action, and other strategies. As the Head of the CEO Water Mandate and the President of the Pacific Institute, I extend a direct invitation to join us at World Water Week. 

From international reports and research findings, and even from our own experience in day-to-day life, it is evident that we are far from reaching our shared global water goals. On some water issues, we even need to quadruple our pace, if we are to meet our ambitions under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. These worsening conditions also make it evident that there is an urgent need for accelerated action. Businesses, through collective action with other sectors, are positioned at an extraordinary juncture, where environmental, economic, and community water resilience can be attained by acting decisively. But we must act boldly and swiftly! 

During this year’s World Water Week, the CEO Water Mandate will offer the private, social, and public sectors tools and frameworks to support such decisive action and to accelerate water stewardship and resilience efforts through 11 events. 

As a key collaborating partner for SIWI’s World Water Week, the CEO Water Mandate, in collaboration with IKEA and WBCSD, presents The Private Sector–Water and Climate Resilience in Uncertain Times Seminar. This event will convene business leaders with diverse stakeholders to consider leadership positions, advances in science and practice, and robust solutions to build resilience to our wicked climate change problem. Running from August 23rd to 26th, the seminar’s sessions will focus on corporate leadership, collective action, and tools and approaches to accelerate the achievement of our shared water stewardship goals. 

We will also launch several innovative tools during the Week. On Tuesday, August 24th we will present the Water Resilience Assessment Framework, an innovative methodology to assess water system resilience to create shared understanding and collective action. We will also launch the Water Action Hub 4.0 later that day. The Hub offers companies additional tools to assess and improve their water stewardship and understand the links between water stewardship and climate resilience. On Wednesday, August 25th we will share a preview of a state-of-the-art tool to account for co-benefits of Nature-Based Solutions (NBS). This work supports the business case for NBS investments and allows companies to make informed decisions regarding water security, climate resilience (including greenhouse gas emissions reduction), biodiversity conservation and socio-economic development. 

We will also be celebrating the road we have travelled and beginning new journeys. On Wednesday, August 25th we are happy to share five years of lessons learned through our WASH4Work initiative in a session that will feature the business case for WASH, best practices in operations, supply chains and communities, and will launch a discussion about the future-looking agenda of Climate Resilient WASH. Finally, we will also introduce, in collaboration with GIZ and AWS, the new formation of the Water Stewardship Acceleration (WaSA) Forum. We seek to share how the Forum can facilitate the high-level exchange on bottlenecks, best policy practices, and increasing the visibility of the water stewardship approach on the political agenda through this session on Wednesday, August 25th. 

In addition, the CEO Water Mandate is a partner for World Water Week’s Leadership in Business Accelerator, a new feature for this year’s conference which will highlight levers that can speed up and intensify our impact within the private sector. We will close the week with a private session part of the SIWI’s Accelerator which will bring our CEO Water Mandate members and partners together to discuss accelerating achievement of water security and resilience through the concept of net-positive water impact. This session will help build a common approach that empowers companies in their journey to achieve a positive impact on water in alignment with the UN Global Compact’s SDG 6 Ambition. 

Find out more about how to access and apply our collective action platforms, business cases, innovative resilience metrics and novel tools that put nature at the center of solutions in our World Water Week dedicated site. Join our 11 seminars and sessions and discover with us new ways to build resilience faster. 


Shortage Declaration in the Colorado River Basin Takeaways

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A Q&A with Pacific Institute Senior Researcher Michael Cohen and Dr. Amanda Bielawski, Pacific Institute Director of Communications and Outreach


Today, the US Secretary of the Interior declared a first-ever Shortage Condition for the Lower Colorado River Basin. After more than 21 years of drought in the western United States intensified by human-caused climate change, the Bureau of Reclamation has released a study projecting that the elevation of Lake Mead will be below an elevation triggering a Tier 1 Shortage Condition that will reduce water access to some users starting in January 2022. It’s a historic move sending reverberations throughout the water policy world — both within the United States and globally.

What does this Shortage Declaration mean for Native American Tribes, the seven U.S. states, and communities in Mexico downstream? What does the situation tell us about climate-intensifying droughts in other river Basins around the world? And, in the face of climate change, how can we envision and build water resilient infrastructure moving forward to safeguard communities from water scarcity into the future?

To tackle these questions and others, we spoke with Michael Cohen, a Pacific Institute Senior Researcher who has worked on water use issues in the Colorado River Basin and delta region since 1998.


The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the West.


AB: You’ve worked on water policy issues in the Colorado River Basin for more than two decades, spanning the entire period of this 22-year drought. What is the significance of today’s official Shortage Declaration and who will be impacted?

MC: The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the West, providing water for more than 40 million people, including 29 federally recognized Native American Tribes, and irrigating almost six million acres of land in the U.S. and Mexico. Although the Colorado River roils and rages in the nation’s imagination, the reality is far more prosaic. The river is tightly managed and controlled, captured and caged by 10 massive dams along its length. Its use is regulated by treaty, inter-state compacts, state and federal laws, and a host of judicial decisions and decrees. These treaties, compacts, and laws allocate more water from the river than flows even in an average year, an imbalance shown by the ever-expanding “bathtub ring” highlighting Lake Mead’s fall.

Today, the Bureau of Reclamation released a study projecting that Lake Mead’s elevation at the end of this year will be below 1075 feet – almost 150 feet below its elevation 22 years ago. This projection triggers a declaration by the Secretary of the Interior of a “Level 1 Shortage Condition” for Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico (but not for California) in 2022. Central Arizona water users – primarily farmers – will bear the brunt of this shortage, reducing their use by more than half a million acre-feet of water – almost a third of the capacity of the Central Arizona Project’s aqueduct. Fortunately, water users have had years to plan and prepare for this, mitigating the impacts of this signal event. Some users will shift to groundwater, tapping into water recharged for this purpose.

The shortage declaration follows rules finalized in 2007, providing predictability for water users. The shortage condition will not affect water users in California, though declining inflows into and releases from Lake Powell will cause Lake Mead’s elevation to continue to fall next year, threatening a 200,000 acre-foot reduction for California in 2024 and even larger reductions in subsequent years if conditions do not improve dramatically.

If there’s a silver lining to today’s shortage declaration, it’s that it reflects a cooperative effort among a broad range of stakeholders who developed innovative mechanisms to store water in Lake Mead, mechanisms that have delayed this shortage declaration for several years and reduced the finger-pointing and risk of litigation so common in other Basins. However, these innovative mechanisms have not been enough to address the extremely dry and hot conditions desiccating the Basin and will not be sufficient to prevent a very rapid draining of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, as shown by the Bureau of Reclamation’s very sobering projections, in which Mead’s elevation could plummet another 40 feet in the next two years.


It’s shocking to think that people in the U.S. do not have reliable access to drinking water, but that’s the grim reality in far too many Native American communities.


AB: Indigenous communities in the Colorado River Basin — and throughout the United States— are disproportionately impacted by water insecurity. How will today’s Shortage Declaration impact Native American communities in the Colorado River Basin?

MC: It’s shocking to think that people in the U.S. do not have reliable access to drinking water, but that’s the grim reality in far too many Native American communities. The baseline is already intolerable. The continuing drought exacerbates these existing challenges.

Several Tribes, notably the Gila River Indian Community, have already reduced their use of Colorado River water in a collaborative effort to delay the declaration of shortage and to mitigate the impacts on other users. Although Tribes in the Basin have very senior water rights on paper, in practice many still lack access to the water reserved for them by treaties dating back more than a century. Fortunately, many in the Basin have begun to recognize that addressing the river’s current and future challenges requires consultation with the sovereign Tribes.


The study released today clearly shows the accelerating rate of decline of the Colorado River’s massive reservoirs, underscoring the need for urgenaction to mitigate much larger reductions in the near future.


AB: While the focus today is on the Colorado River Basin, there are many Basins in the United States and around the world facing severe drought exacerbated by human-caused climate change. What are some of the other Basins facing similar concerns? Is this a microcosm?

MC: Last week’s U.S. Drought Monitor shows 95.4% of the West suffering from some level of drought, including more than 25% in exceptional drought, the most severe category. Much of Brazil continues to experience drought. And it wasn’t many years ago that Cape Town, South Africa, was counting the days until it ran out of water.

While transformational drought has affected many arid and semi-arid Basins around the world, there are several practices within the Colorado River Basin that offer good models for how to address such challenges. Over the past 20-plus years, stakeholders in the Basin have worked together to craft innovative approaches to address declining reservoir elevations and diminishing supply. Water conservation and efficiency have become the standard for most of the growing cities using Colorado River water, enabling economic and population growth while using less water overall. Many farmers have improved their water use efficiency, using less water to irrigate the same amount of land. Water users have invested in system efficiencies throughout the Basin, lining canals, building regulatory reservoirs, and improving operations to conserve water now stored in Lake Mead. Perhaps most surprising is that the U.S. and Mexico have executed a series of agreements enabling U.S.interests to invest in system improvements in Mexico, enabling Mexico to store water in Lake Mead, and providing for dedicated environmental flows to the desiccated Colorado River delta. These are positive steps in the right direction.

Credible science and modeling, a network of bold and innovative thinkers from a variety of sectors, and a willingness to (slowly) enlarge the negotiating table made these changes possible. Without these creative changes and the cooperation demonstrated by Basin stakeholders, today’s shortage declaration would have occurred two or three years earlier, amid litigation and paralysis. The pressing question now is whether Basin stakeholders will again find solutions sufficient to meet the growing challenges posed by a drier and more volatile climate. The study released today clearly shows the accelerating rate of decline of the Colorado River’s massive reservoirs, underscoring the need for urgent action to mitigate much larger reductions in the near future.


Climate change is water change.


AB: Although the western United States is naturally an arid region, it’s clear the current 22-year drought has been intensified by human-caused climate change. What are future projections for the Colorado River Basin based upon the newly released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in August?

MC: Climate change is water change. The Colorado River Basin manifests these changes in dramatic and sobering ways. Although precipitation in the Basin is about 72% of average this water year, runoff has been only about 32% of average due to very dry soil conditions and higher temperatures – reflecting the “hot drought” and the strong climate signal Peter Gleick anticipated 30 years ago. Average Colorado River flows over the past 22 years are down more than 2.5 million acre-feet – about 18% – relative to average annual flows prior to the current drought. Continued climate change impacts could reduce Colorado River flows by 50% by the end of the century.

The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report projects the very changes we’re already seeing in the Basin. Rain falling on forest fire burn scars has caused disruptive mudslides, closing Interstate 70 several times in the past month and generating localized flooding in many areas. The intensity of some of these storms is incredible. On July 25th, parts of Boulder, Colorado experienced 2.25 inches of rain in 90 minutes.


Perhaps today’s dire projections will compel water users to confront climate change and press their legislators to take meaningful action to reduce carbon emissions, and not just rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship.


AB: Amid climate change and population growth, what does today’s Shortage Declaration suggest about whether the water infrastructure built during the 20th century can serve the water needs of the U.S. West into the 21st century? Is a transformational change in the way we approach water infrastructure needed?

MC: In 1893, John Wesley Powell observed that there was not enough water to supply western lands. We still haven’t learned that lesson. While many cities now use much less water than they did twenty and thirty years ago despite significant economic and population growth, others spin wild schemes to further deplete the dwindling Colorado River. Perhaps today’s dire projections will compel water users to confront climate change and press their legislators to take meaningful action to reduce carbon emissions, and not just rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship.


AB: What are the next steps to watch for in the Colorado Basin? Are there future steps that make you feel hopeful?

MC: The next major action in the Basin will be the renegotiation of the 2007 interim guidelines. The current operating guidelines expire at the end of 2026, providing a needed deadline for developing and finalizing the next set of shortage criteria for the Basin. The good news is that the Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Reclamation now have confirmed people in key leadership positions – people who are very familiar with Colorado River operations – enabling the new negotiations to commence.

One item in today’s study that should receive more attention is the Bureau of Reclamation’s projection of “minimum probable inflows.” This minimum probable inflow projection shows that the elevation of Lake Mead could fall below 1,030 feet in July 2023, triggering a consultation between the Secretary of the Interior and representatives of Arizona, California, and Nevada “to determine what additional measures will be taken … to avoid and protect against the potential for Lake Mead to decline below 1,020 feet.” This new consultation is a positive step, forcing consideration of additional necessary conservation measures. I’m hopeful that the Secretary and Reclamation will expand the table to include the sovereign Native American Tribes, Mexico, and stakeholders such as conservation organizations, to ensure that these additional measures are equitable and do not sacrifice the environment or other interests.


Learn more about drought in the Colorado River Basin and throughout the Western US in this “Drought in the American West”briefing produced in partnership with Circle of Blue.Pacific Institute Director of Research Heather Cooley discusses the history of water infrastructure development in the US West and innovative water efficiency and reuse strategies.Pacific Institute President Emeritus Dr. Peter Gleick discusses the need for water resilience moving forward. In Gleick’s words, “We can build water systems that are truly water resilient. Let’s turn the current crisis into action.”


Pacific Institute pre-scoping comments on Colorado River operations, September 2022


All Together Now? Differences in Water Shortage Conditions Across California 

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By Cora Kammeyer 

California is back in a drought. You’ve heard it on the news, you’ve heard it from scientists, and they’re right — 100% of the state is in at least moderate drought. Yet, California Governor Gavin Newsom has yet to declare a statewide drought emergency, instead opting for county-level declarations — 50 of 58 counties have been declared so far this year. And if you look closer at what impacts different regions are facing, and how they are responding, you see important differences in water shortage conditions across the state.  

How Do We Measure Water Shortage? 

There are many ways to measure water shortage, but it is generally understood as the gap between water availability and water demand at a given time in a specific region. Three simple indicators can help provide the big picture: drought conditionsreservoir levels, and  previous investments in saving water 

First, of course, are drought conditions. The US Drought Monitor looks at precipitation, streamflow, and soil moisture to measure drought. Right now, it shows us that 100% of the state is in a drought, with 33% in exceptional drought — the worst category.  

The second important indicator to look at is water storage — for example, how full are our reservoirs? This helps us gauge how prepared we are for prolonged dry conditions. Groundwater storage is also a good indicator to look at, but it is more dispersed and water level data isn’t as readily updated and available.  

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Third, it helps to understand what regions have already done to save water, like increasing water efficiency and water reuse, because the areas that have already saved a lot are usually better equipped for drought. For example, during the last drought California cities were asked to reduce water use by 25% to meet Governor Brown’s conservation mandate, and those savings help cities facing drought now.  

By looking at those three metrics, we can get a sense of which regions are likely to be hardest-hit and which regions might fare okay.  

What Do Water Shortage Conditions Look Like Across California? 

So far, we are seeing northern California, particularly the Sacramento River watershed between Sacramento and Redding and the Russian River watershed on the North Coast, facing some of the worst water shortage risk, with exceptional drought conditions and reservoirs less than half full. In the Sacramento River, and the Klamath River further north, we see perilously low reservoir levels and river flows affecting fish and farmers alike. The same is true for much of the San Joaquin Valley in the center of the state, which is the heart of California agriculture. This region has also seen significant cuts to imported water supplies that usually are delivered through the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project, plus a legacy of groundwater depletion that is catching up to water users.  

In contrast, we see the urban South Coast of California, from Los Angeles to San Diego, facing milder drought conditions and fuller reservoirs. We also know there have been more concerted water conservation, efficiency, and reuse efforts in the south than in the north. Looking at the San Francisco Bay Area, we see a mix — good historic investments in efficiency and reuse, decent reservoir levels, but exceptional drought conditions. These two regions — urban southern California and the Bay Area — are among the few counties that have not yet seen official drought declarations by the State.  

Water is a very local resource, and every region has different water supplies and water demands. But, despite those regional nuances, we all need to be doing our part to conserve water and prepare for extended drought. If you want to look up water shortage conditions in your region of California, the Pacific Institute maintains www.californiadrought.org, where you can find up-to-date drought conditions and reservoir levels, look at your city’s water use, and learn more about how California can better prepare for droughts before we’re in one.  

The 2021 Western Drought: What to Expect as Conditions Worsen

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By Cora Kammeyer, Peter Gleick, Heather Cooley, Gregg Brill, Sonali Abraham, and Michael Cohen

The American West has entered another drought crisis, with nearly the entire region (97 percent) facing abnormally dry conditions and over 70 percent of the region already in severe drought. State and local leaders are making emergency declarations. Water allocations are being slashed. We are already seeing fish die-offs and domestic wells running dry — and the dry season is just beginning.

Drought Conditions

There are many ways to measure drought, and all the indicators we have are telling a dismal story. Precipitation is less than half of normal across the West, and as little as a third of normal in parts of Nevada, Arizona, and California — including major cities like Sacramento, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. This is the second dry year in a row for California; for the seven states sharing the Colorado River, there have been two decades of below-normal water. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is essentially nonexistent, having been low all winter and now disappearing two months early. Colorado River Basin snow conditions are faring only slightly better, with snowpack ranging from 13 to 100 percent of normal across the basin states, and reservoir levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado River, are reaching record lows. Reservoir levels in the two largest reservoirs in California — Oroville and Shasta — hover around 40 percent, far below normal for this time of year.

In response, state and federal agencies are cutting water allocations. Allocations for California’s State Water Project are at a meager five percent; the federally owned Central Valley Project allocations are at 25 percent overall but down to zero percent for agricultural contractors. On the Colorado River, unprecedented shortage declarations are looming.

Drought Impacts

Severe drought conditions like those now gripping the West have adverse consequences for people, businesses, and nature. These impacts are not evenly distributed. Small and rural communities, many of which have a greater proportion of low-income households and people of color often feel the worst effects. Freshwater ecosystems are at serious risk from low water flows and high water temperatures, and water-quality issues are worsened by increased salt and contaminant concentrations and reduced oxygen levels. Surface water shortages for agriculture lead to more groundwater pumping and continued overdraft causes land subsidence, property damage, drying of domestic wells, and a permanent loss in groundwater storage.

Severe drought conditions like those now gripping the West have adverse consequences for people, businesses, and nature.

Fish and Wildlife: Droughts in California are especially hard on natural ecosystems, already suffering from overuse and contamination. In 2014 and 2015, 95 percent of young, endangered winter-run Chinook Salmon died due to high water temperatures on the Sacramento River, increasing the risk of regional extinction of already threatened salmon and other fish species.

Wildfire:  Wildfires are already becoming more frequent and severe, and they are starting earlier in the year and lasting longer. Low soil moisture and lack of rain worsens pest outbreaks and tree deaths, which in turn further increases wildfire risks and concern is growing for an extremely severe fire risk this year.

Agriculture: In the face of water shortages, farmers have to look to alternative supplies and practices, such as purchasing water through temporary transfers, pumping more groundwater, changing the types of crops grown, installing efficient irrigation systems, and fallowing land. As efforts to implement California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) expand, constraints on groundwater pumping — in both wet and dry years — will grow, further complicating agricultural responses to drought.

Rural Communities: Rural communities throughout the west are often dependent on a single water source, which increases their vulnerability to drought. During the past severe California drought, many shallow rural groundwater wells went dry as deeper agricultural wells depleted groundwater, causing major impacts on some communities. Declining water supplies and water-quality problems this year may force communities to switch to costly bottled water, dig deeper wells, and truck in emergency supplies of water. These actions impose local economic hardships on those living in rural areas, many of whom are among our most disadvantaged communities.

Urban Areas: A diversified water supply means that urban areas are usually not at high risk of running out of water, but severe drought typically leads to voluntary and mandatory efforts to cut use. There is capacity to create additional supply through water conservation in these areas. Water utilities are already beginning to implement mandatory and voluntary water-conservation programs, including educational programs, incentives to install water-efficient devices, and restrictions on discretionary water uses like car washing and watering lawns, and new cutbacks are likely as the drought continues.

Energy: Drought can strain the energy system. Past droughts have led to declines in hydroelectricity generation, leading to a shift to more expensive and polluting fossil fuels. Electricity generation from thermoelectric plants may also be curtailed if insufficient cooling water is available or if temperature limits in receiving waters are exceeded. Pumping costs to farmers increase as groundwater levels drop. Additionally, higher temperatures associated with drought reduce the efficiency of thermal power plants and of transmission and distribution lines while increasing energy demand for cooling systems.

Drought Responses

The good news is that past experience has shown there are many appropriate and effective responses to droughts, including changes in the efficiency of urban and agricultural water uses, the expansion of non-traditional water sources like stormwater and recycled water, and voluntary changes in behavior – all of which can help lessen the severity of this drought and future ones. In future blog posts and research, the Pacific Institute’s Western Drought Initiative will offer information on these responses, building on previous work and experience around drought impacts and solutions. Stay tuned for more coverage to come and for up-to-date drought conditions for California, visit www.californiadrought.org. For publications on these issues, including previous drought work, visit www.pacinst.org/publications.


The Impacts of the Pandemic Remain for Small Water Systems and Customers In-Debt

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By Darcy Bostic, Walker Grimshaw, and Michael Cohen 

Access to safe drinking water is necessary, especially during a pandemic 

In the U.S.the vital responsibility of continuing safe water supply during the pandemic is decentralizedspread among nearly 50,000 community water systems. More than 45,000 of these are small community water systems (SCWS), serving fewer than 10,000 people each. Together, SCWS provide water to more than 53 million people  18 percent of the national population  across urban and rural areas, on tribal reservations, in the midst of larger utilities in huge metropolises, and in growing communities 

Before the pandemic, small systems already faced barriers accessing financing for maintenance and capital projects. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing challenges for SCWS and poorer communities faced with rapidly rising water bills, financial and cyber insecurity, and the rising costs of treating new contaminants in their water and wastewater. SCWS have lost revenue and seen expense increases. Their customers have accumulated millions in water-related debt while state funding has fallen. While most systems have remained resilient and kept the water running to their customers, the revenue losses have caused delays or cancellations to capital projects and routine maintenance that may impact their ability to supply safe, affordable water into the future.  

The City of Independence, Missouri faced ransomware attack during covid, burdening customers. 

In the City of Independence, the average reported utility (water and energy) delinquency is $1,277 per household, yet the average household income is slightly more than $2,000 per month. The Community Services League of Independence assisted with applications for assistance in October 2020. They published the applicants’ stories, and one applicant wrote, “My husband had a heart attack right before the shutdown and was off work for 4 months due to the risk of covid 19. Rent, electric, gas, and food became more difficult. It caused my depression and anxiety to elevate and I had to take time off work. We began living off of credit cards.” In early December 2020, the city’s water billing system experienced a ransomware attack, crashing the system. As the system came online at the end of December, customers were billed for two months instead of one, challenging low-income customers to come up with a larger sum of money. Some financial help is on the way, though. On February 11, 2021, Governor Parson signed HB 16 into law, which provides more than $324 million in funding for rental and utility assistance for Missourians.  

Despite the critical role of small systems, and that they are frequently overlooked in state and federal stimulus and aid packages, only a few surveys across the country have attempted to understand the scope of small system financial loss and customer debt due to the pandemic (Table 1). A new report from the Pacific Institute summarizes these surveys and provides information on revenue losses experienced by SCWS in the U.S. and debt accumulated by their customers due to the COVID-19 crisis. The report also includes a set of case studies illustrating the challenges SCWS face due to COVID-19 and presents recommendations for providing better support for small systems as they recover from the pandemic.

Analysis of national and California surveys shows the impact of the pandemic on SCWS, including declines in revenues and expenses, staffing, financial reserves, and affordability and increasing debt among their customers

While most systems have experienced only small changes in expenses and revenues from the pandemic, between one quarter and one half of systems have lost revenue during the pandemic, some losing more than 30 percent of their revenueExtrapolating the limited responses from national surveys by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership in May 2020 and the US Environmental Protection Agency in October 2020 suggests nationwide revenue losses are greater than average losses reported in California alone and could total $1.5 billion for SCWS nationally in 2020. 

This revenue loss has resulted in large numbers of SCWS struggling to cover their operating expenses. Between 10 and 20 percent of SCWS that responded to the surveys reported the ability to meet expenses for less than six months without financial assistance. We did not however find reports of system failures or bankruptcies. Instead, even more systems have reported delaying maintenance, capital projects, and rate increases or operating a deficit to continue their operations. These mitigating actions have kept the water flowing to millions of customers, but deferring maintenance to already aging infrastructure could compromise the ability of water systems to supply safe water in the short- and long-term or result in expensive water main breaks.   

Rising affordability challenges have combined with the pandemic to create a water-debt crisis

In February 2021, 40 percent of Californian households reported that paying for typical household expenses was somewhat or very difficult  up from 32 percent in October 2020. This is reflected in challenges customers face paying for utilities. Although most customers are still able to pay their water bills on time, almost 10 percent of California SCWS customers owe an average of $370 to their utility  accumulating as much as $38 million of waterrelated debt. 

Residents of larger water systems are also struggling. Deborah Bell-Holt, a customer with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, told Jackie Botts of CalMatters that she is nearly $15,000 behind on her water and energy bill. She supports 12 people in her house, many who have lost jobs during the pandemic. “They say you’re safe,” she told CalMatters. “But you see that bill. How is that supposed to make you feel? You’re scared to death.” 

Nationally, about 35 percent of adults live in households where it has been difficult to pay for usual household expenses during the pandemic. Extrapolating from the California survey suggests that total national water household debt for SCWS customers may have been on the order of $800 million as of November 2020. These surveys also show that communities of color and communities with high rates of poverty have the most water debt, and thus are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic itself, as well as the economic challenges associated with paying for water. 

The data provided through various surveys show that there is a significant need for federal and state assistance to ensure that SCWS, and their customers, can continue to operate and live healthy and safe lives

Without federal assistance, many SCWS, and their customers, may be at risk. To address the needs identified in the surveys, we recommend targeting federal relief to both utilities and customers.  

Utility focused aid should include direct funding and financing for infrastructure projects that ensure each system has the necessary resources to maintain safe and affordable water, wastewater, and waste disposal service. This should include: 

  1. Enacting the Emergency Assistance for Rural Water Systems Act through the USDA 
  2. State Revolving Funds (including grants and zero interest loans to local governments),  
  3. sewer overflow control grants,  
  4. water workforce development grants, and  
  5. grants for lead treatment, remediation and replacement.  

Customerfocused aid should increase funding assistance for low-income water and wastewater customers, recognizing that customer aid also aids utilities. Congress appropriated $1.14 billion in assistance for low-income water and wastewater customers through two pandemic relief legislation bills, but it has yet to be allocated to states. Specific attention should be given to SCWS and their customers to ensure they are included in current and future federal aid disbursements 

In the long term, assistance bringing down the cost of water is needed. “We need affordable water rates based on residents’ ability to pay their water billsFederal water assistance is welcome, but it is not an affordability program and doesn’t address the underlying problem of unaffordable water rates,” says People’s Water Board Coalition organizer Sylvia Orduno.  

There is broad support for federal customer assistance program and additional funding for technical assistance and capital improvements for SCWS. Together, these programs can ensure that utilities continue to provide safe water and customers maintain affordable access it, during a pandemic and beyond.  


Table 1. State and national surveys on the financial and operational impacts of COVID-19 on water systems. 

Survey Organization  

Geographic Area  

Sample Size (Small Systems, Large Systems)  

Survey Dates  

Key Attributes  

Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP)  


1,033 (991, 42)  

May 2020  

Surveyed Systems RCAP worked with in 2019 

Data includes revenue changes, primary COVID-related challenges, duration of ability to operate, average population served 

Raw data available  

National Rural Water Association  


4,636 (4,311, 325)  

April 2020  

Change in water use and revenue, COVID-related concerns 

Raw data not available  

California State Water Resources Control Board  



213 (123, 90)  

June-August 2020  

Voluntary survey that may not be representative of whole state  

Revenue loss as % of revenue and cash reserves  

Raw data available  



536 (276, 260)  

November 2020  

Statistically representative sample of the state with outreach to assist small systems 

Month-by-month revenue and expenses, cash reserves  

Raw data available  

Illinois Section AWWA  



April 2020  

Operational and financial impacts to systems, but no quantitative financial data  

Raw data available  

Illinois Section AWWA  



June 2020  

Raw data available  

Washington State Department of Health  

Washington State  

314 (216, 98)  

May-July 2020  

Results not divided by system size 

Predicted impact on statewide capital projects 

Raw data not available  

American Water Works Association (AWWA), Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, Raftelis 



March 2020  

Combination of Raftelis survey on large systems and AWWA to estimate financial and economic impacts 

Raw data not available  



421 (187, 234)  

June 2020  

High levels of revenue and cash-flow issues  

Raw data not available  

Environmental Finance Center at UNC  

North Carolina  

95 (49, 46)  

April-May 2020  

Revenue change, impacts on capital projects and rates 

Raw data not available  

Raftelis-Nicholas Institute  


10 (All Large)  

March-August 2020  

Not a survey, but instead used high resolution water use and billing data 

Raw data not available  



69 (All Large)  

August-September 2020  

Revenues compared to budgets rather than previous year’s revenue 

Customer Assistance Program and Payment Plan Enrollment  

Raw data not available  

State of California Public Utilities Commission  

California Investor-Owned Utilities  

8 (All Large)  

January-September 2020  

Arrears and rate assistance enrollment data for California’s largest private utilities  

Raw data available  




Biden Infrastructure Plan: Water Components

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by Peter Gleick and Cora Kammeyer


Earlier today, President Biden announced the first components of his proposed $2 trillion national infrastructure plan to rebuild failing, aging, and outdated water, energy, transportation, and communications systems. While the current information provides only the broadest outlines of his proposals, and the details will have to be worked out in specific legislation to be debated in Congress, it is clearly the most ambitious plan to have been put forward in many years.

One key component, and the one of particular interest to the community the Pacific Institute works with, is the set of proposals focused on U.S. water problems. In September 2020, the Pacific Institute released a set of water-related recommendations for the new administration.

Among the most important of these recommendations are the need to deliver clean, affordable drinking water to everyone in the U.S., with a focus on removing 100% of remaining lead pipes and service lines; implementing new standards to protect drinking water from currently unregulated pollutants; preparing for the increasingly dangerous consequences of extreme weather and climate disasters; and improving access to safe water in underserved communities, including on Tribal lands.

The Biden Plan addresses several of the priorities laid out in the Pacific Institute’s set of recommendations. The Plan dedicates $111 billion to water infrastructure investments, and includes specific actions on water as detailed below: 

  • Calls for the elimination of all lead pipes and service lines and requests $45 billion for this purpose, to be funded through the EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund and grants through the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN).
  • Provides funding to address western drought impacts with a focus on water efficiency and recycling investments, Tribal water settlements, and dam safety.
  • Seeks $10 billion to monitor and remediate new drinking water contaminants (PFAS – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and invest in small rural water systems.
  • Requests $56 billion in grants and loans to states, Tribes, territories, and underserved communities to upgrade and modernize America’s aging drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems, tackle new contaminants, and support clean water infrastructure across rural America.
  • Seeks investments in protection from sea-level rise, hurricanes, and severe weather events.
  • Seeks investments to protect and restore nature-based infrastructure like forests, wetlands, watersheds, coasts, and oceans.
  • Invests $16 billion to plug oil and gas wells that contaminate water, air, and local communities and provides jobs to restore old and abandoned mines.

Other details will certainly emerge once legislation is proposed and debated in Congress. We also note that many of our recommendations to address national water problems are not financial, but require regulatory or other actions, such as modernizing the National Flood Insurance Program, integrating climate risks into all federal water management plans, restoring and expanding access to science- and water-related expertise in federal agencies, addressing international security risks associated with water, and developing new standards to protect U.S. waters from unregulated contaminants. We look forward to seeing how the Biden Administration takes up the broader fight of solving the nation’s water challenges.




On World Water Day, Reflecting on the Value of Water  

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By Cora Kammeyer  

Water is one of the most valuable resources on the planet — we need it to survive, to stay clean and healthy, to grow food, to run businesses, to support ecosystems, and so much more. And yet clean, accessible, abundant water is often taken for granted, in part because its cost rarely reflects its true value. But anyone who has spent even a day, or a few hours, without access to water knows its vital importance. Still today over 2.2 billion people globally lack access to safe drinking water.  

Every year since 1993, the United Nations holds a World Water Day to raise awareness about the importance of water, the magnitude of the water challenges we face, and the need for urgent action. The theme of World Water Day 2021 is valuing waterWater has been mismanaged and undervalued in our societies, and to solve the global water crisis we must integrate the true value of water into management and decision making  from national governments to global corporations to local cities and farms 

The Global Water Crisis 

As a result of poor water management in the face of growing demands on water resources, the world faces multiple water crises. Millions of people lack access to safe, reliable water. Billions of gallons of untreated sewage and wastewater are discharged into the environment, polluting our waterways. Rivers are running dry and lakes are turning into dust beds due to unsustainable water withdrawals. And now, climate change is drastically affecting our water systems, worsening existing water problems. 

Insufficient drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene 

Despite humanity’s many advancements, we still fail to provide safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene services to all people. Globally, there are over two billion people without reliable access to safe drinking water, and over four billion without access to sanitation services (i.e., toilets). While this is largely seen as a problem of the developing world, even in wealthy nations there are communities who cannot rely on safe drinking water from their taps, and people experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness who lack access to toilets and showers.  

Water scarcity 

In many parts of the world, human demands for water have outstripped the sustainably available supply. This is due to physical water scarcity  areas of the world that are arid and drought-prone — but also due to how and where our society has built and managed water-intensive cities and farms. Today, over four billion people live in regions where demands for water consistently equal or exceed supplies. At current rates, global demand for freshwater is on track to exceed supply by 40 percent in 2030.  

Poor water quality 

In addition to water supply challenges, we also have water quality challenges. More than 80 percent of all wastewater is released back into the environment without any treatment. This causes severe health hazards, both for people and ecosystems. It also ties into the challenges of safe drinking water and sanitation. 

Destruction of freshwater ecosystems 

Because of water demands that exceed supplies and because of water pollution, our freshwater ecosystems  the plant and animal life that relies on rivers, streams, lakes, and the land around them are in dire straits. Half of the world’s major rivers are seriously depleted, and over 60 percent of ecosystems globally are currently degraded or being used unsustainably.  

Catastrophic flooding   

While the challenge with water is often not enough of it, sometimes the problem is too much water, resulting in catastrophic flooding. This risk has worsened as we have increasingly developed cities along rivers, in places that have historically naturally flooded. Every year, the damage to property, infrastructure, and economic productivity exceeds a global cost of $6 trillion.  

Water-related violent conflict 

We have seen conflicts over water resources increasing as water challenges, particularly water scarcity, worsen. We also see water used as a weapon, such as militias or rebel groups cutting off communities’ water supplies, destroying water pipelines, or contaminating wells. This is particularly evident in the Middle East, a predominantly desert region where water resources have always been precious and scarce, though we see it all over the world.  

Climate change 

Rising atmospheric temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions from human development — climate change — is making the global water crisis worse. There are two primary ways this is happening: climate change is altering precipitation patterns, and it is increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme events.  

First, climate change is disrupting the patterns of when, where, how often, how much, and in what physical state (rain or snow) precipitation falls. The hydrologic variability — wetter or drier, more snow or more rain — will vary across geographies. While scientists have climate and hydrologic models that provide high-level prediction of how this will affect us, there is significant uncertainty, which makes long-term water planning very difficult 

Second, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme events like storms, floods, and droughts. These extreme events are already increasing  we are already seeing the impacts of a changing climate in natural disasters around the world.  


Lastly, it is important to remember the equity dimension of the global water crisis. Water and climate challenges will affect every single person on this planet, but communities’ and individuals’ capacity to weather these impacts and live healthy, thriving lives will vary widely. The issues discussed above have a disproportionate impact on impoverished and otherwise disadvantaged communities that have fewer resources to prepare for, adapt to, and recover from water crises, and less capacity to advocate for the changes needed to protect their communities.  

The Value of Water 

When learning about the global water crisis, it is important to remember all that is at stake. For World Water Day, UN Water laid out five key dimensions of water’s value.  

Watersheds. All water comes from ecosystems and returns to them. The world’s watersheds provide vital ecosystems services that help provide clean, plentiful water for all living beings on earth. In addition to water itself, healthy watersheds help provide clean air, fight climate change, prevent erosion, support biodiversity, and much more.  

Water infrastructureThe extensive networks of pipes, pumps, reservoirs, and canals that exist all over the world help get water to us safely and conveniently. They support the movement, storage, treatment, and delivery of water — often right to our taps at home.  

Water services. The provision of safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services is critical to keeping people healthy and safe. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, having clean water and soap for handwashing is imperative to preventing the spread of disease. Research shows that for every $1 invested in water and sanitation, $4.30 of economic return is generated through increased productivity p(including less sick time).   

Water as an input.  Water is a valuable ingredient to business success across all sectors. Every industry from energy production, to agriculture, to manufacturing, to data storage, to restaurants and storefronts requires water to operate. Thus, water is an important input to the global economy.  

Social, cultural, religious, and recreational dimensions of water. Water and watersheds play various roles in people’s social, cultural, and religious practices. We swim and play in rivers and lakes. We get joy and revitalization from connecting with nature. Certain bodies of water hold special significance to different cultures and religions. In particular, water is central to many indigenous cultures and practices around the world.  


In what ways do you value water? In your home, in your work, in your hobbies? Share your story on social media using the hashtags #WorldWaterDay and #Water2Me. See what others are saying here. 

A More Sustainable and Resilient Approach 

The global water crisis presents our communities and economies with major challenges and risks, but it also provides us an opportunity — in fact, an imperative — to take a new approach. The Pacific Institute has an ambitious goal to catalyze the transition to a water resilient future in the face of climate change by the year 2030. Read about how we are creating this future here 

Implications of California’s Water Futures Market 

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By Michael Cohen 

In California’s Water Futures Market: Explained, Cora Kammeyer describes how futures markets operate generally and the particulars of California’s version. This new water futures market has attracted considerable attention and hyperbole. Here we explore the potential implications of this novel financial tool through the lens of California water supply reliability. 

The water futures market opened on December 7, 2020, intended to improve the transparency of water trade prices and to enable participants to hedge their financial risk. This futures market is still in its infancy. Daily trade volumes of futures contracts (on the future price of 10 acre-feet per contract) average 11; the maximum daily trade volume was 53 on February 10, though there have not been more than 17 in any day since thenIt is not clear how many of these contracts simply changed hands, rather than constitute new contracts; the net volume of futures traded could be much lower.  

To put this volume in perspectiveirrigated agriculture in California applies about 32 to 35 million acre-feet of water each year and around 1.5 million acre-feet of physical water are traded annually, a third in short-term trades. That is an average of about 1,370 acre-feet per day in short-term trades, which would equal a daily trade volume of 137 futures contracts. So at current rates, the average daily volume traded in the futures market represents about eight percent of the average daily volume of short-term physical water trades. Though the volume of futures trading may grow as the volatility of water costs continues to rise due to uncertainty of water supply availability in a changing climate and as people become more comfortable with the market, right now it represents a small sliver of California water.  

The futures market is a financial tool, removed from the physical challenges of diverting, conveying, and applying water. 

But comparing water futures volumes with physical volumes traded is misleading. While the futures market trade contract unit prices are set at 10 acrefeet times the price of water on the NQH2O Index, the unit itself is meaningless: it could as easily be a “Kraken” or a “Jengu,” with the value of one Jengu contract set at 10 times the NQH20 index price. Thinking of the futures market in terms of Jengu could help distinguish it from physical water trades and dispel the persistent mischaracterization of the water futures market as a threat to real-world water availability. The futures market is a financial tool, removed from the physical challenges of diverting, conveying, and applying water. 

Hedging Risk  

California’s Water Futures Market: Explained describes the financial benefits of the futures market for those seeking to reduce potential losses due to the volatility of water pricing (the “hedgers”) and for those seeking to profit from this volatility (the “speculators”). Hedgers could, of course, as easily seek to minimize their risk by participating in other cash-settled futures markets, or through other financial tools like crop insurance (where available). Analyzing the volatility of the NQH2O Index relative to that of other cash-settled commodities indices would make for an interesting comparison, once sufficient data become available 

Predicting the Weather 

The futures market offers an opportunity to gamble on the weather. Accurately predicting the weather — will this be a wet spring? will the drought continue? — increases the odds of success in the futures market. Irrigators may feel they have a better sense of future water prices than prices of conventional commodities, though the increasing variability of precipitation and runoff in California suggests that historical trends are not a reasonable guide for future conditions. Speculators may have more sophisticated climate models available to guide their investment decisions, as well as a higher tolerance for financial risk, affording an advantage in the market. One unresolved question is whether the water futures market could stimulate investment and innovation in better and more accurate weather and climate modeling in California, which could have benefits to other aspects of California water management. Trading volumes to date do not indicate that the potential profit from the market would justify the investment, but that could change if trading volumes and profits increase dramatically. 

One unresolved question is whether the water futures market could stimulate investment and innovation in better and more accurate weather and climate modeling in California, which could have benefits to other aspects of California water management.

Water Price Discovery and Manipulation 

While its proponents claim that the futures market can increase the transparency of California water prices, it is the NQH2O Index itself that offers that information. The volume of cash-settled futures markets contracts relative to the significantly higher volume of physically settled water trades suggests that the potential for a speculator to manipulate the price of water is quite remote. However, as we’ve seen recently with GameStop and years ago with the Hunt brothers, speculators can take outsize positions to influence the market. Given the current low number of trades in both the futures and physical markets, it’s implausible but possible that a speculator, faced with a significant financial loss, could subsidize an existing water trader to purchase or sell a large volume of water to influence the index. Again, quite unlikely, but the futures market’s link to the real-world index opens the possibility of investors attempting to hedge their exposure by manipulating market prices. More plausibly, real-world water traders will track contract prices on the futures market and could adjust their prices accordingly, though a host of physical factors have more impact on their decisions.  

Encouraging hedgers to limit their financial exposure to such price volatility could exacerbate water supply challenges, at least at the margins, as irrigators focus on financial risks rather than addressing the underlying physical conditions generating those risks.

Reducing Water Scarcity 

The water futures market, like other financial tools, could attenuate financial risk for irrigators, but its benefits for the state’s water supply reliability itself seem quite limited. The futures market could distract from investments in on-farm efficiency and reuse, as some irrigators may feel that hedging the risk of water price volatility outweighs the returns of such investments. Encouraging hedgers to limit their financial exposure to such price volatility could exacerbate water supply challenges, at least at the margins, as irrigators focus on financial risks rather than addressing the underlying physical conditions generating those risks. If the water futures market attracts significant participation from hedgers, then it would be interesting to analyze the impacts of such participation on irrigators’ decisions to invest in water efficiency improvements or to take other actions to reduce their water demand.  

…quite unlikely, but the futures market’s link to the real-world index opens the possibility of investors attempting to hedge their exposure by manipulating market prices. 

In a counter example, Colorado voters approved Proposition DD in November 2019legalizing sports betting in Colorado, imposing a tax of 10% on sports betting, and authorizing the state legislature to use most of the tax revenue to fund state water projects generating as much as $27 million annually to bolster Colorado’s water supply reliability. Colorado’s explicit link between gambling and water supply reliability stands in sharp contrast to the California water futures market. 

Businesses Can (and Should) Help the World “Build Back Better” in the Era of COVID-19

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By Lillian Holmes

What does it mean to “build back better” as the global economy seeks to recover from the shock of COVID-19? The international environmental community has proposed a “green” global recovery that prioritizes reducing greenhouse gas emissions as governments work to create jobs and stimulate economic growth. But many of the worst, most visible impacts of climate change will be felt through our relationship with water.  

The “green” recovery to COVID-19 must also be “blue”: to build back better, we must make our water systems resilient to potential major societal disruptions, including global pandemics, natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes, and severe recessions. A robust economic recovery goes hand in hand with water stewardship  and ultimately with long-term water resilience. 

Rebuilding and Resilience,” a new issue brief from the Pacific Institute that completes the Business Framework for Water and COVID-19 brief series, outlines how businesses can promote a blue recovery. The brief offers mid- to long-term recommendations to create a just and water-wise society, with a focus on practical actions for businesses.  

The series features examples of businesses acting on these issues and connects businesses to capacity-building resources. 

Mid-Term Investment to Build Back Better 

Businesses should consider the economic benefits of investing in water efficiency and drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) access for workers and communities, argues Phase 2 of the framework, “Building Back Better — a “Blue” Economic Recovery.” The brief recommends that cost savings from these practices are reinvested in communities. 

Water efficiency is often the first action a business takes when beginning its water stewardship journey, as efficiency improvements can offer a short payoff period — as one example, UK beverage company Diageo plc reduced the volume of its water withdrawals by nearly one million cubic meters in 2014 and estimated the associated cost savings at US$3.2 million total that year.  

Investments to expand WASH access offer a similarly compelling business case; the World Health Organization estimates that for every US $1 invested in water and sanitation, US $4.30 is generated in economic returns through increased productivity.  

The cost savings from these measures can be reinvested in actions that benefit business and communities alike by creating jobs and building long-term water resilience. For example, nature-based solutions often require a longer implementation period yet demonstrate a compelling return on investment: the Dow Chemical Company saved an estimated US$282 million by installing a wetland instead of a conventional treatment plant while still ensuring regulatory compliance. Investment in these and other stewardship activities creates jobs and builds resilience.  

These investments should not be limited to a companies’ own operations. Water stewardship investment in supply chains can yield powerful results for business stability, community health, and environmental resilience.  

While WASH investments across the supply chain were discussed in the first issue brief in this series, this second brief explores other kinds of water stewardship investment that benefit businesses and supply chain partners alike. 

Finally, as government stimulus policy continues to be revised and expanded, the business community has a role to play in advocating for a “blue” economic recovery. Organizations including the European Parliamentthe International Energy Agency, the C40 Mayors, and the World Economic Forum have issued calls for a green recovery that will speed the transition to a climate-neutral economy (in contrast to the 2008 recovery, which is said to have yielded greater greenhouse gas emissions). In addition to amplifying these “green” messages, businesses can advocate for “blue” government stimulus policies 

Such “blue” policies go beyond mitigation measures to support adaptation through investment in public water infrastructure, broader WASH access, and better industrial water use standards. By demonstrating the business community’s need for smart water policy, businesses can broaden the recovery conversation to include these crucial issues. 

Looking to the Long TermDevelop Water Resilience 

The third and final phase of the Business Framework for Water and COVID-19 brief series, “Catalyzing a Water-Resilient Society,” focuses on long-term actionsestablishing strategies for resilience and accountability at the corporate level and supporting transparent water governance at the national level.  

An effective corporate water risk strategy begins by understanding water stewardship not as a philanthropic activity that’s external to business’s core activities but as a crucial element of managing business risk. There is a powerful business case for water stewardship to promote supply reliability, generate buy-in from local stakeholders, and protect the long-term viability of a business’s operations. Given the links between climate and water, effective risk management requires assessing potential future water risks based on different climate scenarios. 

Although some water risk depends on a company’s individual actions, much of the water risk faced by a company operating in a given basin depends on the context of the watershed as a whole. The shared nature of water challenges compels businesses to engage with other actors in a basin, including public agencies. By engaging with these actors in a balanced and transparent manner, businesses can best promote effective water governance, which can even lower the cost of doing business by successfully managing water issues.  

With these goals in mind, leading businesses in the water stewardship space have formed the Water Resilience Coalition, an industry-driven, CEO-led coalition of the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate that aims to elevate global water stress to the top of the corporate water agenda and preserve the world’s freshwater resources through collective action in water-stressed basins and ambitious, quantifiable commitments 

The “Rebuilding and Resilience” brief aims to connect businesses with these and other resources that establish the business case for action on water in the era of COVID-19. The pandemic has shown WASH access to be more pressing than ever and made clear the need for greater resilience in the supply chain. The Business Framework for Water and COVID-19 briefs and other publications in the Pacific Institute’s Water and COVID-19 series explore these issues and opportunities for businesses and governments to “build back better.” 

California’s Water Futures Market: Explained 

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By Cora Kammeyer 

A recently launched water futures market in California drew global attention, from Wall Street to the United NationsWhile news of the market has brought both skepticism and speculation, much of the coverage has failed to address some fundamental questions: what actually is a water futures market? How does it work, and who are the playersAnd most importantly, what are the potential benefits and risks? 

In this short piece, we explain the California water futures market in simple termsWe will explore its potential implications in a second blog soon 

What Are Futures Markets?  

To understand a water futures market, a new and unique form of futures trading, we must first understand the basic tenets of futures markets. The essential premise of a futures market is that a seller agrees to sell a certain quantity of an asset at a certain price and a certain time in the future, and a buyer agrees to buy that quantity of asset at that price and at that time. Put simplya futures contract is a negotiated agreement now for a transaction in the future.  

Put simply, a futures contract is a negotiated agreement now for a transaction in the future.  

While a futures contract is originally created between one buyer and one seller, that contract can change hands over the course of the contract period. The two parties holding the contract at the end of the term are the ones who complete the transaction. Multiple futures contracts that change hands multiple times together create a futures market. There are futures markets for many different types of assetsfrom financial assets like stocks and bonds to physical assets like soybeans or oil 

There are two types of futures contracts: physical-settled and cash-settled. In physically settled contracts, the physical asset is delivered at the agreed-upon price at the end of the contract period. A futures contract for soybeans, for example, results in the delivery of real soybeans. In cash-settled contracts, the buyer receives (or pays) an amount of money equal to the difference between the contract-negotiated asset price and the present asset price. If the negotiated price is lower than the present price, the buyer receives that difference amount from the seller. If the negotiated price is higher than the present price, the buyer must pay that difference to the seller. In other words, the contract buyer is betting that the price will go up, and the seller is betting that it will go down. Assets that commonly have cash-settled futures include live cattle, dairy, and fertilizer.  

There are two types of participants in futures markets: hedgers and speculators. Hedgers are individuals or companies engaged in the physical market for the asset underlying the futures contract (soybeans, oil, cattle, etc.). They participate in the futures markets to increase certainty and hedge risk in selling assets they create or buying assets they need. Speculators are individuals or companies seeking to profit on the price changes of an asset through the futures market; they are willing to take on the risk that hedgers are seeking to reduce in pursuit of that profitThey have no interest in obtaining or selling the asset itself.  

What Is the California Water Futures Market? 

The California water futures market is a new financial tool designed to help water users in the state hedge the risks associated with California’s volatile hydrology and physical water market. It provides those seeking to buy water a way to reduce risks associated with scarcity, and those looking to sell water with a way to reduce risks associated with surplus. A key feature of this futures market is that it is cash-settled, which means there is no contracting or trading of physical water.  

The California water futures market is a new financial tool designed to help water users in the state hedge the risks associated with California’s volatile hydrology and physical water market.

The price of water on the futures market at any given time — like when contracts are negotiated and settled — is based on the Nasdaq Veles California Water Index (NQH2O)The NQH2O index is comprised of a weighted set of sale prices from California’s physical water markets, including surface water trading as well as trades in four groundwater markets. The index is “printed” or updated on a weekly basis by Nasdaq, under the ticker NQH2OBecause the index is a composite, there are always slight differences between the actual price paid for water in any given physical trade and the index price – this difference is called basis, and it has a nuanced but important influence on futures trading.   

Each contract in the water futures market is for 10 acre-feet of water, and the contract period can range in length up to a maximum of two years. The contract price can be any price agreed upon by the buyer and seller but is typically close to the index price. The contracts always settle on the third Wednesday of the month, and typically terms end on the quarterly months – March, June, September, and December. Regardless of the contract length, contract can be traded multiple times throughout its term. 

Like any futures market, the California water futures market has two types of participants: hedgers and speculators. Hedgers are California water users – this includes municipalities, water districts, and businesses like farmers or manufacturers. Farmers are the most likely group to participate as hedgers in the California water futures market because water is a critical input to their business. Farmers face water-related business risks in dry years and seek solutions to reduce that risk. Farmers are also the most active participants in California’s physical water markets. Speculators could be anyone – they are individuals or companies looking to make money on the market by betting on the future price of water. They are not interested in purchasing physical water and may be located anywhere in the world. Wealth management firms, hedge funds, or other financial companies may include California water futures as part of their asset portfolio, if they consider it a smart investment.  

Let’s walk through a hypothetical example. 

In February, a California almond farmer is looking at the water delivery forecast for the year and anticipating there may be shortages in the summerAlmond orchards need to be irrigated year-round, and a water deficit in the summer could lead to reduced yields, or worse, tree mortality. To hedge the risk of water shortage, the farmer buys five water futures contracts, for a total of 50 acre-feet of water, at a contract price of $600 per acre-footAs a reminder, while the contracts are measured in acre-feet of water, there is no physical water transacted. This contract settles on the third Wednesday of Junethough it can be traded any number of times before the settlement date.  

In the third week of Junethe price of an acre-foot of water according to the NQH2O index has risen to $800. This means that the almond farmer gets paid by the seller the difference between the contract price ($600) and the current price ($800) of water. That would be a difference of $200 per acre-foot, for 50 acre-feet, for a total of $10,000. The farmer could then use that money to purchase physical water through one of California’s water markets, or help cover losses from reduced almond yields that year, or pay for other expensesIn this scenario, the farmer has successfully reduced — or hedged — the water-related risk to his business through the California water futures market.  

If, however, the predictions of shortage had been wrong and NQH2O water price dropped below $600 per acre-foot in June, then the almond farmer would have to pay the seller the difference between the contract and the current price. If the price had dropped to $400, for example, then he would owe the contract seller $200 per acre-foot for the contracted 50 acre-feet of waterfor a total of $10,000. But because there is no water shortage, the farmer’s water risk is low, and despite the cost borne participating in the futures market he still benefitted from peace of mind and planning stability over the course of the contract term.   

What is the seller’s perspective in this hypothetical example?  

The seller, like the buyer, could be a hedger or a speculator. In this example, the seller, like the buyer, is also a hedger. She is also a farmer but grows tomatoes. The tomato crops are re-planted every year, and each year the farmer decides how many acres to plant. Seeing predictions of drought for the upcoming summer, she decides to leave 20 acres fallow (un-planted). If she has water left over from not irrigating those fields, she can sell it on a physical water market. But, if it turns out to be a wet year, then she will have fewer tomatoes to sell and no buyers for her water. To hedge the risk of a water surplus, the tomato farmer decides to sell those five water futures contracts, for a total of 50 acre-feet of water, at a price of $600 per acre-foot, to settle in June.  

In the third week of Junedrought conditions persist and the price of an acre-foot of water according to the NQH2O index has risen to $800. This means that the tomato farmer (the seller) must pay the almond farmer (the buyer) the difference between the contract price ($600) and the current price ($800) of water. That difference is $200 per acre-foot, for 50 acre-feet, for a total of $10,000. While this futures contract ended up being a cost to the tomato farmer, because it is a dry year she can likely find buyers for her unused water on the physical water market for a price close to $800 per acre-foot and recoup much of the money lost on the futures trade. 

If, however, it turned out to be a wet year and the NQH2O water price dropped below $600 per acre-foot in June, then the almond farmer would have to pay the tomato farmer the difference between the contract and the current price. If the price had dropped to $400, for example, then he would owe her $200 per acre-foot for the contracted 50 acre-feet of water, for a total of $10,000. In this instance, the tomato farmer would likely not be able to sell her physical water and would have reduced tomato yields from fallowing, but she would have that $10,000 to reduce her financial exposure.  

In each water futures trade, either the seller or the buyer benefits financially – not both. However, for most hedgers it is more about price stabilization and protection from market volatility; they are willing to pay a premium for greater certainty. Hedgers can use the market to reduce their financial risks such that they are much better off if they “win” and only a little worse off if they “lose.” Speculators in the market are purely gambling, rather than attempting to control water risk exposure.  

In each water futures trade, either the seller or the buyer benefits financially – not both. However, for most hedgers it is more about price stabilization and protection from market volatility; they are willing to pay a premium for greater certainty. 

Building on the groundwork laid by this explainer piece, we will explore the potential benefits and risks of the California water futures market in a second blog post coming soon. In the meantime, for more information about the California water futures market you can read the FAQ. 



What Role Should Onsite Water Reuse Play in Silicon Valley Water?

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By Cora Kammeyer 


Water systems in most large urban areas like California’s Silicon Valley are linear and highly centralized. Water is cleaned at a central treatment plant, distributed to homes and businesses through a vast and decades-old system of pipes, used once, and then returned through another set of pipes to a wastewater treatment plant, before being discharged into a nearby waterway like the San Francisco Bay. This 20th-century approach to the urban water system is no longer sufficient to address 21st-century water challenges like climate change, growing populations and economies, and aging infrastructure.

The 20th-century approach to the urban water system is no longer sufficient to address 21st-century water challenges like climate change, growing populations and economies, and aging infrastructure.

There is a growing opportunity to build urban water systems that are distributed and circular, adding flexibility and providing back-up when integrated with centralized systems. This means capturing and treating water closer to the point of use and reusing that water multiple times before sending it back down the drain. Distributed, circular approaches like onsite water reuse have the potential to provide many benefits. They can, for example, provide alternative water supplies in the face of growing scarcity, add operational flexibility in the face of disruptions, provide opportunities for more green space, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and more. But distributed water systems can also present challenges for water managers, and they require new strategies and new ways of thinking.

Distributed, circular approaches like onsite water reuse have the potential to provide many benefits.

The Pacific Institute report The Role of Onsite Water Systems in Advancing Water Resilience for Silicon Valley examines the opportunities and challenges of corporate investments in onsite non-potable water reuse in California’s Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley, where commercial development is growing in the face of increasing water scarcity, sea level rise, and water quality challenges in the San Francisco Bay, a handful of leading companies are starting to invest in onsite water systems. Facebook installed California’s largest blackwater recycling system at its Menlo Park headquarters. Microsoft is capturing rainwater and treating wastewater onsite at its new Mountain View campus as part of the site’s Net Zero Water certification. Google has plans to implement onsite water reuse at its new Bay View campus at Moffett Field. These companies are making investments in onsite water systems to meet corporate sustainability goals, improve water security, and reduce their water impact on the surrounding region.

The Role of Onsite Water Systems in Advancing Water Resilience for Silicon Valley comprises three sections exploring the benefits and challenges of implementing onsite water systems in the region. First, the report provides a synthesis of the perspectives of Silicon Valley stakeholders — including water managers, regulators, technology companies, engineers, and academics — on onsite water systems. Second, it lays out a range of potential outcomes and impacts — both positive and negative — from onsite water systems. Third, a set of geospatial analyses in Silicon Valley assess the relative opportunities for onsite water systems to integrate with regional planning and contribute to regional water management strategies. These assessments incorporate key factors such as priority development areas, the reach of existing recycled water networks, expected sea level rise impacts, and more.

The report concludes that private sector investments in onsite water systems have the potential to provide numerous benefits to the region, but only if they are incorporated into the long-term regional water planning and decision-making. The report recommends:

  1. Convening regional stakeholders to facilitate a constructive dialogue about the role of onsite water systems in Silicon Valley;
  2. Conducting more detailed technical analyses to examine how best to integrate onsite water systems into existing centralized water and wastewater systems;
  3. Evaluating policies and practices for effectively integrating onsite water systems into existing water and wastewater systems; and
  4. Identifying opportunities to implement other distributed water strategies in concert with onsite water system implementation.

To read the full report, click here

The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Continued Toll on Drinking Water Systems and Their Customers

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Darcy Bostic, Morgan Shimabuku, Mike Cohen, Lillian Holmes, and Walker Grimshaw

Critical revenue losses by water utilities demand financial intervention

Water systems across the country are facing budget shortfalls as a result of the pandemic and need assistance. For small water systems (systems serving 10,000 people or fewer) total budget shortfalls are estimated to be $4 to 6 billion, primarily caused by decreased demand, delayed payments, and additional costs for protective equipment and sick time.

At the end of 2020, an estimated 12 million workers still remained unemployed due to job loss or other impacts from the pandemic. These individuals, in addition to those already unemployed or struggling to make ends meet prior to the pandemic, are unlikely to be able to afford regular monthly bills, such as for water. This only adds to utility revenue challenges.

In this blog post, we explore the compounding crises of water system revenue loss and customer debt due to the pandemic. Then, we point to some immediate and longer-term solutions that could address these challenges.

Water systems, especially small systems, have been hard hit during the pandemic

The three main drivers of utility revenue shortfalls during the pandemic are: 

  1. Non-payment of water bills, especially as residential water use increases, but the economic recession continues;
  2. Reductions in water demand from commercial and industrial users; and
  3. Increased operating costs associated with protecting workers from COVID-19 and providing increased hazard and overtime pay.

Many utilities face budget shortfalls that predate the pandemic. These debts have only been exacerbated by the economic effects of COVID-19. 

Many utilities face budget shortfalls that predate the pandemic. These debts have only been exacerbated by the economic effects of COVID-19.

Water systems of all sizes are caught with fixed or increasing expenses but rapidly decreasing revenue. For example, the Village of Chama in New Mexico operates a water system that serves about 1,000 people. Chama’s main source of income is tourism, which declined steeply during the pandemic. In May and June 2020 the village had to solve breakdowns at their drinking water treatment plant. Repairing the water system cost the village about $500,000, 55 percent of its yearly budget, depleting Chama’s financial reserves.  

Another challenge for water systems has been maintaining sufficient supplies of PPE throughout the pandemic. Sultana Community Services District (SCSD) is a small water system in Tulare County, California that has seen a 30 percent reduction in revenue during the pandemic. SCSD Board President Michael Prado, Sr. noted that purchasing PPE supplies for utility staff has imposed a large and unanticipated financial burden, in addition to requiring considerable time to find and acquire. Some utilities have also faced staffing shortages when employees contracted COVID-19, forcing potentially exposed employees into quarantine. Imperial Irrigation District, a wholesale water provider and electric utility in southern California, noted that since March 2020 188 out of 658 employees have tested positive for coronavirus.

A national debt and affordability crisis is growing

The national water affordability crisis is not new. From 2010 to 2018, water and sewer rates rose 80 percent, hurting low-income families most acutely. In addition, Black and Brown communities are disproportionately impacted by high water rates and penalties for non-payment. Low-income communities of color often pay more for their water and are more likely to face harsher penalties as a result of non-payment. For example, Black households make up 14 percent of American households receiving water service, but experience 29 percent of utility disconnections after a notice of non-payment.

Black households make up 14 percent of American households receiving water service, but experience 29 percent of utility disconnections after a notice of non-payment.

To prevent additional losses associated with non-payment, utilities commonly implement shut-offs. Service disconnections exacerbate our public health crisis, removing water and shelter amidst a pandemic and in communities that are experiencing the highest rates of COVID-19. Shut-off moratoriums have been imposed in only nine states, preventing utilities from removing service, but seven of those have set expiration dates ending as early as March 2021.

California case study: Support for low-income customers also benefits utilities 

California is one of the nine states imposing a water-shutoff moratorium. California is also the only state to statutorily recognize the Human Right to Water. In spite of this commitment, millions stand to lose their drinking water at the end of the moratorium. Recent results from surveys of water systems in California reveal nearly $1 billion in water-bill related customer debt that has accumulated since March 2020. Nearly 155,000 California households hold water-bill related debts of more than $1000, and approximately 12 percent of households in the state hold at least some amount of water-bill related debt. Lifting the moratorium would exacerbate the current public health emergency, especially in under-resourced and historically excluded communities. Without financial assistance, customers already facing record highs of unemployment will sink further into debt while utilities continue to lose revenue. 

Solutions are coming but more are needed to address both household water debt and utility-level lost revenue 

Lawmakers should prioritize water affordability legislation to protect public health and support the most vulnerable U.S. households. “Those water bills are going to come due,” said Jonathan Nelson, the policy director at the Community Water Center in an interview with Cap Radio. “Not only is there no plan for what to do about that crisis of water debt and potential mass water shutoffs next year, but we don’t even know the full scope of the problem.”

Fortunately, there is some action being taken to help those most vulnerable to losing water access due to inability to afford their bills. In California, two new bills have been introduced that could help fill the gap for customers struggling to pay their bills. The first, Senate Bill (SB) 222 establishes a water assistance fund for low-income rate payers experiencing economic hardship. The second, SB 223, expands protections for customers who are faced with having their water shut off because of inability to pay their bills.  

At the federal level, Congress included $638 million for low-income water assistance, the first federal funding of low-income assistance for water bills. The extra infusion will help, but still leaves states and water utilities with significant deficits. There is an estimated $4 billion in need for water bill assistance nationally. The federal government has a low-income rate assistance program for energy bills, the framework of which could be leveraged to deliver the separate funding for water bill assistance. Early drafts of the next stimulus bill by the Biden administration include assistance for low-income renters with water and energy bills and debt.

In the long term, states or the federal government could eliminate late and reconnection fees, especially for low-income customers who are more likely to be disconnected as a result of non-payment; such a program would benefit many customers of color. For example, California’s privately owned utilities, regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, may not charge more than $25 for reconnection during working hours and $40 during off-hours, whereas urban water systems, regulated by the State Water Resources Control Board, may charge up to $300 for customers that do not meet low-income criteria. Reconnection fees should be limited for all low-income customers in any water system.

Emergency grants and loans, PPE supplies, and funding for infrastructure improvements and maintenance deferred during the pandemic can help systems with revenue shortages stay afloat. Additionally, solutions that involve securitizing debt can protect utilities from insolvency, especially while interest rates for corporate borrowing remain low.

Understanding the scale of water system financials nationally is also unclear. Most states don’t require water systems to report the scale of customer debt or water shutoffs. States should prioritize data collection of household utility debt and number of water shutoffs in order to map the scale of the problem and track progress on solutions. 

Finally, immediate assistance for ratepayers late on their water bills is needed. As a supplement to federal programs, states should be implementing their own low-income assistance programs. “They need it now,” says Michael Prado, Sr., SCSD Board President. “If we don’t get relief soon, it’s going to be bad, they [SCSD customers] are going to get loans to pay [their] water bill.” If customers can pay their water bills, utilities are also able to stay in operation. Solutions for customers are solutions for utilities as well.

Q&A: Water Recommendations for the Next Administration 

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By Heather Cooley, Peter Gleick, and Jason Morrison

With so much going on in the world right now, why should water be a priority for the Biden administration?

The fact is that water challenges in the U.S. are severe and worsening. As the COVID-19 pandemic revealed, poor water infrastructure and the failure to provide universal access to safe water and sanitation threaten public health. Water shortages, poor management, and antiquated water systems threaten the nation’s food supply, ecosystems, and economy. Conflicts over water around the globe threaten our national security. Worsening climate changes are increasing these risks, and the failure to act now will only make solving these issues harder.

With this urgency in mind, we released a set of water recommendations for the next U.S. presidential administration, Water Recommendations to the Next President. These recommendation, which were shared with both presidential campaigns, outlined the nation’s water challenges and called for swift and meaningful action to carry the U.S. into a more equitable and climate-resilient water future.

In November, we hosted a webinar on our recommendations, taking audience questions on topics ranging from the nation’s outdated infrastructure to the threat to national security from rising international conflict over water. Read on for our answers to some of these questions:

1. What strategies do you recommend to help small and disadvantaged communities improve their capacity to provide safe drinking water, water sanitation services, and adequate water supplies?

There are several things the Biden Administration can and should do. These include:

  • expanding the State Revolving Loan program at the Environmental Protection Agency with a priority focus on providing support for disadvantaged communities;
  • providing financial support for regionalization and consolidation of small, failing systems;
  • providing emergency funding to support communities that have shut-off moratoriums and a permanent program to address affordability, like the federal energy programs that are available;
  • providing workforce development and training programs for women and people of color for water-related green jobs; and
  • expanding data collection, looking specifically at issues around water affordability.
2. Do human rights have a place in your recommendations?

The simple answer is yes. Access to water and sanitation is a human right. However, until more states adopt a formal human right to water with legal teeth, it is more of a moral/ethical tool than a legal one. In the meantime, there are many things the Biden Administration can do to provide universal access to water and sanitation.

3. The era of big vision water ideas in California took place decades ago: State Water Project, LA Aqueduct, Colorado River Aqueduct. Population growth and climate change have overtaken the ability of these big idea resources to meet the need to be resilient going forward. Will efficiency and conservation be sufficient to meet the needs? Or do we need to inaugurate a new era of big ideas – wastewater recycling and desalination?

No single strategy will address all our water supply needs. Our previous work (such as the “Untapped Potential” analysis) shows that a mix of improvements in water-use efficiency, wastewater reuse, and stormwater capture can address expected water needs in California for years to come. Desalination is another option, although these other options provide greater benefits with fewer social, economic, and environmental impacts.

4. How do we effectively create a national strategy given the “blue” and “red” divisions we’ve seen with the response to the coronavirus (e.g., mask mandates)? Can we overcome the partisanship we’re experiencing at the more local state levels?

Water polls among the most important environmental issue, and unlike issues like climate change, there is a much narrower partisan divide around water, especially water quality. Many of our water challenges – whether it be pollution, inadequate infrastructure, or affordability – are most severe in rural communities. So, water could be an easier issue to tackle than some other areas and, importantly, an opportunity to bring people together.

5. In the context of a potential “National Plan” for water, what are your views on trying to implement watershed/river basin-oriented water quality and quantity management (instead of the highly fragmented management of water issues that is also divorced from a watershed reality)?

Water management is highly fragmented, and basin-level commissions can help to address this issue. However, the National Water Plan should focus on what the federal government can/should do. It should address the entire range of national water challenges, be nonpartisan, and consist of scientists, legal and policy experts, and non-governmental and community representatives who can speak to the on-the-ground realities facing American communities.

6. Mark Arax has pointed out (The Dreamt Land, I believe) that drip irrigation has allowed some Central Valley growers to grow crops on even more marginal lands. Any comments?

Smart and effective drip irrigation must be combined with land and water use policies that permit “saved” water to be reallocated and used for purposes other than just applying it to more marginal lands. If farmers just reuse saved water, total water productivity goes up, but opportunities may be lost for restoring natural ecosystems or providing water to other users.

7. What are your perspectives on investing in climate-resilient water infrastructure, including broader uses of recycled water or desalination?

The impacts of climate change on water systems are intensifying, and immediate effort is needed to enhance the resilience of these systems. This will involve new investments in infrastructure, as well as changes in the operation and management of water systems.

Greater uptake of recycled water – along with water-use efficiency improvements – can help to enhance water resilience. These strategies can, for example, reduce supply-demand imbalances, providing additional capacity within the system to allow for more variable and uncertain water supplies. They can also reduce pressure on traditional water sources and diversify the water supply portfolio, thereby providing flexibility when these sources of water are constrained due to drought, ongoing water scarcity, or other water supply disruption.

Desalination – especially seawater desalination – can also play a role. However, due to its high cost, energy intensity, and impacts on the marine environment, it should be a last resort option and carefully compared with alternatives.

8. Should we rethink our water infrastructure financing strategies that increasingly rely on loans needing repayment, and local fees/taxes that are challenging for low-income communities to support? Should we move more toward a system of grant financing from the federal level for both centralized and decentralized infrastructure?

Large federal investments in water, as have occurred in the past, have reduced the cost of providing water and sanitation service. While this has helped make water more affordable (at least in the near-term), it has also promoted waste and inefficiency. A better strategy would be to continue to rely largely on local fees and loan financing for most systems and to prioritize grant funding to disadvantaged communities that couldn’t afford to make the investment needed to ensure safe, reliable water and sanitation.

9. What about the U.S. role in addressing water challenges in other nations (e.g., through foreign aid)?

The administration should prioritize international aid on water for the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 goals, including a focus on health (including COVID-19). USAID and the U.S. State Department have long had programs, supported by Congress, that encourage aid for water-related development investments, but these programs are underfunded and the beneficiaries are often not those communities most in need. A refocusing of these efforts would be important.

10. What do you see as the role of the private sector in pursuing your recommendations – e.g., to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 and the human right to water, expand access to water services, enhance water efficiency, etc.? And would having the private sector involved be an angle for achieving bipartisan support, or an obstacle?

The private sector can play an important role in helping to address water challenges, such as improving human access to water and sanitation, reducing water pollution and use, and restoring ecosystems. Leading business are making investments to improve water security and watershed health in ways that go well beyond minimum legal requirements. We have been working with the private sector to this end for more than a decade in our role as the Co-Secretariat of the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate. Private sector action can take many forms – including improvements in operational efficiencies and reuse at their facilities and across their value chain and investments to upper watersheds – and could also include supporting policies that advance water resilience and sustainability. For most, if not all, of the companies with leading water sustainability practices, water is not a partisan or ideological issue; there’s a clear business case for action.

Read Water Recommendations to the Next President here. View the webinar “Water Recommendations for the Next Administration” here.


Building Resilience and Addressing Inequities in Small, Underperforming Drinking Water Systems

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By Katie Porter at Brown & Caldwell, Darcy Bostic and Morgan Shimabuku at Pacific Institute, and Laura Feinstein at SPUR

This blog post was originally published on Meeting of the Minds

Approximately 25 million people in the United States are served by water systems that regularly fail to meet federal safe drinking water standards. In addition, systems with poor water quality are more likely to serve low‐income and semi‐rural communities, as well as people of color. Internationally, other developed nations like Canada and Australia also struggle with delivering safe drinking water universally, particularly to rural, indigenous communities.

As technology for detecting contaminants and our understanding of the health impacts of contaminants improve, water quality standards become more stringent. More rigorous standards combined with increasing water quality challenges will make it even more difficult for systems with limited capacity to meet drinking water requirements. In particular, small community water systems (those serving <10,000 people) comprise the vast majority of systems with a history of long‐term health‐based violations.

The economic challenge of operating and maintaining a small water system is a large contributor to water quality violations. Assuming that there are certain fixed costs that remain approximately the same across systems regardless of size, it costs more per customer to operate and maintain a small system than a larger one. Best practices such as experienced managers and regular maintenance can be burdensome for small systems. Additionally, spreading operations and maintenance costs among fewer customers can make it challenging for water bills to remain affordable for all. As COVID-19 and the associated recession continue, customers are increasingly unable to pay their water bills, resulting in decreased revenue to water suppliers. This decrease in revenue exacerbates financial stressors on small systems.

Large water systems are also challenged by many of these factors, however data show that nationally, less than one percent of very large systems experience serious, ongoing issues with meeting drinking water quality standards. This suggests that solutions are urgently needed to help struggling small water systems remain solvent and ensure their ability to deliver safe, affordable water to their communities.

California Urban Water Agencies (CUWA) and Pacific Institute are co-principal investigators for a Water Research Foundation (WRF) project, Solutions for Underperforming Drinking Water Systems in California. The findings from this work may also be applicable to other states wrestling with similar challenges. This article builds upon the discussion in the January 2020 article on this site, Equipping All Communities with Safe, Reliable Drinking Water, and provides several additional key findings of this work pertaining to:

  • The challenges to California’s small drinking water systems, with a focus on those that are out of compliance with federal and state drinking water standards
  • Solutions to address these challenges in California and beyond


Understanding California’s Drinking Water Violations

California has many small systems compared to other states. However, California has about the same percentage of underperforming small systems with problems delivering safe water as most other states (Figure 1). Thus, the lessons learned from characterizing and solving the problems in California may be transferable to other regions, nationally and internationally.

Figure 1. Serious violators by system size in California and US. “Serious Violator” status is assigned by the EPA based on a history of long‐term health‐based federal Safe Drinking Water Act violations. Error bars indicate standard deviation for all 50 states plus District of Columbia. Data is from US EPA.

California’s underperforming water systems are primarily located in small, semi-rural, low-income, communities of color (Figure 2). The systems serving communities of color are four times as likely as white communities to have persistent water quality violations.

Figure 2. Water system performance as a function of (a) population size, (b) percent of state median household income, (c) percent urban, (d) and percent white, non-latino in the service area. Data is for 2016 through 2019, from US EPA, US Census Bureau, and CA Department of Water Resources.

Many small water systems experiencing water quality challenges were found to be in violation due to three main contaminants: arsenic, uranium, and/or total trihalomethanes (TTHM). Arsenic and uranium are naturally occurring in groundwater, and systems in violation of these contaminants were mostly located in the San Joaquin Valley, where water supplies are typically from groundwater. The other common violation, TTHM, is a known byproduct from water treatment processes. Some contaminants that did not cause many violations during the study period (2016-2019) are likely to become larger problems in the near future as new regulations come into effect. Two examples are 1-2-3 Trichloropropane and Chromium VI, which are entirely or mostly caused by human pollution.

Solutions for California’s Underperforming Small Systems

Policymakers can advance their efforts to provide safe drinking water to all Californians in two ways. First, they need to continue efforts to “stop the bleeding” by preventing new unsustainable water systems from forming. Second, we need more comprehensive efforts to implement long term solutions for systems that are failing.

Broadly, we recommend the following high-level solution categories (See previous article for additional discussion):

  • Operational solutions, including remote and contract operations
  • Treatment solutions, such as facilities optimization, and point of use or point of entry treatment
  • Source water solutions, including new internal and external water supplies
  • Partnership solutions, such as physical or managerial consolidation and mutual assistance

Of the solutions presented, partnership zones offer a high-impact opportunity for progress. Partnership zones refer to any form of cooperation across multiple water systems to improve services and efficiencies of one or more of the systems. Examples can include joint powers agencies, mutual aid/assistance, managerial consolidation, physical consolidation, or even informal cooperation. Two or more systems within 30 miles or less tend to be better candidates for managerial consolidation, such as allowing for shared staff and equipment, while two or more systems within three miles or less tend to be the best candidates for physical consolidation because of the sheer cost of building connecting pipelines.

In California, approximately 200,000 people are served by 253 small, underperforming drinking water systems. The vast majority of these small systems are within 30 miles of a large, high performing system. This suggests that regional partnership solutions can reach 95% of underserved Californians. Partnership zones developed around 25 of the state’s highest performing large systems could reach 80% of underserved Californians.

Figure 3. Regional partnership solutions have the potential to reach up to 95% of those in California currently served by small, underperforming drinking water systems.

While partnership zones offer a set of innovative and practical solutions to many small water systems struggling to meet drinking water standards, financial incentives and support are needed to overcome the many barriers to forming a successful water partnership. Particularly challenging are cost and benefit inequities between the partner communities. Short‐term rate shock and long‐term rate increases, which often accompany a consolidation of two or more systems, are hard to sell to customers. Local communities are sometimes reluctant to give up authority over their water utility.

The process of learning what is sufficient to incentivize large high‐performing water systems to support nearby underperforming water systems is a major challenge, and some immediate strategies to facilitate water partnerships have emerged. For example, state or federal regulatory agencies could offer funding to supplement travel, incidentals, and labor required to evaluate partnership potential and implement consolidation. Another approach, which is currently in place in California, is to encourage water systems to pursue consolidation or regionalization through offering low- or no-interest loans for their infrastructure projects that provide additional drinking water supplies. In addition to financial support, legal remedies will also be needed to resolve responsibilities related to past violations and other obligations of the underperforming system.

In California, the policy groundwork, going beyond incentives, has been laid to ensure that the most vulnerable groups are not left without water. In 2012 the state committed to ensure that every person has access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. And, in alignment with this goal, two state-wide policies have been enacted; one that requires management of groundwater (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act), and a second that created a program to identify and fund solutions for water systems and domestic well users currently without and at-risk of losing access to safe water (Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience, SAFER). The funds associated with these solutions are the state’s first-ever source for operations and maintenance for small water systems. Particularly, the severely impacted populations served by water systems with persistent water quality violations will benefit from state financial assistance to support them in developing internal capacity and provide a path to long-term financial sustainability.

Applications Beyond California

This body of work, published in September 2020 by the Water Research Foundation, provides information on the scope of the problem as well as practical solutions for California. Our hope is that these offer a blueprint for communities ready and able to take action through local and regional solutions. But more will be needed to address the full set of drinking water challenges existing in the state and beyond. Small drinking water systems in California are fortunate to have the new SAFER program crafting a set of tools, funding sources, and regulatory authorities to solve the complex problems facing small systems.

Unsafe drinking water is an urgent problem that disproportionately affects low‐income communities of color in California and across the U.S. In California, we’ve learned that the right environment and policies inspire stakeholders to come to agreement on prioritizing solutions that provide the best results based on each system’s unique problems. Improving water quality is more than choosing a technical solution. Community alignment and support, political willingness, and mutual agreement are all critical elements that, when combined with the right technical solutions, allow systems to thrive. In parallel with ensuring the right institutional and funding support systems are in place, we also need to choose and implement the most viable technical solutions for each system (which may in turn inform the support systems). Every system is unique, and some systems may require an immediate solution, while others may require a series of solutions implemented over time.

Key Take-Aways from the Webinar on Setting Site Water Targets to Drive Action in India and South Africa

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by Tien Shiao, Hannah Baleta, and Sonali Abraham


The CEO Water Mandate and the Pacific Institute held a webinar on August 18, 2020, titled “Lessons from India and South Africa: Setting Site Water Targets to Drive Action.” Over 100 participants from around the world attended. Webinar panelists engaged in an interactive session with high-caliber questions from the moderator and a responsive audience. The questions centered primarily around how to 1) start target setting, with a focus on stakeholder engagement 2) create a target and 3) drive action once a target has been identified.

To facilitate knowledge-sharing among stakeholders interested in this subject, and for those who might have missed the webinar, the project team has created a brand-new FAQ page in which we summarize key audience questions and takeaways. Going forward, this FAQ page will include insights from the various contextual target-setting projects around the world and will be regularly updated to reflect new findings and project learnings.  

Highlighted questions answered on the FAQ page include:

  • How did you select stakeholders to validate findings?
  • How did you ensure participation of the most relevant stakeholders?
  • How do you create shared ownership of achieving targets with stakeholders?
  • With water challenges being interconnected and with a strong desire for collective work among the private sector, what is the role of government in this work—regulatory, fiscal, other?
  • What are examples of collective action and targets? What has worked and what has not? What makes a target realistic?
  • How do you convert targets into an actionable plan for the company?

Click on the FAQ page to explore the answers to these questions provided by the project team.

Thank you to all the participants and the panelists who attended and participated in the webinar. We hope that this FAQ page will facilitate collaboration and spur engagement with a wide audience. We look forward to regularly updating this page as these projects grow.

For information on the overall guidance and case studies from Noyyal-Bhavani River Basin, India, Upper Vaal River Basin and Berg and Breede River Basins, South Africa, and Santa Ana Watershed in California, please refer to Setting Site Water Targets. Please contact ceowatermandate@unglobalcompact.org if you are interested in setting contextual water targets or for further information.

Tien, Hannah, and Sonali are researchers at the Pacific Institute, which implements the CEO Water Mandate in partnership with the UN Global Compact. The CEO Water Mandate mobilizes business leaders to advance water stewardship, sanitation, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals


From Source to Tap: Assessing Water Quality in California  

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By Walker Grimshaw  

Stressors to sustainable water management in California 

Water providers in California face myriad challenges in sustainably providing high quality drinking water to their customers while protecting the natural environment.  

While agencies may have little direct impact on these external stressors, they have choices in how to respond and adapt to such stress to successfully supply high quality and affordable water to communities. 

In this blog postI explore the stress that surface water and groundwater quality challenges pose for California’s retail water agencies. 

Groundwater quality stresses small water systems 

More than 80% of Californians rely on groundwater for at least part of their drinking water. Groundwater aquifers also serve as a natural storage and treatment system for water and are vital to providing clean water throughout the arid American West.  

“More than 80% of Californians rely on groundwater for at least part of their drinking water.” 

However, when contaminated, water managers must treat groundwater; mix it with other, higher-quality water sources; or drill new wells to access new sources entirelyEach of these approaches increases the complexity of the water system, and the extra costs can increase the price of water for customersComplex water systems and increased costs are especially large challenges for small water systems with limited technical capacity and a smaller customer base. For these small water systems, the cost of infrastructure and training for operations and maintenance staff is spread among fewer customers. 

Both large and small water systems must test the quality of their raw water throughout the year. Municipal groundwater data from 2019 show that across California, large water systems are more likely to pump contaminated groundwater than small water systems. However, despite the increased likelihood of pumping contaminated groundwater, these large systems are not more likely nationally to violate drinking water standards. The reason? Large systems have a greater capacity to treat the contaminated groundwater to meet EPA and state drinking water standards.  

Assessing and Addressing Contaminated Groundwater  

The quality of raw groundwater is measured relative to comparison concentrations, above which there are increased negative impacts to human health or environmental health. 

Comparison concentrations include Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), health-based action levels, and notification levels, among others, and each type of comparison concentration has different regulatory consequences and implications for human health. For example, drinking water contaminant concentrations cannot legally exceed federal MCLs under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Water systems with MCL violations must find ways to improve their water quality through new water sources or more treatment. 

On the other handcontaminants exceeding notification levels, as their name implies, only require notification of customers and local government. They do not require treatment or removal from the water. 

PFAS are unregulated and occur in groundwater across California 

While many contaminants are regulated through the Safe Drinking Water Act, additional chemicals are increasingly being monitored and regulated as they are discovered in the environment. One category of these chemicals, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are man-made chemicals used to produce heat and water-resistant materials, often referred to as “forever chemicals. They have recently gained public attention for their negative health effects, presence in water resources, and persistence in the environment.  PFAS are currently monitored, but they are not regulated at the state or federal level. Instead, they only have notification levelsrequiring notification of local governing bodies (i.e. city or county) when their presence exceeds their respective notification level. 

Two chemicals in the PFAS family, PFOS and PFOA, are monitored widely across California, and in 2019, nearly one third of all PFOS/PFOA observations in raw groundwater were above notification level. Measurements exceeding the notification level occur throughout the state and are not limited to any one geographic area. 

“Two chemicals in the PFAS family, PFOS and PFOA, are monitored widely across the state, and in 2019, nearly one third of all PFOS/PFOA observations in raw groundwater were above a notification level.”


As research on the human impacts of PFAS continue, the EPA or CalEPA could introduce an MCL to supplement the existing notification level. If so, many water systems would need to install treatment to specifically remove these forever chemicals, representing a large potential stressor for retail water systems. The Orange County Water District has already begun the nation’s largest PFAS Pilot Program to identify the best treatment methods for their water. 

Surface Water Quality 

Surface water supplies typically require more treatment than groundwater to achieve high quality drinking water, and small changes in surface water quality can have large impacts on entire ecosystems. As with groundwater, surface water quality directly impacts the price of safe, treated water for consumers or the need to explore other, higher quality sources of water. 

Impaired Surface Waters and TMDLs 

The EPA tracks surface water quality nationally in a compiled list of impaired waters, called the 303(d) listings. Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act charges states and tribes to assess the quality of the surface water bodies within their boundaries 

Every two years, each state must assess their water bodies using all available water quality-related data. Each assessed water body is designated as impaired, threatened, or good based on the ability of the water to meet water quality standards for its intended beneficial uses. Beneficial uses may include drinking water supply, recreation, aquatic life support, and fish consumption, among others, and they determine the acceptable water quality of water bodies. 

For waters designated as impaired, the state must then develop Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for the pollutants in that water body. The goal is to determine the maximum amount of pollution that can enter the water body and still meet water quality standards. The TMDL then serves as the basis for regulating sources of pollution to that body of water. 

Pesticides and Nutrients 

The most common pollutants in California’s surface waters are pesticides, nutrients, metals, and fecal indicator bacteria. However, unlike the ubiquity of PFAS in groundwater across the statepesticides appear mostly in the Central Valley, Central Coast, and Imperial Valley while nutrient contamination is worse in the Klamath River basin, the Pajaro, and the Aliso-San Onofre. 

The maps below show the distribution of pesticide and nutrientcontaminated waters in the watersheds of California. As not all watersheds have the same number of streams and not all streams are assessed for impairment, the number of impairments for pesticides and nutrients are divided by the total number of assessed streams in each watershed.   

Much of the groundwater and surface water in California is contaminated, some naturally occurring and some because of human action. Contaminants harm environmental systems and pose a threat to human health. Monitoring is key to understanding the location and severity of contamination and allows regulators and the public to prioritize efforts at water quality improvement.  

How to learn more about your drinking water quality 

Despite widespread water pollution, drinking water across California is largely safe, as contaminated source water does not necessarily lead to contaminated drinking water. Instead, it provides a greater challenge to providing safe drinking water, and treatment can increase the cost of the water. If you are interested in learning about the quality of your tap water, you can look up your water provider through Drinking Water Watch. 



Ending Conflicts Over Water

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By Peter H. Gleick

Growing Tensions Over Freshwater

In recent years, a wide range of water-related factors have contributed to political instability, human dislocation and migration, agricultural and food insecurity, and in more and more cases, actual conflict and violence. Demand for water has grown as populations and economies expand, while the availability and quality of the planet’s freshwater resources are increasingly influenced by industrial and human water pollutants, and increasingly by human-caused climate change. Water problems do not necessarily lead to conflict — in fact, violence associated with water systems and problems is the exception, not the rule. However, data collected by the Pacific Institute in the Water Conflict Chronology show that water-related violence is increasing (Figure 1).

Strategies for Reducing Water-Related Conflicts

Although water risks are worsening worldwide, there are many strategies to reduce water conflicts and improve water security. A comprehensive new assessment of these strategies was released in September 2020 by the Pacific Institute, the World Resources Institute, and the Water, Peace, and Security Partnership. Solutions to water and security challenges can be described and categorized in many ways. The report offers four broad categories:  

  1. Natural resources, science, and engineering approaches;  
  2. Political and legal tools;  
  3. Economic and financial tools; and  
  4. Policy and governance strategies. 

“Although water risks are worsening worldwide, there are many strategies to reduce water conflicts and improve water security.”

From Strategy to Action: Reducing Water-Related Conflict Around the Globe 

The report focuses on identifying and understanding these strategies, where they might be most effectively applied, and how to overcome barriers to implementing them. It also provides six detailed regional or country case studies on how different combinations of these solutions — if successfully implemented — could help to mitigate the risk of water-related instability. The cases studies include Iraq, Iran, India, The African Sahel, the Central American Dry Corridor, and Yemen. 

The cases were chosen where severe water and security challenges are already evident and illustrative of a broad spectrum of problems. Each of the case studies begins with a description of the factors that are driving these water-related challenges and a summary of the conflict or crisis itself. Each case study then describes possible solutions to address the specific drivers of the water-related challenges. Importantly, this discussion of solutions includes examples of the solutions being put into practice.  

In Iraq, for example, exceedingly poor water quality in southern Iraq triggered violent demonstrations against the government. At the same time, reductions in flows in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers due to upstream interference from Turkey and Syria and accelerating climate change are contributing to tensions over both water quantity and quality. 

In Iran, overuse of water relative to available supply has led to internal tensions and violent confrontations over access to water. Iran also has ongoing disputes with neighboring countries over use of water in its shared river basins. 

In the African Sahelian region, increasing scarcity of water and land resources has led to a major increase in violence between local farmers and pastoralists, and contributed to worsening religious tensions among different groups. Expansion of settled communities has contributed o appropriation of watering holes and closure of lands formerly open to nomadic groups. 

Existing Challenges and Recommendations

The report concludes with seven major conclusions and recommendations:

  1. More and more countries are confronting water insecurity as water demands increase and water supplies decrease, become contaminated, or are affected by extreme events.
  2. While solutions exist on paper, they are often difficult to apply politically. As challenges to social stability grow, all parties need to mobilize the political will and economic and technical capacity to effectively address them.
  3. Among the first things needed to confront these challenges are data and information systems that can help monitor conditions and provide early warning of potential problems.
  4. Once high-risk areas are identified, the international community should have rapid response teams that can assist at-risk countries
  5. Most solutions require significant funding. The rapid response teams should therefore have the backing of development banks, bilateral aid agencies, the private sector, and other funders that can furnish needed grants or loans. Funds should be set aside by these organizations specifically to address emerging water and security crises.
  6. The challenge of collective action is significant, but it can be overcome if and when societies recognize the benefits of needed changes and the perils of continuing with “business as usual.”
  7. Understanding pathways, timelines, and the complex interaction of multiple factors at work in a crisis is vital to help policymakers design effective policy responses. 

Further Resources on Water-Related Conflict

Report: Ending Conflicts Over Water: Solutions to Water and Security Challenges  Video: Ending Conflicts Over Water  Tool: Water Conflict Chronology  Tool: WPS Global Early Warning Tool

How Distributed Water Infrastructure Can Boost Resilience in the Face of COVID-19 and Other Shocks  

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By Cora Kammeyer, Pacific Institute; Heather Cooley, Pacific Institute; and Cynthia Koehler, WaterNow Alliance 


COVID-19 — and the ensuing economic crisis — is affecting all sectors of society, including water. Across the country, water utilities are facing lower revenues, more unpaid and late water bills, and higher costs to protect essential staff from COVID-19. These financial challenges are affecting much-needed investments in water infrastructure, both now and in the future. Here, we summarize the financial impacts of COVID-19 on water utilities, examine how this may reduce or delay water infrastructure investments, and explore how investments in innovative distributed water infrastructure can address some of these issues while also fostering economic recovery, system flexibility, and long-term resilience.    

Water Utility Revenue Struggles 

Water utilities face severe challenges due to the effect of COVID-19 on their bottom lines. A survey of drinking water utilities conducted by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) in June 2020 shows that many utilities are facing financial impacts from COVD-19 and are cutting spending in response. Three-quarters of respondents are either already facing financial impacts due to COVID-19 (45 percent) or expect to see impacts soon (31 percent). Seventy percent have either already adjusted their spending or are considering it. Perhaps most critically, 24 percent of respondents, predominantly small utilities, say these financial impacts are likely to affect their ability to maintain current levels of water service. 


A survey of drinking water utilities conducted by the American Water Works Association in June 2020 show that many utilities are facing financial impacts from COVD-19 and are cutting spending in response. 


There are three primary drivers of revenue shortfalls:

  1. non-payment of water bills, as people face unemployment and struggle to make ends meet; 
  2. Reductions in water demand, especially reduced water sales to businesses that are shut down or operating in a limited capacity; and 
  3. Increased operating costs associated with protecting workers from COVID-19 and providing increased hazard and overtime pay. 

A study from AWWA and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies puts the combined current and future financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis on drinking water and wastewater utilities at around $27 billion, or nearly 17 percent of total budgets. Another estimate predicts a 20 percent water utility revenue loss due to COVID-19. While much of the research focus has been on drinking water and wastewater utilities, stormwater utilities face similar financial struggles.

Federal or state aid would help alleviate this pain but has yet to materialize. To date, local water utilities have largely been omitted from federal COVID-19 relief, and proposals for federal support, like the Moving Forward Act, may not move forward until after the November election. State budgets have taken their own COVID-19 hits. The California State budget, for example, is facing a $54 billion deficit and State water programs have been slashed to the tune of $50 to $70 million.

Capital Investments and Infrastructure Expenditures

It is well established that there is desperate need for capital investments in local water infrastructure to modernize operations, address deferred maintenance, and build climate resilience. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a “D” grade to the nation’s water infrastructure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that $743 billion of investment  in water and wastewater infrastructure is needed over the next 20 years just to meet existing environmental and health standards.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that $743 billion of investment in water and wastewater infrastructure is needed over the next 20 years just to meet existing environmental and health standards.


The revenue shortfalls from COVID-19 are exacerbating this situation, forcing water utilities to delay or reduce those investments. According to the recent AWWA survey:

  • Seven percent of respondents have suspended capital construction already in progress, and eight percent are considering it;
  • Twenty-two percent of respondents are delaying anticipated capital construction, with another 19 percent considering it; and 
  • Thirty-six percent are reducing or considering reducing maintenance and repair schedules, which will create even more of a backlog. 

These delays could affect the reliability of water infrastructure already long overdue for capital improvements. 

An added dimension to the water infrastructure financing challenge in the face of COVID-19 is the municipal bond market. Because of current financial instability, which is expected to continue, utility and municipal bond ratings may go down—and consequently interest rates up—making it more expensive to finance capital investments in water infrastructure. 

Opportunities for Distributed Water Infrastructure 

At a time when utilities are pausing investments in conventional water infrastructure, localized, distributed water infrastructure presents a unique opportunity. These infrastructure solutions, located at or near the point of use and implemented widely across communities, encompass a broad range of water supply, treatment, and stormwater strategies, such as efficient fixtures, rain gardens, lead line replacements, onsite or district scale water reuse, and more. Distributed water systems serve the same functions as conventional systems, but more affordably and equitably, while building greater climate resilience for the community.


Distributed water systems serve the same functions as conventional systems — but more affordably and equitably, while building greater climate resilience for the community.


Moreover, while conventional centralized water infrastructure is typically engineered and optimized to do just one thing very well (e.g., a treatment plant to provide clean water, or a dam to store water), distributed systems can provide multiple benefits. These include:

  • Creating alternative water supplies;
  • Improving environmental water quality;
  • Reducing energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Generating jobs and local economic development; 
  • Providing greener public spaces; and
  • Cooling urban environments. 

There is growing interest in the role that distributed systems can play in advancing water resilience. They tend to be less expensive than large, centralized systems and can provide greater financial and operational flexibility. Water infrastructure networks that are flexible, have distributed capacity, and contain multiple systems that can provide back-up are more resilient to disruption than systems without these features. For example, in 2012 Hurricane Sandy overwhelmed many water and wastewater treatment facilities. Centralized water systems spilled over 11 billion gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage into streets and waterways, but over 80 distributed water systems remained operational. 


Water infrastructure networks that are flexible, have distributed capacity, and contain multiple systems that can provide back-up are more resilient to disruption than systems without these features.


Distributed infrastructure also presents opportunities to leverage private investment. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are seeing growing corporate interest and investment in distributed water systems. Technology companies like Salesforce, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google have invested in distributed strategies like onsite water reuse, water efficiency, and water treatment wetlands at their own facilities. Private interest and investment in these systems has the potential to spare water utilities some costs, add capacity, and provide redundancy in case of damage or failure to the centralized system. 

Distributed energy resources offer an important model for how a smart, integrated system of centralized and distributed infrastructure can work. These distributed energy resources act as nodes in the broader system, allowing for flexible operations, providing resilience to disruption, and offering new utility revenue models. 

Some water utilities, like the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, have seen the potential of distributed water infrastructure investments and have enacted policies to incentivize or require them. Others are establishing innovative programs to advance distributed water strategies. 

A More Variable and Uncertain Future

Distributed water infrastructure has been a promising solution since long before the pandemic hit. Now, given the challenges posed by COVID-19, it is even more so. Shocks — from social disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic to severe floods and droughts from a changing climate — are becoming more frequent and severe. These will continue to strain water utilities’ continuity of operations. In the face of increasing disruptions, we need to shift toward water resilience. 

The transition to water resilience includes acknowledging, valuing, and investing in distributed infrastructure alongside existing centralized systems. This will require planning, budgeting, and financing those systems on par with conventional water infrastructure, which may necessitate changes in water utility budgeting and financing. While the COVID-19 pandemic presents unprecedented challenges for water utilities, it also provides an opportunity to modernize existing models for financing and building water infrastructure to meet 21st century needs. 

The Pacific Institute creates and advances solutions to the world’s most pressing water challenges. Our vision is to create a world in which society, the economy, and the environment have the water they need to thrive now and in the future.

WaterNow Alliance identifies and overcomes barriers and provides tools and resources for their members to build local support for policies and programs that advance sustainable water management. WaterNow Alliance provides a forum for collaborative action and a network for local leaders to learn from each other, helping communities make tangible progress on the ground to bring sustainable water management approaches to scale.

Simple Steps for Businesses to Transform Their Landscapes

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By Cora Kammeyer and Sonali Abraham

The Pacific Institute has developed an interactive guide, Sustainable Landscapes in California: A Guidebook for Commercial and Industrial Site Managers, which provides step-by-step help for businesses interested in sustainable landscapes.   

Through Sustainable Landscapes, We Can Improve the Resilience of Our Cities  

Extreme weather, exacerbated by climate change, manifests through water – storms, floods, and droughts. Adapting to these new extremes will require rethinking water management, including the way we design urban areas to interact with water.  

Currently, most of California’s cities are marked by vast expanses of turf and pavement, which are the opposite of drought and flood resilient. Half of all water used in California’s urban areas—more than four million acre-feet annually—is used outdoors, largely to irrigate turf grass. Vast paved areas like parking lots, walkways, and streets contribute to local flooding and water pollution because there is nowhere for stormwater to go. Sustainable landscapes provide an excellent alternative; replacing lawns with climate-appropriate landscapes that are irrigated efficiently can save water and reduce vulnerability to drought, and creating rain gardens with healthy soils can help stormwater soak into the ground and reduce flooding. 

Businesses Will Play an Instrumental Role in Transitioning to Sustainable Landscapes 

The scope and scale of our sustainability challenges warrants action by all Californians, including the business community. Commercial and industrial properties are disproportionately landscaped with turf grass and have large paved areas. Yet, most sustainable landscape programs have focused on residential properties. 

December 7, 2017 Palo Alto / CA / USA – Walking through the open air Stanford shopping center, San Francisco bay area

Businesses can support their communities and improve management of local resources, including water, through investments in sustainable landscaping at their sites. Increasingly, businesses are adopting water stewardship programs that reduce their costs while providing benefits to communities and supporting public water policy goals where their facilities are located. Sustainable landscapes can be an important aspect of a business’s water stewardship commitment. 

New Guidebook Provides Practical, Step-by-Step Guidance on Landscape Transformation for Businesses 

There has been a lack of resources for businesses on sustainable landscapes, in comparison to resources for residential yard transformation. While the basic tenets of sustainable landscapes are the same across all property types, the decision-making process, financing options, installation, and maintenance of sustainable landscapes are different for businesses than for homeowners. 

To help fill this information gap, the Pacific Institute recently released a guidebook, Sustainable Landscapes in California: A Guidebook for Commercial and Industrial Site Managers. The guidebook is aimed at site managers of commercial and industrial properties who are interested in adopting sustainable landscape practices. The guidebook provides simple steps for considering, selecting, and installing sustainable landscape practices, along with interactive worksheets and pop-out boxes. It tackles project decision-making, information required, and questions to ask landscape professionals, and it points users to helpful resources where needed.  

The guidebook provides simple steps for considering, selecting, and installing sustainable landscape practices.

Sustainable Landscapes Provide Many Benefits to People and the Environment 

The multiple benefits provided by sustainable landscapes can improve cost-effectiveness and provide businesses with an opportunity to publicly demonstrate their commitment to the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.  

Replacing lawns with climate-appropriate plants that are irrigated efficiently can save water and reduce vulnerability to drought. When integrated with bioswales, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure, these projects can boost local water supplies, reduce flooding, and improve water quality. These practices can also save energy, provide habitat, sequester carbon, improve air quality, and increase resilience to climate change. They can make workplaces more enjoyable for employees, and neighborhoods more livable for communities.  

Sustainable landscapes also provide direct benefits to a business. Those benefits can include: 

Cost savings: Sustainable landscape practices can help save businesses money. This could include lower water bills, lower landscape maintenance costs, and even lower energy bills. 

Meeting sustainability goals: A growing number of businesses have adopted sustainability goals such as reducing water use, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions. Investing in sustainable landscapes can help companies achieve these goals. 

Advancing green reputation: Converting to a sustainable landscape is a highly visible way for businesses to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. Unlike investments in water and energy efficiency inside a building, sustainable landscapes are something that people can see and interact with. 

Practicing social responsibility: Businesses are increasingly recognizing the water-related risks facing their business operations and their communities. Investing in a sustainable landscape is a way for businesses to make positive contributions by addressing water risks and improving community livability. 


Explore the guidebook here.  

Read more about the Pacific Institute’s work on sustainable landscapes here.  

Learn more about the Pacific Institute’s work with businesses here.  

Why Should Your Business Be Interested in Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds?

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By Carla Műller-Zantop (Danone S.A.), Michael Matosich (The Nature Conservancy), Kari Vigerstol (The Nature Conservancy), Naabia Ofosu-Amaah (The Nature Conservancy), and Gregg Brill (Pacific Institute and CEO Water Mandate)

The Problem

Physical, Reputational, and Regulatory
Source: ceowatermandate.org

As large users of natural resources, including water, the private sector has disproportionate impacts and dependencies on natural capital1. These impacts and dependencies play out across physical, reputational and regulatory factors, and across the interface between company risks and risks due to a particular watershed. All of these issues affect private sector bottom lines and long-term well-being.

The private sector has a critical role to play in addressing many environmental, social, and economic challenges faced today. To this end, a multi-organizational project (including the CEO Water Mandate, the Pacific Institute, The Nature Conservancy, Danone, and LimnoTech) is looking to understand the opportunities for businesses to invest in nature-based solutions (NBS) to address societal challenges. The project team have recently published a Benefit Accounting of Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds Landscape Assessment to better this understanding. This assessment:  

  • Explores the concept, definitions, and classifications of NBS;  
  • Identifies the barriers to scaling NBS;  
  • Reviews available frameworks or methods for evaluating, measuring, and demonstrating the value of NBS benefits; and  
  • Examines opportunities to scale NBS. 


Using Nature to Solve Societal Challenges 

Historically, the private sector has addressed water security through developing engineered solutions to store, treat, distribute, and dispose of water. Although many of these solutions have proven successful at meeting their primary objectives, they come at considerable costs to business and the environment. For example, a reservoir or dam may be built to store water. This water needs to be pumped to treatment works and then on to the end user. All of this infrastructure comes at considerable capital and maintenance costs. The environmental costs are significant too2, and include loss of habitat, changing local hydrology, and disposal of wastewater to the environment. It is seldom the case that the full suite of costs (economic, social, and ecological) are factored into decision making when investing in engineered solutions. 

But the reliance on solely engineered solutions to solve critical water challenges is changing.  The private sector is increasingly realizing that it has, at its fingertips, various approaches that rely on nature – not just engineered solutions – to build water security in line with their existing business models. 

These approaches are known as “nature-based solutions.” 

The private sector is increasingly realizing it has, at its fingertips, various approaches that rely on nature – not just engineered solutions – to build water security in line with their existing business models. These approaches are known as “nature-based solutions.”

Nature-based solutions (NBS) are actions to restore, manage, and protect natural ecosystems in order to secure ecosystem goods and services that nature provides and performs. Working with nature offers significant opportunities to businesses to meet broader environmental, social, and economic objectives. Instead of relying solely on traditional “gray infrastructure”, companies can combine these efforts with natural solutions or “green infrastructure” (e.g. using wetlands to filter and store water, rather than industrial filtration systems and storage tanks). This allows natural systems to provide vital provisioning and regulatory functions, such as filtration functions of soils and natural vegetation to: 

  • Improve water quality;
  • Reduce erosion and sediment loading;  
  • Lower pollution into waterways and groundwater; and 
  • Regulate seasonal water flows.  

Investments in NBS can offer solutions that are both cost-effective and flexible, and are therefore of increasing interest to the private sector and other stakeholders. NBS allow ecosystems to provide water quality and quantity benefits, as well as multiple other co benefits including carbon sequestration; increased biodiversity; and social, cultural, health, and economic benefits3, 4. In addition, carefully planned natural climate solutions using NBS have the global potential to deliver 37% of carbon mitigation5 needed within the next decade to stabilize global warming temperatures to below the 2° C target.

Unique Opportunities for the Private Sector 

As the private sector prioritizes building resilience, more and more companies are turning to NBS to support their long-term goals and business continuity objectives. According to GreenBiz6, over 350 companies have made commitments to help reverse biodiversity loss and restore natural systems on which economic activity depends. In 2019, Amazon7 pledged USD $100 million to support natural climate solutions, while Unilever8 pledged €1 billion towards its climate and nature fund in 2020.  

As the private sector prioritizes building resilience, more and more companies are turning to nature-based solutions to support their long-term goals and business continuity objectives.

To improve the sustainability of business operations as well as the environment, it is critical that more companies invest in the enhancement of natural capital and the use of NBS to create more resource-efficient societies. 

So what is holding the private sector back?  

Barriers to Private Sector Implementation of Nature-Based Solutions 

While NBS can substantially improve ecosystem functioning and quality, they currently remain underutilized, partly because of:

  • A lack of understanding of the full range of potential benefits of NBS, from both an ecosystem perspective and a business perspective;  
  • A lack of common metrics for measuring or quantifying the multiple benefits derived from NBS; 
  • A lack of public and private sector policy and governance frameworks and tools for identifying or monetizing the full scope of benefits and co-benefits provided by NBS; and
  • Limited financing for NBS projects or a lack of incentives for investing in NBS.

For a more in-depth look at the challenges and barriers companies are facing, please refer to the Benefit Accounting of Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds Landscape Assessment

The Way Forward 

It is clear that in order to sustainably meet the needs of the private sector, society, and nature, and to ensure that companies build long-term economic resilience, we will collectively need to improve ecosystem functioning and quality. Action needs to be taken now, to not only improve ecosystems at broad scales, but also embrace nature in solving many of the challenges we face today. 

Action needs to be taken now, to not only improve ecosystems at broad scales, but also embrace nature in solving many of the challenges we face today. 

To achieve these goals, the public sector could:  

  • Create appropriate regulations, policies, and legislations that promote the use of NBS; 
  • Provide development incentives, payment for ecosystem services schemes, stormwater fee discounts, green bonds, and tax increment financing;
  • Adjust building codes and project development protocols to encourage the use of NBS; 
  • Enable credit enhancement and provide grants, rebates, and favorable financing terms; and
  • Create collaborative governance and management mechanisms to promote partnership development around NBS investments9. 

Businesses can advocate for these NBS-friendly policies and raise awareness of this opportunity through:

  • Investing in NBS projects at scale with innovative sustainable financing; 
  • Supporting public-private partnerships and collaborative governance structures; and
  • Providing sector leadership by encouraging other companies in their economic sectors or within their supply chains to support NBS opportunities10.

NBS have the potential to drive transformation in the private sector to meet long-term resilience goals. Companies can use these solutions to reshape their economic models to include added value from natural and social benefits while simultaneously achieving economic growth. To do this, they should look beyond the boundaries of their factory fences and broaden positive influence at the watershed level using nature as inspiration. No single business or government agency can tackle the multitude of societal and environmental challenges alone. In this context, NBS can support collaborative governance objectives, at a time where joint action is needed more than ever. 

[Pull quote: Companies can use nature-based solutions to reshape their economic models to include added value from natural and social benefits while simultaneously achieving economic growth. To do this, they should look beyond the boundaries of their factory fences and broaden positive influence at the watershed level using nature as inspiration.] 

For more information on the Benefit Accounting of Nature Based Solutions for Watersheds project, please visit the Benefit Accounting of Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds project page.  

Final California Water Resilience Portfolio Released: What’s There, What’s Missing

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By Cora Kammeyer

In January 2020, California state agencies released a draft document meant to signify a new chapter in California water. Now, six months later and after extensive public consultation, the final draft of the Water Resilience Portfolio has arrived.

The Portfolio was developed in response to Governor Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order (N-10-19), which calls for a comprehensive strategy to build a climate-resilient water system in California for the 21st century. This strategy includes several ambitious actions, such as ensuring all communities have access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water and utilizing natural infrastructure and approaches that provide multiple benefits. The Portfolio was a collaborative effort, compiled through an interagency working group with input from communities and leaders across the state.

What’s in the Portfolio?

Below is a short summary of the 32 recommendations put forth in the final Water Resilience Portfolio. The full document can be found at waterresilience.ca.gov.

The Portfolio is divided into four broad approaches: maintain and diversify water supplies; protect and enhance natural systems; build connections; and be prepared. Under each approach, recommendations and actions for achieving those recommendations are provided. A final section outlines a plan for executing the Portfolio.

Maintain and Diversify Water Supplies

  1. Help local water agencies achieve reliable access to safe and affordable water.
  2. Drive greater efficiency of water use in all sectors.
  3. Help regions secure groundwater supplies by supporting the transition to sustainable use.
  4. Support local and regional agencies to recycle or reuse at least 2.5 million acre-feet a year in the next decade.
  5. Support cities and counties to make stormwater capture a growing share of their supply.
  6. Consider use of desalination technology where it is cost effective and environmentally appropriate.
  7. Expand smart surface water storage where it can benefit water supply and the environment.

Protect and Enhance Natural Systems

  1. Protect and restore water quality by driving pollution reduction from a range of sources.
  2. Help regions better protect fish and wildlife by quantifying the timing, quality, and volume of flows they need.
  3. Reconnect aquatic habitat to help fish and wildlife endure drought and adapt to climate change.
  4. Support the expansion of wetlands, including mountain meadows, to create habitat, filter runoff, buffer floods, and recharge groundwater.
  5. Curb invasive species altering California waterways.
  6. Align and improve permitting to help launch and incentivize more restoration, multi-benefit, and multi-partner projects.
  7. Upgrade and maintain state wildlife refuges, hatcheries, and restoration
  8. Encourage investment in upper watersheds to protect water quality and supply.
  9. Improve soil health and conservation practices on California farms and ranches.
  10. Minimize air pollution and restore habitat at the Salton Sea.
  11. Help protect the economic and ecological vitality of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Build Connections

  1. Modernize inter-regional conveyance to help regions capture, store, and move water.
  2. Support groups and leaders in each of the state’s regions to develop and execute integrated resilience strategies.
  3. Ease movement of water across the state by simplifying water transfers.
  4. Modernize water data systems to inform real-time water management decisions and long-term planning.
  5. Coordinate science crucial to water management.
  6. Foster innovation and technology adoption across all water sectors.

Be Prepared

  1. Help regions prepare for new flood patterns.
  2. Help regions prepare for inevitable drought.
  3. Improve the ability of regions to anticipate weather and climate changes.

Executing This Portfolio

  1. Institutionalize better coordination across state agencies.
  2. Partner with key non-state partners to improve coordination and alignment.
  3. Unify to pursue federal funding and cooperation.
  4. Actively integrate water resilience portfolio actions in other Administration efforts to build climate resilience.
  5. Track and report publicly on progress toward implementing the water resilience portfolio.

What’s Missing?

The Pacific Institute has long analyzed and communicated the links between water, energy, and climate and strongly supports the state’s efforts to advance water resilience in the face of climate change. This Portfolio is a step in the right direction, but there are still gaps that must be addressed. Below, we highlight five critical actions for advancing water resilience in California:

  1. Develop a standardized system for water projects to evaluate and report multiple benefits and use that information to prioritize state grants and loans. The need to do many things to advance water resilience does not mean that we must or can afford to do everything all at once. Resources are limited, and we must prioritize our efforts. While Portfolio recommendation #13 addresses the importance of projects with multiple benefits, it does not address prioritization nor does it recommend a standardized approach to evaluating multiple benefits.
  2. Engage proactively in Colorado River negotiations. The Colorado River is not mentioned in the Portfolio recommendations. To date, the State of California has deferred decisions about river management to Colorado River contractors. A resilient water portfolio for California must include the Colorado River, and the state should engage proactively in current and upcoming negotiations over its future.
  3. Advance water efficiency for commercial, industrial, and institutional (CII) users. While Portfolio recommendation #2 calls for greater efficiency of water use in “all sectors,” CII users are omitted from the recommended actions. The business community in California is showing a real interest in improving water use efficiency, and more effort is needed to build on this momentum.
  4. Improve actions on the Salton Sea. Achieving the Portfolio’s recommendation #17 on the Salton Sea, to minimize air pollution and restore habitat at the Sea, will require accountability to the governor’s office itself, direct and continuing attention to planning and construction efforts, much greater coordination within and between state agencies and with stakeholders, greater transparency, and a clear articulation of the goals and objectives of state efforts beyond simply meeting existing acreage milestones.
  5. Expand recommendations around local stormwater capture. Portfolio recommendation #5 addresses the need to increase stormwater capture but does not address health and safety or long-term funding. To advance local stormwater capture projects across California, statewide health and safety guidelines for stormwater reuse are needed to empower communities to pursue stormwater capture. Additionally, policies that increase long-term funding and cover operation and maintenance (O&M) expenses are needed.

For further reading, see the Pacific Institute’s public comment letter responding to the draft Water Resilience Portfolio, submitted to Nancy Vogel, Director of the Governor’s Water Resilience Program, in February 2020. We are committed to continued research and collaboration towards increasing California’s water resilience.

What Can We Learn from Setting Site Water Targets in South Africa and India?

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By Sonali Abraham 

Setting site water targets is a business imperative to reduce water risk and improve water security. Every water catchment has a unique set of water challenges. To effectively address water-related risks at the site level, companies need to take into consideration the local context.  

The CEO Water Mandate, together with several partners, published a guide in August 2019 to help companies set effective site water targets that are informed by local context. The guide includes a framework that lays out three key elements for setting effective site water targets: 

In parallel to creating this guidance, we piloted a series of case studies testing this framework across the globe with CEO Water Mandate Action Platform members. The pilots were held in the Santa Ana Watershed (USA), the Noyyal-Bhavani River Basin (India), and the Berg, Breede, and Vaal (South Africa) Catchments.  

We recently released case studies of India and South Africa. Comparing and contrasting these two case studies elucidates the successes and challenges of implementing this guidance and can provide useful insights for companies interested in setting site water targets informed by catchment context.  

Setting the Context 

In both India and South Africa, the pilot studies were conducted in regions with significant water stress due to both water scarcity and poor water quality, partly driven by industrial dependence on water resources. In South Africa, the pilot study was carried out in two catchments: the Upper Vaal Catchment, which is critical for supplying water to South Africa’s economic hub, the Gauteng city-region; and the Berg and Breede Catchments, which supply the City of Cape Town with water. In Gauteng, Sasol Limited and Unilever PLC were the participating companies, while in Cape Town, Woolworths Holdings Limited and Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. were the companies involved. 

In India, the pilot was focused on the Noyyal and the Bhavani sub-basins of the Cauvery, a region well-known as a global textile export hub that is responsible for 90 percent of knitwear exports from India. This clustered pilot was carried out in coordination with the apparel companies Levi Strauss & Co, Gap Inc., and PVH Corp., which have facilities and operations in the watershed. 

Lessons Learned from India and South Africa 

Lesson #1: Understand your region thoroughly 

Every region is unique, not only in its water-related challenges but also its political structures, cultural customs, and historical context. If you are not based in the region, local partners can provide on-the-ground perspective and guidance. Understanding the region’s local policies and talking to people in the region will make the process more effective. 

Lesson #2: Data is king  

Good quality local data is essential to assess a catchment and create actionable targets. The lack of good data need not deter action, but instead can incentivize future data collection as a possible target. Alternatively, the lack of good data can mean that an alternative process, like robust stakeholder engagement, may be required to augment your understanding. Understanding these limitations will help you prepare better for the process ahead. 

Lesson #3: Most water challenges are interconnected 

Water challenges are often connected. For example, supply issues can manifest in the form of polluted bodies of water, which can lead to ecosystem and habitat concerns. It is important to recognize and understand these linkages in order to develop a thorough understanding of the water challenge. Distinguishing the root cause of water challenges will help identify targets that mitigate the source and not the symptom.  

Distinguishing the root cause of water challenges will help identify targets that mitigate the source and not the symptom. 


Lesson #4: Climate change and governance are common threads 

Climate change and governance structures are overarching issues that touch every water challenge. The lack of a cohesive water governance system affects both the extent of all water challenges and the ability to analyze them. Similarly, climate change in the form of rising temperatures and changes in precipitation can affect water availability, water demand, and infrastructure.  Therefore, while these two issues may not be captured in priority challenges, it is important to recognize that they will impact all challenges.  

Lesson #5: Targets come in many shapes and forms  

Site targets can be specific or process-related, quantitative or qualitative. While quantitative, measurable targets are the ideal, other kinds of targets can still yield meaningful action.  Where there is a lack of quantitative guidance on the desired conditions of the catchment, it is better for a company to set qualitative targets than no targets at all. Additionally, companies have different administrative structures and strategies, and priorities may vary across different levels of the company. Targets that mitigate shared water risks for stakeholders across the catchment and take company strategies into account are likely to be more far-reaching and effective.

While quantitative, measurable targets are the ideal, other kinds of targets can still yield meaningful action.


Lesson #6: Collective action saves resources and creates scaled impact 

Setting site water targets is resource-intensive. Working with other sites to collect data on local water challenges and opportunities will reduce the resource burden on each company. Further, implementing the targets collectively creates scaled impact, since multiple users will have a greater overall water footprint within the catchment.  


Interested in learning more?

For more information on these case studies and the overall guidance, please refer to Setting Site Water Targets.  

To dive deeper into these case studies and ask any and all questions, attend our webinar on August 18, 2020! Register  or click here for more information.


Sonali Abraham is a Research Associate at the Pacific Institute, which implements the CEO Water Mandate in partnership with the UN Global Compact. The CEO Water Mandate mobilizes business leaders to advance water stewardship, sanitation, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

How the Coronavirus Pandemic is Affecting Water Demand

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By Heather Cooley

Changes in Water Demand

The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed massive health and economic burdens on communities around the world, and no sector of society is going untouched, including the vitally important water sector. The full extent of impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the water sector are still emerging, but one area that has come to the fore is the effect on municipal water demand. Available data indicate that residential water demand has increased while non-residential demand has decreased. In Portsmouth, England, for example, residential demand increased by 15 percent during the lockdown, while non-residential demand declined by 17 percent. Likewise, in San Francisco, California, residential demand increased by 10 percent, while non-residential demand declined by 32 percent. 


“Available data indicate that residential water demand has increased while non-residential demand has decreased.”


These changes are, in part, due to the simple fact that people are doing more at home during the coronavirus pandemic – like cooking, washing dishes, flushing toilets, and showering – and less in the office, at restaurants, and at the gym. Moreover, while business is up for a handful of sectors – like hospitals and some food production – other important water-using sectors of the economy have slowed or shut down entirely.  

The net effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on total water demand varies from community to community, depending on the relative proportion of residential and non-residential water uses and the makeup of the non-residential sectors. Most communities – including larger metropolitan systems in Boston (Massachusetts) and Austin (Texas) – have experienced a reduction in total water demand. More residential communities have experienced either modest increases or the smallest decreases.  

A Ripple of Effects 

Sudden changes in the levels and patterns of water demand from stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns can have knock-on effects, affecting building water quality, customer water bills, utility revenue, and water and wastewater operational conditions:  

Building Water Quality: Under normal conditions, the regular flow of disinfected tap water keeps water and plumbing free of corrosion, leached minerals, and bacteria. But when water systems are shut down or inactive for weeks or months, residual disinfectants in water, such as chlorine, can dissipate. Several potential hazards must be considered before reopening buildings or water systems, including the risk of mold, Legionella (the cause of Legionnaires’ disease), leaching of lead and other metals, and the presence of disinfection by-products. Many building owners are unaware of the risks and the actions they should take, and there are no official national or industry regulations for safely reopening buildings after extended shutdowns. 

Customer Water Bills: Changes in water use will lead to changes in customer bills. Because water bills typically include a fixed fee that would remain unchanged, the change in the bill is typically considerably less than the change in water usage, i.e., the additional cost of a 10 percent increase in water usage would be much less than 10 percent. But for those already struggling to pay bills or newly unemployed, even a modest increase in household bills can be problematic. Businesses are likely to see costs go down temporarily, but these savings are moderated by fixed fees and could still be problematic for those that are shutdown.  


 “For those already struggling to pay bills or newly unemployed, even a modest increase in household bills can be problematic.”


Utility Revenue: Utilities where total water use has declined during the coronavirus pandemic will see a drop in revenue. Revenue losses are compounded by higher costs and likely increases in non-payment, putting further pressures on water utilities. For example, a survey of U.S. water utilities during the pandemic indicated that some are offering hazard pay and overtime to essential workers, expanding training, and spending more on certain supplies. Moreover, many states have placed a temporary moratorium on customer disconnections, further affecting revenue. Impacts are likely to be more severe for small utilities, as they have a smaller customer base to absorb revenue losses.  

Water and Wastewater System Operations: Even with a small change in total water demand, changes within a water system may be more dramatic. For North Carolina’s Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, water demand across its service area was down only three percent, but demand in two subsystems serving largely residential areas increased by 25 percent and 36 percent. Moreover, as businesses reopen and implement hygiene and disinfection practices and as temperatures rise, water use may rise dramatically. Such rapid and dramatic changes in water use can exacerbate existing — and reveal new — system weaknesses. Managing these weaknesses may be more difficult as operators adjust to reduced staffing, working remotely, and other changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, too, small water systems are more vulnerable because they have fewer operators.  

Some of these impacts will be short-lived, generally limited to the period when stay-at-home orders are in place and businesses closed. However, there could be longer-term impacts if, for example, the pandemic remains out of control, unemployment remains high, people continue to work from home, or there are deeper changes to the economy.  


“There could be longer-term impacts if the pandemic remains out of control, unemployment remains high, people continue to work from home, or there are deeper changes to the economy.”


There is still much we don’t know. For example, we don’t know the extent or duration of the pandemic, or the range of impacts on different water systems, or the effectiveness of efforts to mitigate these impacts. But we do know that we are facing a more variable and uncertain future – from social disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic to more extreme droughts and floods due to climate change. Immediate action is needed to ensure the safety of water during building reopening, and sustained effort is needed improve the financial and operational resilience of water utilities to ensure that they can continue to provide critical water and wastewater services. 

Ensuring Water Safety During Building Reopening 

  • Building operators and managers should take immediate proactive steps to protect public health by addressing building water quality prior to reopening, and actions taken should be shared with building occupants. 
  • Water utilities should proactively reach out to commercial and industrial customers with information about safe reopening procedures. In North America, the American Water Works Association (AWWA), Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, CDC, U.S. EPA, and other groups offer recommendations for both specific actions and community outreach. 
  • Facilities with their own water systems must consider protective actions. Groups that maintain their own water supply, including some schools, restaurants, churches, and recreational facilities, should contact their primacy agencies with specific questions.
  • Local, state, and federal agencies should make special efforts to reach out to groups with limited access to technical expertise and financial resources. This includes small rural water systems, disadvantaged communities, Native American communities, and other groups with special water supply and quality challenges. 

Enhancing Water Utility Resilience 

  • Water utilities should expand their efforts to develop more robust and sophisticated “resilience” plans. Such plans can help water utilities prepare for and mitigate a wider range of risks than traditional planning approaches have addressed, including extreme climatic conditions, health threats like the COVID-19 pandemic, and the failure of key infrastructure. 
  • Water utilities and municipalities should accelerate the pace and scale of digital monitoring and operational technologies. Such technologies can provide advance notice of developing problem and allow the continued safe operation of critical systems even with reduced staffing and shelter-in-place orders. 
  • Water utilities should proactively update their pricing and financial policiesWhile it may not be feasible to change pricing policies in response to the immediate impacts of the pandemic, changes may be needed to address the longer-term economic impacts and build resilience to future crises. Some strategies that should be evaluated include budget-based or inclining block rates, drought surcharges, and cash reserves. 
  • Water utilities should consider purchasing commercial insurance products that provide coverage for business interruptions. While commercial products may not specifically address all the challenges posed by the pandemic, more general policy terms can be negotiated in case of future disruptions.
  • National governments and international aid agencies should increase financial assistance and accelerate the disbursement of this assistance. Financial assistance can help ensure much-needed utility infrastructure investments are maintained and stimulate economic recovery. Such funding should be prioritized for small systems and for projects that (1) enhance sustainability and resilience outcomes and (2) serve disadvantaged communities that lack comprehensive access to safe water and sanitation.

Learn more in the Pacific Institute Issue Brief Water and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impacts on Municipal Water Demand

The COVID Crisis is Slashing California’s State Budget. What Does it Mean for Water Management?

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By Cora Kammeyer


It goes without saying that California today, in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, looks very different from the California of January 2020. Governor Gavin Newsom’s May Revisions to the 2020-2021 state budget reflect this drastic change in circumstance, announcing a $54.3 billion budget deficit and proposing $18 billion in cuts to State funds expenditures. The dramatic slide from a $6 billion surplus to a $54.3 billion deficit is due to COVID-19, both the State’s mobilization to address the crisis and the economic downturn the pandemic has caused.

Several of these cuts will directly affect the availability of funding to manage California’s water resources, from safe drinking water, to groundwater sustainability, to stream restoration, and more.

While the real impacts of these budget cuts on water programs remain to be seen, the risk of a simultaneous water crisis and pandemic needs to be taken seriously. We are seeing what failure to invest in water systems during the time of a pandemic looks like around the world. From flooding and failing dams in Michigan and Virginia to lack of access to running water in Native American reservations across the US, as well as water crises in countries like India and Brazil, the compounding effects of COVID-19 and water-related emergencies are catastrophic. We do not want to see that combination play out in California.

This blog post provides a short summary of the proposed budget changes and their impacts on California water management. While the full details of what programs are being cut, and by how much, are not yet available, key pieces of information were pulled from the California Senate and Assembly budget revision summaries. Information on the total proposed State budget cuts for each California State agency and department can be found on the Governor’s May Revision Budget Details website.

Department of Water Resources

Total proposed State budget cut: -$51,267,000 (-5.4%)

California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) protects, conserves, develops, and manages the state’s water. DWR evaluates existing water resources, forecasts future water needs, manages the State Water Project’s reservoirs and water delivery systems, and explores solutions to meet those needs. It also works to prevent and minimize flood damage, oversee dam safety, and educate the public about the importance of water and its efficient use.

The May Revision withdraws a number of State budget allocations to DWR proposed in January, including:

State Water Resources Control Board

Total proposed State budget cut: -$5,833,000 (-0.7%)

The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), along with the nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards, promotes and enforces proper allocation, permitting, and use of California’s water resources, and preserves, enhances, and restores the quality of the state’s water resources. These objectives are achieved through the Water Quality, Water Rights, and Drinking Water programs.

The May Revision shifts $24 million of the SWRCB budget (beyond the $5.8 million cut) to come from Air Pollution Control Fund penalty revenues instead of the General Fund, on a one-time basis.

Department of Fish and Wildlife

Total proposed State budget cut: -$55,875,000 (-11.5%)

The Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) manages California’s diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological value and for their use and enjoyment by the public. This includes habitat protection and maintenance in a sufficient amount and quality to protect the survival of all species and natural communities.

The May Revision withdraws a number of State budget allocations proposed to DFW in January, including:

  • $33.7 million General Fund ongoing from DFW’s state operations base budget. This reduction will be partially offset by an $18.9 million shift from the Habitat Conservation Fund to the new Biodiversity Protection Fund to support DFW’s core biodiversity conservation and enforcement programs. This reduction may be covered by federal funding.
  • $13.8 million General Fund for the Advancing Biodiversity Protection proposal.
  • $80 million General Fund for Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) Technology.

Department of Food and Agriculture

Total proposed State budget cut: -$23,323,000 (-4.9%)

The May Revision withdraws the proposed $20 million General Fund for State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program Grants.

Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund

The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund is financed by revenues from California’s Cap-and-Trade program. The May Revision maintains the Governor’s January Budget proposal of a $965 million Cap-and-Trade discretionary spending plan, though the funds for this are likely to shrink because of decreased economic activity. The Revision establishes a “pay-as-you-go” budget mechanism to authorize expenditures based on proceeds received at each quarterly auction. This mechanism will prioritize the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, along with air quality, forest health, and fire prevention programs.

Climate Resilience Bond

The Climate Resilience Bond was a proposal to create a $4.75 billion bond for the November 2020 ballot to support investments to reduce climate risks in natural and built infrastructure. The Bond emphasized water, and was intended to allocate as much as 60 percent of the bond funding to water projects. The May Revision withdraws this proposal.


Water in the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (“HEROES ACT”): May 2020

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By Peter Gleick

Emergency supplemental appropriations for FY 2020 proposed by the US House of Representatives


Credit: Michelle Gigante, U.S. Air Force

The newly proposed House of Representatives’ emergency supplemental appropriations bill was just released. Among the $3 trillion dollars it allocates are several provisions related to water and wastewater agencies, residential water use, and agriculture. The final bill will certainly be different, after the Senate and lobbyists get through with it, but as of now, here are some of the major water-related provisions in the bill.

Broadly speaking, the bill provides specific tranches of money for key vulnerable groups: Native American tribes, essential workers and families, homeowners, and low-income households. These are all groups that have experienced especially difficult impacts from both the coronavirus itself and the economic impacts of the response.

Missing from the proposed supplemental appropriations is help for water agencies that are experiencing unanticipated consequences, including lost revenue from changes in urban water demands and a moratorium on disconnections and shut-offs, or problems with financing for new capital investments for water and wastewater systems.

The pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink, redesign, and reinvest in the nation’s water infrastructure, but there is as yet no sign that our legislators will act on this opportunity.

Below are the key water-related provisions in the House bill:


Division A-Coronavirus Recovery Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020

The Bureau of Indian Affairs would receive $20,000,000 to provide and deliver potable water. Indian Health Services would receive “Not less than $10,000,000” for the same purpose.


Division F-Assistance to Agricultural Producers and Other Matters Related to Agriculture

A new provision sets up the “Emergency Soil Health and Income Protection Pilot Program” – a voluntary emergency soil health and income protection pilot program under which eligible agricultural land is enrolled to assist owners and operators of eligible land to conserve and improve the soil, water, and wildlife resources.


Division J-Support for Essential Workers, At-Risk Individuals, Families, and Communities

Section 100203 provides funding for “Emergency Assistance to Families Through Home Visiting Programs,” to be used “to provide emergency supplies (such as diapers, formula, non-perishable food, water, hand soap and hand sanitizer) to families served.”


Division K-COVID-19 Hero Act (Housing, Economic Relief, and Oversight Act)

Section 110202 establishes a Homeowner Assistance Fund with $75 billion, some of which can be used by the Department of the Treasury for homeowners to prevent mortgage defaults, foreclosures, and displacement of individuals and families facing financial hardship. Specifically, funds may be used for mortgage assistance, assistance with payment of taxes, hazard insurance, homeowners fees, and utility payment including electric, gas, water, and internet service.


Division M-Consumer Protection and Telecommunications Provisions establishes a Price Gouging Protection program that applies to critical goods and services, including food and water.


Division S-Other Matters

A key section is Sec. 190701 (Home Energy and Water Service Continuity). This section requires that “any entity receiving financial assistance pursuant to any division of this Act shall, to the maximum extent practicable, establish or maintain in effect policies to ensure that no home energy service or public water system service to a residential customer, which is provided or regulated by such entity, is or remains disconnected or interrupted during the emergency period described in section 1135(g)(1)(B) of the Social Security Act because of nonpayment, and all reconnections of such public water system service are conducted in a manner that minimizes risk to the health of individuals receiving such service.”

This section does not, however, require forgiveness of any debt incurred during the pandemic, or absolve an individual of any obligation to an entity for service, nor preempt any State or local law or regulation governing entities that provide such services to residential customers.

Another two major sections (Sec. 190703 “Low-Income Household Drinking Water and Wastewater Assistance” and Sec. 190704) provides $1.5 billion for grants to States and Indian Tribes, and to residential water users to assist low income households, particularly those with the lowest incomes, that pay a high proportion of household income  for drinking water and wastewater services, by providing funds to owners or operators of public water systems or treatment works to reduce rates charged to such households for such services. It also (in Section 190704) includes the protections for households from disconnections or service shutoffs during the pandemic due to nonpayment.


Division T-Additional Other Matters

Sec. 2000007. Safety Upgrades in GSA Facilities

A final provision requires the Administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA) to take such actions as are necessary “to prevent airborne transmission of COVID–19 through air conditioning, heating, ventilating, and water systems in facilities owned or leased by the General Services Administration to ensure safe and healthy indoor environments for Federal employees… Any projects carried out by the Administrator to carry out this section shall prioritize indoor air and water environmental quality in facilities and energy-saving building technologies and products.”


Want to Help Fight COVID-19? List Your Organization’s Work on the Water Action Hub

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By Lillian Holmes

People around the world are told to wash their hands to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of COVID-19, but what if you don’t have a sink or tap in your home?

Add Your Project to the Water Action Hub Coronavirus/COVID-19 Portal

Access to handwashing facilities is just one of many connections between COVID-19 and water. Businesses, NGOS, municipalities, and community members can explore these connections and opportunities for action through the Water Action Hub’s Coronavirus/COVID-19 portal. The portal allows users to share knowledge and best practices and find partners for action. 

Organizations and others that have undertaken new water-related measures around COVID-19, perhaps by stepping in to provide drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services to communities or expanding WASH access at the workplace, are invited to get in touch with the Water Action Hub team to receive help listing this work on the .

By collaborating and sharing knowledge, we can strengthen our ability to effectively address the pandemic.

Helping Businesses and Communities Take Action on COVID-19

Around the world, businesses are acting to address COVID-19 and protect against future public health crises, as Pacific Institute researcher Giuliana Chavez Morales describes in her blog post “How Can the World Avoid the Spread of Future Pandemics?” These responses have been a valuable addition to the Water Action Hub’s COVID-19 portal.

Meanwhile, many public health organizations are releasing research and guidance for businesses, utilities, and communities seeking to respond to the pandemic. The COVID-19 portal lists a collection of these resources here.

About the Water Action Hub

The Coronavirus/COVID-19 portal is one of several topic platforms on the Water Action Hub, a project of the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, for which the Pacific Institute serves as Co-Secretariat.

The Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) portal offers resources relevant to COVID response, as well as a list of organizations seeking to address WASH issues.

The Hub welcomes organizations from universities to charities to businesses to list their water projects and insights and connect with potential future partners. Learn more.

How Can the World Avoid the Spread of Future Pandemics?

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By Giuliana Chaves Moreira  


The answer to this question is not simple, but there are recommendations that all countries around the world can take into consideration 


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought up problems and challenges related to basic sanitation, as this is not only a global health crisis, but also a social crisis that affects the lives of millions of people living in vulnerable situations.

COVID-19 and the Global Setback on the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Hand washing is key to fight COVID-19, according to WHO recommendations. Unfortunately, this essential and fundamental measure to prevent the spread of the disease is still inaccessible for the 780 million people around the world who lack access to an improved water source and the 2.5 billion who lack access to proper sanitation. In fact, 844 million people in the world – one in nine – do not have clean water close to home (WHO, UNICEF and JMP, 2017)1. And 2.3 billion people in the world – almost one in three – do not have a decent toilet of their own (WHO, UNICEF and JMP, 2017)1.


     Credit: UNICEF 43450 Lister 


A recent United Nations report provides an analysis of the implications of the pandemic for the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement. According to this report, a prolonged global economic slowdown will adversely impact the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.  These adverse impacts will be felt around the world, but especially by people living in vulnerability. SDG 11 calls for making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. But as the following figure highlights, populations living in slums face higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to high population density and poor sanitation conditions.


Credit: Undesa, Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 

An Opportunity to Build More Sustainable and Equitable Societies: Focus on Brazil

The UN report provides several recommendations and insights on how nations can deal with the crisis, leveraging this opportunity to build sustainable societies. Special attention is given to the most vulnerable people living in developing countries, as the poorest and more vulnerable people are at a disadvantage and will be the hardest hit. On average, developing countries spend only about two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on health, compared to the global average of 4.7 percent, contributing to poorer health outcomes.

As an example,  despite being ranked ninth out of the Top 20 Economies in the World based in its GDP, in Brazil roughly half of the population – 100 million people – live without adequate sanitation or any kind of wastewater treatment, while 35 million Brazilians do not have access to safe drinking waterWater and sanitation are basic human rights that should be guaranteed to all citizens, yet they are neglected for half the population in Brazil, and have been for years. According to the study Panorama of the private sector’s participation in sanitation, published in 2019, the need for greater investment in sanitation in Brazil is an urgent priority.

While investments have failed to meet the country’s needs for health, social welfare, and environmental stewardship, it can be done. To change this scenario, it would be necessary to invest R$20 billion per year in sanitation (around $3.6 billion USD). This level has never been reached. In 2016, for example, R$11.33 billion (around $2 billion USD) was invested in sanitation (0.18 percent of the national GDP). In 2017, investment fell to R$10.05 billion (around $1.8 billion USD). (The Brazilian National Sanitation Plan investment target for the sanitation sector is 0.33 percent of GDP).

The study Comparações Internacionais: Uma Agenda de Soluções para os Desafios do Saneamento Brasileiro (International Comparisons: An Agenda of Solutions for the Challenges of Brazilian Sanitation), conducted by the National Confederation of Industry, discusses the main challenges of the sector, characterizing sanitation as one of the most backward segments of Brazilian infrastructure with a reasonable investment deficit, in relation to other countries with per capita GDP comparable to that of Brazil.

The tragic situation of Brazilian sanitation is reflected in the country’s precarious sanitation indicators, a consequence of insufficient investments in the sector. The comparison of Brazil with a sample of other countries and other infrastructure sectors in Brazil suggests an anomaly in the Brazilian case; given Brazil’s level of GDP per capita, the country should have greater sanitation coverage. The following figure shows this fact through a simple trend line per capita containing the positive association between per capita GDP and sewage treatment. It would be expected that, for the level of per capita GDP in Brazil, the coverage of sewage treatment would be higher.


Source: Adapted from International Comparisons: An Agenda of Solutions for the Challenges of Brazilian Sanitation

Brazil versus California: The Golden State Shows Water Expenditures Pay Off California

California presents a really expressive result for the culture of rational use of water and water recycling. Analyzing the evolution of the population and water demand in Los Angeles in the 30 years between 1980 and 2010 (see figure below), the culture of rational use of water is evident. Despite the increase in the number of inhabitants, there was a decrease in water use per capita and in total demand.


One of the best measures of Mono Lake’s protection is the flat trend of Los Angeles’s water supply since 1970, thanks to the extraordinary and still-needed water conservation efforts of the city’s population, which have reduced per capita water use to under 150 gallons per day.  Source: DWP 


In the São Paulo Metropolitan Region (SPMR), on the other hand, in the past decades water demand has risen along with the population. São Paulo alone is home to around 22 million people, and the population has risen by 20 percent over the past 20 years, along with daily water use, which is currently at 180 litres per person 

According to the National Sanitation Information System (SNIS) the average water consumption per capita in Brazil in 2018 was 154.9 liters per capita per day (which is equivalent to 40.98 GPCD or gallons per capita per day). The average for the State of São Paulo for the year 2018 was 169.3 liters per capita per day (which is equivalent to 44.79 GPCD or gallons per capita per day). 

According to the most recent dataset available in the portal of the California State Water Resources Control Board, the average residential gallons per capita daily use (R-GPCD) in the area served by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was 60 gallons (in February 2020). There was a small reduction in water consumption between February 2018 and February 2020. During this period, consumption decreased from 69 to 60, corresponding to 13 percent.


Average daily residential use – Los Angeles Department od Water and Power from February 2018-2020. Source: Portal of the California Water Resources Control Board


According to the “Our County Water Briefing” developed by UCLA, LARC, Liberty Hill, and BuroHappold and published in June 2018, total water demand decreased by over 25 percent in 16 years, dropping from 200 gallons per capita per day (GPCD) in 2000 to approximately 146 GPCD in 2016 (with potable consumptive demand down to 110 GPCD). In response to the record drought, total annual water use decreased by 16 percent in 2015 compared to 2013, and another one percent in 2016.

Brazil, on the other hand, has experienced an increase in water demand. The chart below from the study published as part of a report from the Bulletin of the American Meteorology Society on extreme weather events across the world in 2014 shows how population and water demand have increased in São Paulo in recent decades.

An increase in water demand without corresponding supply can have serious consequences. The researchers of this study found that climate change was not a major influence on the major drought in southeastern Brazil in from 2014 to 2015. While the lack of rain was unusual, it was not unprecedented, with similar conditions seen during previous major droughts. The main reason for the water shortage experienced during this drought was the increased population and demand for water, according to the study.


Population of São Paulo metropolitan region (red line) over the period 1960–2012 and estimated (1960–2010, blue) and actual (1999–2013, aqua) water use in Greater São Paulo over the period 1960–2010. Source: Otto et al. (2015). Source: https://www.carbonbrief.org/climate-change-not-a-major-influence-on-brazil-drought-study-says 


Unlike Brazil, Los Angeles invests heavily in water supply. The total capital water investments by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power proposed for the fiscal years 2018-2019 was $891 million USD. (In the fiscal years 2017-18 the approved total capital investment in water was $861 and the estimated was $768.) In the São Paulo Metropolitan Region (SPMR), on the other hand, in 2018 an investment of R$4.2 billion (approximately $816 million USD) was carried out by Sabesp, a leader among the companies that invest the most in basic sanitation in Brazil. Of this total investment, R$2.3 billion (around $407 million USD) was allocated to expand water supply infrastructure, in addition to the structural strengthening following the most severe water crisis in SPMR in the 2014-2015 biennium. 199 thousand new water connections were installed, surpassing the target set by 18.5 percent. R$1.9 billion (around $336 million USD) was allocated to expand the structure of sewage collection and treatment in the operating area. As a result, 215,000 new sewage connections were installed throughout the State of São Paulo, surpassing the target for the period by 7.6 percent.  These numbers show that investments in water supply were similar to Los Angeles, but the investments in sanitation were low, representing only R$1.9 billion (approximately $336 million USD).

WHO points out that for every dollar invested in water and sanitation, $4.30 USD is saved in health care costs. A recent report by Lixil, WaterAid, and Oxford ranked Brazil third out of the top 10 global ranking countries for economic loss due to poor sanitation. Meanwhile, private organizations linked to sanitation recently showed that ensuring universal access to sanitation in Brazil would allow  $314.4 million to be spared in health care every yearPoor sanitation has proven expensive in Brazil, causing a loss of nearly $25 million USD in 2017 due to hospital admissions stemming from diseases related to poor sanitation and limited access to quality water. For that year, health authorities reported 263,400 admissions. The number is high, despite the decrease from the previous year’s 350,900 admissions, and costs that year adding up to $31.47 million USD. This scenario reflected the investments in sanitation made in this period; in 2016, when the country applied more investments in sanitation (around $2 billion USD), health benefits of sanitation for the population were noted, with less hospitalizations in 2017 compared to the previous year when those investments were made.

Businesses Taking Action to Mitigate the Impacts of COVID-19 in Brazil

Brazil’s total number of confirmed deaths has now overtaken WHO’s figure for China, with 71,886 confirmed cases as of April 29th. Like other countries, Brazil was not prepared to face this unpredictable pandemic. However, the country’s existing water and sanitation access challenge, which was already huge, was aggravated by the pandemic. The investments made in water and sanitation, which were already insufficient, will now have to be used to adopt emergency measures to combat the spread of the virus.

Fortunately, we have seen a number of new business efforts and initiatives being intensified and/or created in the country in response to the pandemic. One example is the action carried out by the Basic Sanitation Company of the State of Sao Paulo (Sabesp) that  expanded the distribution of water storage tanks to more neighborhoods in Sao Paulo. These donations are intended to prevent people from running out of water when emergency repairs or preventive maintenance in the networks supplying their water are needed.

This effort should help reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the routine lives of citizens.  The effort was started in the second largest slum in São Paulo, Paraisópolis, which has more than 100,000 residents. Sabesp announced that it will distribute 1,200 water storage tanks to residents of Paraisópolis, south of São Paulo, who do not yet have a tank at home. It is also important to note that many residents are without water not because of the lack water storage tanks, but because of the continuous interruptions in supply. This fact became even more relevant with the increase in cases of COVID-19, as the main recommendations include frequent hand washing and house cleaning. In an attempt to prevent water shortages at this crucial moment, the Public Ministry of the State of Sao Paulo initiated a public civil action. The action asks that Sabesp and the state government present a timetable to guarantee the daily supply of drinking water in all the Sao Paulo slums.


Credit: Sabesp/Facebook/Reprodução 


In this moment when extra care is needed to preserve life, and empathy and acting with responsibility have been fundamental, cooperative action between brands is more important than ever, because it allows companies to expand reach and act more quickly in areas of low income and high vulnerability. 

For this purpose, in an unprecedented partnership, Fiat, NIVEA, Sabesp, Deep, Instituto Olga Kos, and the advertising agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made have joined forces on the “The Fight Belongs to Everyone” initiative, a co-branding action aimed at facilitating access to essential hygiene items in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The action aims to deliver a total of 230,000 personal hygiene products to 53 institutions, benefiting  around 60,000 people. Donations began in April and will be made until the end of May, with deliveries made in cycles every 15 days, to supply the largest possible number of beneficiaries during the period in which health authorities consider the most critical in terms of contamination by COVID- 19. Products made available by NIVEA will be taken in Fiat cars to the five main metropolitan areas of São Paulo with a higher concentration of people living on the streets or in areas of high social and environmental vulnerability. Meanwhile, NIVEA is producing and distributing sanitation items in areas of high social vulnerability, while Sabesp will expand sewage collection and treatment infrastructure through works that are already underway within the “Novo Rio Pinheiros” program, which aims to clean up the tributary streams of the Pinheiros River. The Olga Kos Institute, an NGO that has been operating since 2007 in Sao Paulo, will help to mediate in low income and high vulnerability regions. Leo Burnett is coordinating the partnership.

The “The Fight Belongs to Everyone” initiative is a great example of the power of collective action. Another great example in Brazil is the measures that Aegea Saneamento (Aegea) is undertaking to cope with the impacts of COVID-19. Created in 2010, today Aegea is the largest private sector sanitation company in the country. It serves more than 8.9 million people in 57 cities throughout Brazil. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has adopted a series of health and safety recommendations for employees engaged in essential service maintenance. Additionally, Aegea has taken measures to provide extra support to its customers, through a call center, digital channels, and door-to-door service. Additionally, the company reinforced its commitment to the public in municipalities in which it operates, through actions such as the disinfection of commonly used areas and donations of food and hygiene products for vulnerable populations.

Another initiative spurring business action on COVID-19 is WASH4Work, which mobilizes businesses to improve access to water, sanitation, and hygiene in the workplace, in the communities where workers live, and across supply chains. We have seen partners of the WASH4Work initiative respond to the pandemic by launching a number of new initiatives and projects. For example, Unilever is contributing to global and national efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic through product donations, partnerships, and handwashing education programs. Unilever is also partnering with the UK government to fund a global program to tackle the spread of COVID-19. Through this program, the partners will contribute funding of up to £50 million each to raise awareness and change behavior, to ensure people are washing their hands with soap. The program plans to reach up to a billion people worldwide.

These examples show how business action on COVID-19 can make a crucial difference, especially for businesses directly involved in the provision of essential services like water. More widely, the business sector can play an essential role in combating the pandemic by contributing to the immediate and short-term pandemic response, since it is a great holder of economic power, a propeller of innovations and technologies, and a strong influencer of diverse stakeholders – governments, suppliers, employees, and consumers. Additionally, the private sector creates nine out of 10 jobs in developing countries. As such, businesses are in a unique position to impact billions of people every day, including those who work in their factories, farms, stores and offices, who supply and distribute their goods, and who buy and consume their products and services.

Moving Forward Together 

One of the main conclusions of the UN report mentioned above is that a joint effort among countries worldwide is needed; no country will be able to deal with this crisis alone. The report emphasizes that all countries have a responsibility to build effective solutions, which will require creativity and great magnitude in order to tackle the many social and economic dimensions of the crisis.

The main messages from the UN report Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 can help countries around the world mitigate the effects of COVID-19 while preparing for future pandemics:

  • Focus on people: Focus on women, youth, low-wage workers, small- and medium-sized enterprises, the informal sector, and vulnerable groups who are already at risk.
  • Collaboration among Nations: Whole societies must come together. Every country must step up with public, private, and civic sectors collaborating from the outset.
  • World-leading economies should be protagonists in the global response to COVID-19: This moment demands coordinated, decisive, and innovative policy action from the world’s leading economies, and maximum financial and technical support for the poorest and most vulnerable people and countries, who will be the hardest hit.
  • Learning from this crisis and building back better: We must seize the opportunity of this crisis to strengthen our commitment to implement the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By making progress on our global roadmap for a more inclusive and sustainable future, we can better respond to future crises.

If the global community had been further along in its progress to meet the SDGs when the pandemic broke, we would be better equipped to face the challenge. Unfortunately, we were not prepared, and the pandemic is moving back decades of progress towards a more sustainable future. On the positive side, the pandemic presents a huge opportunity to revisit strategies implemented to date, and to prepare for a more sustainable future by building stronger health systems while better meeting basic needs and ensuring that fewer people live in extreme poverty. 

As the Brazil example illustrates, corporate action in response to COVID-19 shows the business sector can leverage its agility and partnerships to bring different sectors together quickly and effectively to scale action, an important lesson as factors like climate change and population growth reshape our world. In this new world, we will need “all hands on board” to ensure equity and the sustainable use of resources. It is vital that the global community not quickly forget this crisis, but draw lessons from it to rebuild more equitable and sustainable societies. This must include countries working together to ensure sustainable access to water and sanitation for the 40 percent of the world’s population who still lack access.

The Environment, Climate, and a Global Pandemic

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By Peter Gleick


The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic is having the unexpected and unintended effect of teaching us lessons about both the vulnerability and the resilience of our natural ecosystems and environment. As of this writing in late April, we are still in the middle of it, with no obvious end in sight, as the virus continues to spread around the world. Some of the regions where it first struck are trying to emerge from the crisis after imposing strict and widespread testing and quarantines. Other regions that failed to react quickly or effectively are still, or will soon, be suffering even worse consequences.

Without an actual vaccine, and with limited and overwhelmed medical facilities and supplies, the most important tool to combat the spread is isolation, quarantine, and a shutdown of non-essential economic activities. This is taking a costly toll on jobs, income, economies and markets, and financial institutions.

It is also having a range of environmental consequences, both good and bad. Some of these will be short-term and temporary. Depending on how individuals and governments respond, some may be longer-term and permanent. The ultimate impacts will depend on the lessons we learn and the actions we take.

In the short-term, there have been some important, positive consequences for air quality as reductions in industrial activity, reduced air travel, and a drop in gas and diesel-powered transportation have led to drops in the emissions of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. This effect was first noticed in China and Italy, when quarantines were put in place, and has been observed by satellites, ground-based measurements, and people just looking up. Figure 1 and Figure 2 shows decreases in nitrogen oxide levels in northern Italy and China as measured by NASA and European Space Agency satellites. An analysis published by Carbon Brief estimated that greenhouse gas emissions in China declined by 25% in mid-February from typical levels – a huge drop.


Figure 1: Nitrogen dioxide over northern Italy, March 2019 (left) versus March 2020 (right). (Source: ESA 2020, Copernicus Sentinel data (2019-20), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)



Figure 2: Nitrogen oxides over China, Early January 2020 (top) versus early February (bottom) 2020 (Source: ESA 2020, Copernicus Sentinel data (2019-20), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)


India imposed a 21-day lockdown in late March and early April and improvements in air quality were immediately noticed. Data from India’s Environment Ministry Central Pollution Control Board showed a 71 percent decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels in New Dehli, and Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore also recorded large decreases. Overall, 85 Indian cities noted an improvement in air quality during the first week of the lockdown and in Jalandhar, Punjab, residents reported seeing snow-capped Himalayan mountains more than 100 miles away for the first time in memory. These improvements in air quality will also be accompanied by some real, albeit short-term improvements in health.

Overall, some estimates are that greenhouse gas emissions my drop by around five percent this year, for the first time since the industrial revolution, though the final change in emissions will depend entirely on what happens to economies over the rest of 2020. And for context, in order to reach even the minimal climate targets set by the Paris Agreement, which are understood to be simply a first step in efforts to tackle climate change, the world would have to achieve a 7-10 percent drop in emissions every year until mid-century.

Other short-term improvements have been reported, including modest drops in urban water use in California as industry and commercial business close (slightly offset by small increases in residential water use as people stay home), and a wide range of reports of modest improvements in some ecological indicators and the behavior of animals (improved conditions for sea turtle nestingfunny stories about goats taking over a town in Wales, and reports of kangaroos on the streets in Australia and javelinas in Arizona).

Most importantly, however, without fundamental long-term changes in our economic activities and energy systems, such short-term improvements are almost certainly going to be temporary. By the end of March, as the coronavirus crisis was brought under control by China, coal combustion had increased again, and air quality was again declining. Nitrogen dioxide pollution levels, measured both from NASA satellites and Chinese government stations, have also already returned to normal.

But there is bad news as well, especially in the area of politics: the coronavirus has served as an excuse and an opportunity for conservative efforts to repeal, suspend, and ignore environmental laws and regulations. The Trump administration, in particular, while downplaying the pandemic, has also used it as an excuse to waive environmental rules and enforcement:


“In general, the EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause,” the US EPA announced.


The Trump administration is also moving ahead with its broad anti-environmental rollback and weakening of legal protections, including auto fuel-economy standards, air-quality standards, and mercury and toxic metal rules from coal and oil power plants. In mid-April, the Trump administration announced it would not tighten a critical air-quality standard around damaging particulate pollution despite scientific warnings that current rules are too weak and lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths. Substantial amounts of US federal bailout money are going to polluting industries rather than clean ones – leading to an enormous missed opportunity to accelerate the transition from a polluting economy to a more sustainable one.

The longer-term environmental impacts of the pandemic are harder to see because they depend on actions still to be taken. We do not know how long the shutdowns will last, how effective the pandemic responses will be, and what societies and governments will do to invest in alternatives and solutions. We do not know how much pressure the public will put on policy makers in calling for fundamental changes in the ways we do business, produce energy, and organize society, as opposed to simply going back to business as usual.

We have an opportunity to invest in clean air and water strategies and technologies; build clean energy systems to eliminate fossil fuels; expand electric vehicle programs and phase out polluting transportation; open our cities to pedestrians and bicycles; and protect natural ecosystems in new ways that enhance rather than destroy chances for wildlife. But grabbing that opportunity is going to require public awareness and pressure to make permanent some of the improvements we now can only glimpse because of this crisis.

Ultimately, we must not fix the environment by destroying the economy, we must fix the environment by fixing the economy.


Pacific Institute Insights is the staff blog of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading nonprofit research groups on sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. For more about what we do, click here. The views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect an official policy or position of the Pacific Institute.

On Earth Day, Envisioning Our Shared Future

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By Cora Kammeyer

We don’t inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.

This saying, commonly attributed to American poet Wendell Berry, reminds us that we are stewards of the earth. How do we reconcile this with the stark reality that our planet’s critical ecosystems – our rivers and wetlands, our oceans and beaches, our forests and prairies, and the diversity of life within them – are in steep decline?

There has been news about how the earth seems to be thriving as economic activity and human mobility has suddenly and drastically decreased in response to COVID-19. Waterways are clearer, air quality is better, parks are re-wilding. From this perspective, we might see the vitality of Earth and the vitality of human societies and economies as at odds with one another. But that perspective is not just pessimistic, it’s also wrong. To use another Wendell Berry quote, “the earth is what we all have in common.” And here I understand “we” broadly, the “we” of living things inhabiting Planet Earth.

On this Earth Day, the 50th anniversary of the world’s largest environmental movement and in the midst of a global crisis, I invite us all to think of earth as one big system in which the vitality of all life is interconnected. Each species, each community is distinct and unique, but also inherently linked and interdependent. Together, we all create something beyond any of us as individuals. And this system works a lot better when we manage it for the well-being of the whole, rather than the parts.

At the Pacific Institute, we envision a world in which society, the economy, and the environment have the water they need to thrive now and in the future. Securing that future we envision will require transformational, system-level change. In other words, managing for the well-being of the whole. This means rethinking the way our societies are structured, the way our economies operate, and the relationship between humans and the environment.

Credit: F. Cary Snyder

This systemic shift is especially critical in the face of the climate change, which worsens and complicates existing problems and introduces greater uncertainty about the viability of solutions. We cannot assume the tools and approaches we have been using to manage earth’s resources in the past will work in the future. The Pacific Institute recently set a new 2030 goal to catalyze the transformation to water resilience in the face of climate change. Solutions that restore, protect, leverage, and mimic nature and earth’s natural systems will be key to this transformation.

To bring our vision of a vibrant, healthy, resilient planet with abundant, clean water for humans and ecosystems to reality, we must keep reminding ourselves that we share this earth. Collaborative solutions that increase the resilience of our entire earth system – rather than just some of the pieces – are the best path forward.


When Utilities Shut Off Water for the Poor, We Are All at Risk

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By Laura Feinstein and Morgan Shimabuku of the Pacific Institute, and Greg Pierce of Luskin Center for Innovation at University of California, Los Angeles


When a household fails to pay its water bill in full for more than a given period of time – typically one or two months – its water service may be shut off by the water utility serving the household. Until recently, there was little information on shutoffs in the United States, including for California. In 2018, the Pacific Institute was only able to find information from 15 drinking water utilities, and the data quality was poor. This left the state flying blind on one of the most important equity questions in California water – how many people don’t have running water because they (or a landlord) failed to pay the bill?


How many people don’t have running water because they (or a landlord) failed to pay the bill? This question has taken on greater urgency in the era of the coronavirus, when every neighbor touching the crosswalk signal, or coughing on their way to the grocery store, is a potential source of a fatal disease.


This question has taken on greater urgency in the era of the coronavirus, when every neighbor touching the crosswalk signal, or coughing on their way to the grocery store, is a potential source of a fatal disease. To effectively flatten the curve, it’s not enough to wash your own hands. We need everyone in the community to do the same.

Recently, we have gained better insight into the scale and severity of the water shutoff problem in California, although questions remain. The State Water Board’s annual statewide survey of water utilities, the electronic Annual Report or eAR, now includes information on shutoffs from all utilities with more than 200 connections, partly to inform affordability policy and satisfy the legislated Human Right to Water

Data on Water Shutoffs is Imperfect

While the eAR dataset is the most comprehensive source of information on drinking water utilities in the state, it remains plagued with quality problems. The utilities self-report the data, and since many have not disclosed shutoff data before, some respond with incomplete or inconsistent information. Anybody looking to gain accurate insight into California water thus needs to apply quality control procedures to the data. 

For this blog post, we did some very basic quality controls, such as eliminating cases when sub-categories of shutoffs did not correctly sum to the reported total. We plan to do more to improve the dataset for future analyses. First steps would be to contact the State Water Board and water utilities to resolve obvious problems, as well as to contact the thousands of utilities who failed to properly report their shutoff data. 

We Know Enough to Say Shutoffs Occur Far Too Often

Of the state’s approximately 2,900 drinking water systems, about one thousand reported shutoff data that seemed credible. Larger utilities tend to report water shutoffs more often than smaller systems, so the data covers about 79% of the population of California. 

While the precise numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, we know enough to say that shutoffs are a widespread problem in many communities. Table 1 provides a summary of the number of single- and multi-family residences that lost water service at least once during the 2018 calendar year. 


Table 1. Summary of disconnections of occupied Single-Family Residential (SFR) and Multi-Family Residential (MFR) households.

    SFR Disconnections (At Least Once) MFR Disconnections (At Least Once)
Rate of Shutoffs Max 100% 100%
Min 0% 0%
Mean 3.1% 1.2%
Median 0% 0%
Totals Number of Shut-Offs (Households) 196,800 6,700
Number of Shut-Offs (Population) 582,600 39,800
Number of Connections 6,715,400 563,300

Source: State Water Board 2018 Electronic Annual Report. Results calculated from 1,112 Community Water Systems reports meeting quality control requirements. Population inferred for SFR by multiplying connections by 2.96 (mean household size in California). Population inferred for MFR by multiplying MFR by two units per building times 2.96.

Findings on Shut-Offs

196,800 single-family households lost access to drinking water at least once in 2018 because of service disconnections. Assuming that these households have the average number of residents, this means nearly 583,000 Californians lose access to drinking water for a period of time each year. The true number may be larger because of underreporting, discussed below. While the people impacted are less than 2% of the population, for the sake of public health, the state’s goal should be a shutoff rate approaching zero.


For the sake of public health, the state’s goal should be a shutoff rate approaching zero.


6,700 multifamily buildings lost access to drinking water at least once in 2018 because of service disconnections. If we use an extremely conservative estimate that multifamily buildings house two units with 2.96 people each, this is an additional 39,800 Californians impacted by shutoffs. Multi-family connections serve two or more units in a building, and the accounts are usually paid by a building manager or landlord. When multi-family buildings are disconnected, it is typically because the landlord didn’t pay the bill. California enacted a law to prevent this problem a decade ago (SB 1035, statutes of 2010) by allowing municipal utility districts to recoup debt from landlords through property liens. East Bay Municipal Utility District, for example, has used this authority to implement a no-shutoff policy for multifamily buildings since 2011. But the data indicate that some utilities still resort to the counterproductive measure of disconnecting tenants rather than recovering unpaid bills from the landlord.

More than half of utilities didn’t collect or report shut-off information. Of the 2,564 Community Water Systems (CWS) in the dataset, 1,474 (57.5%) did not collect information on disconnections or failed to report the information. This indicates that the number of people affected by disconnections are greater than estimated here.

Shutoffs are Only One Reason Americans Lack Running Water

While we’re talking about access to running water, we need to remember that hundreds of thousands of Americans in California and across the U.S. live without safe access to running water for reasons other than shutoffs. In 2015, there were 211,000 Californians without hot and cold running water. Many are experiencing homelessness. Others live in substandard housing conditions, such as a shack, converted garage, or group housing with dirty shared bathrooms. Tribal communities continue to struggle with some of the lowest rates of indoor plumbing. And some Californians live in areas where drinking water wells have run dry

Moving Forward with Water Affordability and Shutoff Prevention

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, Americans realized that struggling households needed affordability programs so they could keep the heat on. Since then, the federal government has run the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and states, including California, run a host of complementary energy affordability programs. In the water sector, the largest (Class A) California investor-owned water utilities are required by the California Public Utilities Commission to provide low-income rates assistance. These examples show that utility affordability programs are possible, and when they are run well, they reduce shutoffs for vulnerable families. 


Utility affordability programs are possible, and when they are run well, they reduce shutoffs for vulnerable families.


Some water utilities run their own affordability programs, but most haven’t been well executed. About a quarter of California’s public water utilities have affordability programs, but they provide meager discounts and typically reach only a few of their low-income customers. This is part of the reason why, in early 2020 even before the coronavirus outbreak, the State Water Board recommended a state-wide water affordability program to the state legislature.

Any well-developed program to address water affordability and prevent shutoffs should consider the following:

Balance shutoff prevention with financial sustainability for utilities.

Water utilities provide a public service, and primarily rely on revenue from their customers to deliver safe drinking water. They need tools to ensure that their customers pay their bills. On the other hand, discontinuing water service to a family that is struggling financially – or a blameless tenant with a deadbeat landlord – drives up the rates of infectious disease for everyone in the community. We need a sustainable funding source to prevent shutoffs for those in need while preserving the financial health of the water utilities.


The funding source needs to be large and sustainable. The State Water Board’s recent proposal for a statewide affordability program came with a $600 million annual budget and identified several potential sources of funding, including a millionaire’s tax, a business tax, a bottled water tax, a soda tax, and a water user surcharge. All of these are viable options with various pros and cons. In these precarious economic times, we should focus on taxing high income earners and discretionary expenditures (such as high water use). 

One option for funding drinking water needs is to add a statewide water user surcharge. A proposal for a statewide user fee to fund safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities was vigorously debated and lost in the California legislature in 2018. 

Affordability and shutoff prevention may have a stronger path to funding through water user surcharges. In California and elsewhere, water prices have traditionally followed the “user pays” principle. Each customer is responsible for paying for the service they receive. In the era of coronavirus (not to mention Hepatitis A and other infectious diseases), our educated guess is that a water affordability surcharge to prevent disconnections in the community would be one of the best investments a household can make to protect its own health. The indirect benefit of funding this public service is the same logic water utilities use to justify public fire protection surcharges.

A key metric of success for an affordability program is reducing shutoffs. Affordability programs for energy and water utility customers have been highly effective at preventing shutoffs, while actually improving the financial sustainability of the utilities. Why? Because low-income households will pay a smaller bill in full, while they will ignore a bill that’s too big – since a partial payment means they’ll get their service shut off anyway. A well-designed program will aim to reduce bills to a level that households can pay each month, track the number of shutoffs for program participants, and adjust the program to reduce shutoffs to a minimum.

Consider the impact of wastewater and other charges added to drinking water bills. More than half (54%) of the drinking water utilities in California add other charges to their drinking water bills, such as sewer, stormwater, garbage collection, taxes, and fees. Based on State Water Board survey data of wastewater utilities, the average sewer bill is about two-thirds as large as the average drinking water bill. In some cases, the additional charges are greater than the cost of drinking water. Customers lose drinking water service if they cannot pay these so-called combined bills in full. Our initial work suggests that customers of municipal utilities with combined bills are much more likely to experience shutoffs than those with separate bills. 

Thinking Long-Term on Affordability and Shutoffs

Several states, including California, have issued temporary moratoria on shutoffs during the coronavirus outbreak. That’s a good first step, but more is needed. Maintaining clean running water in every home is the single most effective tool for preventing infectious disease. States and the federal government need to design financially sustainable water affordability and shutoff prevention programs that cover everyone in perpetuity, and we need to begin now.


Stormwater Capture is Undervalued in California

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By Sarah Diringer

The rain barrels at my house are full – 110 gallons of rain stored to water the garden when we enter the dry season. And, this is only a small fraction of the stormwater being stored throughout California and the western U.S. Across the region, communities, water agencies, and others are catching millions of gallons of  stormwater to store for the drier months.

Stormwater management in Austin, Texas, incorporating both grey and green infrastructure – concrete and nature.

Stormwater is the rain and other water that runs off of streets and sidewalks into nearby gutters or waterways. Communities throughout the western U.S. are expanding efforts to collect this valuable water resource. These projects range from capturing water from a single rooftop or driveway to developing large infiltration basins that recharge billions of gallons of water each year in groundwater basins.

In addition to providing additional water supply, many stormwater capture projects provide “multiple benefits,” such as managing floods or restoring ecosystems. When these co-benefits are considered, then stormwater capture looks even more valuable.

The Pacific Institute recently published two open-access articles that examine stormwater capture projects in California to better understand how much these projects cost, as well as what kinds of benefits they provide: “Economic evaluation of stormwater capture and its multiple benefits in California” and “The cost of alternative urban water supply and efficiency options in California.” These articles focus on data from California, but the learnings are applicable far beyond the state.

Stormwater Capture is Economically Feasible
Stormwater capture is a cost-effective option for supplying water to communities, especially when compared to other traditional water supplies. Based on our research, stormwater capture has a median cost between $0.48 and $1.23 per m3 of water, compared to wastewater reuse, which has a median cost of $1.25 per m3 of water, or seawater desalination, which has a median cost between $1.72 and $2.29 per m3 of water.

In addition to efficiency measures, stormwater capture presents a low cost option for new water supplies. From Cooley et al. 2019.

Economic Analyses Can Incorporate More Benefits
Stormwater capture can provide communities with additional benefits that aren’t commonly considered in economic analyses. These include flood control, restored habitat, energy savings, and recreational opportunities. But these additional benefits are not always included in economic analyses, and this means stormwater capture is an underappreciated option for water supply.

In a study of 26 urban stormwater capture projects in California, the median cost-benefit of projects decreased by more than 85% when incorporating at least one additional benefit, reducing the median costs from $0.84 per m3 to $0.12 m3 of water. For some projects, the additional benefits far outweighed the cost of the project.

Reported benefits of stormwater capture projects in California. These benefits can help build partnerships among agencies that are interested in achieving these outcomes.

Incorporating Multiple Benefits Can Help Develop Partnerships and New Funding
Including co-benefits of projects can help with more than just improving the economic outlook. Multiple benefits can help water managers develop partnerships among agencies and encourage additional funding. For example, our research found that of stormwater projects we examined, one in three provided more benefit to a secondary goal than the primary reason for building the project. While stormwater is notoriously underfunded, we can help increase public and private investments by building partnerships and capitalizing on the multiple benefits.

What You Can Do
While these reports focused on stormwater capture in California, this resource can serve as an important alternative supply throughout the world.

Learn About It: If you’re interested in learning more about stormwater capture and seeing these projects in your own community, reach out to your local water or flood control agency to learn more about efforts to sustainably manage stormwater in your own community.

Install It: If you’re interested in installing green infrastructure in your own yard, find out if an agency in your region will provide a rebate for converting your landscape or installing green infrastructure. These might be provided by your water agency, municipality, or other regional entity.

Incorporate It: If you’re a water manager interested in incorporating multiple benefits into water management decisions, explore the Pacific Institute’s multi-benefit approach to water management and consider how to understanding the full costs and benefits can help with your decision making.

Scale It: And finally, if you want to see sustainable stormwater capture expand in cities throughout the world, encourage your local agencies to consider innovative, stormwater management projects that can provide multiple benefits, including improving water quality, increasing urban green space, and recharging groundwater basins.

Corporate Water Stewardship in the Colorado River Basin

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By Cora Kammeyer

The Colorado River Basin is the lifeblood of the West, providing water to more than 40 million people in seven U.S. states and two states in Mexico. Irrigation using Colorado River water generates an estimated $8 billion annually in agricultural products like winter vegetables, cotton, and cattle and dairy. In addition, recreation along the river and its tributary streams (boating, swimming, hiking, camping, etc.) contributes $17 billion per year to local economies. All in all, the Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs across the western U.S., according to a recent study done by The Nature Conservancy.


The Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs across the western U.S.


Yet, the Colorado River Basin faces many water challenges that threaten its economic—and social and ecological—vitality. The river used to run more than 1,400 miles from its headwaters high in the Rocky Mountains down to the Gulf of California, but now—overallocated and fully depleted—the river disappears into its sandy bed 80 miles upstream of the ocean. The Colorado River Basin has been in a severe extended drought for 20 years. Climate change is increasing evaporation rates and water demand, diminishing snowpack, and is projected to reduce river flows by twenty percent by mid-century, worsening pressures on the already-water-stressed river basin.



The Colorado River used to run more than 1,400 miles from its headwaters high in the Rocky Mountains down to the Gulf of California, but now it disappears into its sandy bed 80 miles upstream of the ocean.


Despite extended drought and shrinking water supplies, Colorado River Lower Basin states and Mexico (Arizona, Baja California, California, Nevada, and Sonora) had been able to avoid water shortages by depleting reservoir storage – until this year, when reductions kicked in for all but California. And while renegotiation of the Colorado River interim guidelines will begin this year, the reliability of Colorado River water supplies remains highly uncertain.

In the face of these challenges, in March 2020 Pacific Institute researchers wrote a report that explores the role of the private sector in advancing water security in the Colorado River Basin. This report, “Scaling Corporate Water Stewardship to Address Water Challenges in the Colorado River Basin,” examines a set of key corporate water stewardship actions and activities, with associated drivers and barriers, to identify how the private sector could help tackle Colorado River water challenges.



Much of the water-dependent economic activity in the Colorado River Basin supports the operations and value chains of global corporations—from agricultural suppliers, to data centers, urban office and retail space, manufacturing, customer end-uses, and more. These corporations have both a business incentive and stewardship responsibility to contribute to water solutions for the region.


Much of the water-dependent economic activity in the Colorado River Basin supports the operations and value chains of global corporations—from agricultural suppliers, to data centers, urban office and retail space, manufacturing, customer end-uses, and more.


Our report found that corporate water stewardship in the Colorado River Basin is still relatively nascent, with much room for growth. Two key strategies for advancing the maturity and reach of corporate water stewardship in the Colorado River Basin are to:

  • Expand water stewardship education, decision-making data, and starter tools about the value of water stewardship; and
  • Facilitate local collaboration on water stewardship.

By educating companies on how water stewardship can play a role in both achieving their own corporate goals and contributing to solving shared water challenges, we can increase the number of companies that embrace corporate water stewardship and encourage them to make positive contributions towards sustainable water management for the Basin. This means investments in the tools and resource necessary to support informed and robust decision-making on water. We also know that the success of water stewardship activities, especially when looking beyond a company’s direct operations, depends on partnerships and collaboration. Scaling water stewardship practices at the local level will often require the help of third parties to facilitate relationship-building between companies and other stakeholders, who may not typically work together on shared water challenges.

Currently, the existing pool of companies practicing robust water stewardship in the Colorado River Basin is small, and the scale of their collective activities is nowhere near commensurate to the magnitude of water challenges they face. But their activities, if scaled, have great potential for positive impact, particularly with increased investments in water stewardship education, improved decision-making data, relevant tools, and facilitated local collaboration.

Read the report here.

Learn more about the Pacific Institute’s work on the Colorado River here.  

Pacific Institute Provides Comments on California Water Resilience Portfolio

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By Sonali Abraham

In January 2020, California state agencies released a draft document meant to signify a new chapter in California water: the Water Resilience Portfolio. The Portfolio was developed in response to Governor Newsom’s Executive Order (N-10-19), which called for a comprehensive strategy to build a climate-resilient water system for the 21st century. This strategy included several ambitious actions including assessing existing water demand and supply; ensuring all communities have access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water; and utilizing natural infrastructure and multi-benefit approaches. The draft Portfolio was a collaborative effort, compiled through an interagency working group with input from communities and leaders across the state.

The Pacific Institute has long contributed to California water policy and planning, as well as analyzing and communicating the links between water, energy, and climate. We found this draft of the Water Resilience Portfolio to be a good start and identified several areas that could be strengthened. Below is the comment letter we submitted to Nancy Vogel, Director of the Governor’s Water Resilience Program.

Dear Ms. Vogel,

California is at a water crossroads, with a rapidly increasing population, changing climate, and booming economy. The Pacific Institute is a strong supporter of the need to advance water resilience in California, and we appreciate the effort by Governor Newsom’s Administration to start moving the state toward resilience and preparedness. The draft includes many important and worthwhile actions, particularly the emphasis on water efficiency and clear actionable language on implementation of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act.

We appreciate the work of state staff in developing the draft Water Resilience Portfolio and the opportunity to provide comments. Below, we offer specific recommendations to improve the portfolio.

Prioritize resilience strategies using multi-benefit criteria

No single solution exists for California water challenges, and the resilience portfolio identifies a number of strategies to address these challenges. But the need to do many things, does not mean that we must or can afford to do everything all at once. Resources are limited, and we must prioritize our efforts. The portfolio would benefit from creating a clear way to prioritize among the strategies provided.

Economic feasibility is commonly used to evaluate projects, but traditional analyses typically fail to recognize the many co-benefits of water investments; as a result, those investments that provide multiple benefits are undervalued. In a recent analysis of state grant investments in stormwater capture projects, we found that incorporating co-benefits into the economic analysis effectively reduced the average cost of stormwater capture from $1,030 per AF to $150 per AF. Incorporating co-benefits into economic analyses allows for a fairer comparison among projects and helps to maximize the value of our investments.

We recommend that the state prioritize investments based on costs and benefits, using an integrated and comprehensive framework that includes quantitative and qualitative co-benefits. The Pacific Institute recently developed such a framework for assessing co-benefits, which can serve as a guide for the state. As part of this effort, we conducted a literature review and stakeholder interviews and grouped benefits into five themes: water, energy, risk and resilience, land and environment, people and communities. We recommend that the draft Water Resilience Portfolio:

  • Direct the interagency team identified in Action 28.3 to define the “multiple benefits”of water investments to include a broad and consistent list of benefits;
  • Direct the interagency team to develop a consistent list to prioritize project funding and maximize the benefits of our investments in water;
  • Develop methods for prioritizing projects using this information. This information can also feed into efforts to simplify permitting, thereby helping to launch more multi-benefit projects and partnerships.

Ensure consistency throughout the report on the importance of water efficiency

Re: Executive Summary and Goal 1 of the portfolio

Water efficiency is key to improving water resilience, and we are pleased to see explicit mention of it in the draft report. However, while the body of the report highlights the importance of efficiency, the Executive Summary fails to mention it. Likewise, as written, Goal 1 (“Maintain and Diversify Water Supplies”) places too much emphasis on water supplies and ignores the immense water conservation and efficiency opportunities that remain in California. We recommend the following:

  • Change the title of Goal 1 from “Maintain and Diversify Water Supplies” to “Improve Efficiency and Diversify Water Supplies;”
  • Change the first sentence in Goal 1 in the Executive Summary from “State government will continue to help regions reduce reliance on any one water source and diversify supplies to enable flexibility as conditions change” to “State government will continue to help regions improve efficiency and diversify supplies to enable flexibility as conditions change;”
  • Expand action 2.1 on page 18 to include non-residential users. The business community in California is showing a real interest in improving water use efficiency. Yet, action 2.1, which refers to implementing SB 606/AB 1668, narrowly focuses on the residential sector. We recommend expanding action 2.1 to include developing best practices for CII users, as required by the legislation;
  • Add language to action 2.2 about enforcing the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO). MWELO is a vital tool for reducing outdoor water use but enforcement has been poor. In a recent assessment, NRDC found that only 30% of cities and counties filed the required MWELO reports, as of December 2019. In addition to simplifying the ordinance, we recommend that the state continuously monitor and report on compliance.

Improve actions around the Salton Sea

Re: Action 17 of the portfolio

We commend the inclusion of the Salton Sea within the suite of water portfolio actions and remain optimistic that the Administration’s prioritization of Salton Sea action will soon translate into actual habitat and dust control projects at the Salton Sea. Such actions, of course, fit squarely within any multi-benefit framework.

The state’s contractual and statutory obligations to protect the Salton Sea enabled the execution of the Quantification Settlement Agreement, greatly enhancing water supply reliability for the state as a whole and for the entire Colorado River basin. However, after more than 16 years of California’s failure to build a single acre of habitat or projects, the QSA water transfers have degraded the Salton Sea ecosystem and have impaired air quality and human health in the region.

Existing and new funding sources are necessary but not sufficient to meet the state’s Salton Sea obligations. Achieving the water portfolio’s Salton Sea actions requires accountability to the governor’s office itself, direct and continuing attention to planning and construction efforts, much greater coordination within and between state agencies and with stakeholders, greater transparency, and a clear articulation of the goals and objectives of state efforts beyond simply meeting existing acreage milestones. We recommend including a fourth action (17.4) that addresses this need.

Expand recommendations around local stormwater projects

Re: Action 5 of the portfolio

We are pleased to see stormwater capture for water supply included in the list of how state agencies can support supply diversification. The three stormwater capture solutions provided (actions 5.1-5.3) address some important challenges faced by local communities that seek to access stormwater for water supply. In particular, actions 5.2 and 5.3 help to address the funding challenge and the need for more guidance on best management practices, respectively. To advance local stormwater capture projects across California, we recommend the following:

  • Develop statewide health and safety guidelines for stormwater reuse to empower communities to pursue stormwater capture;
  • Consider ways in which state and/or regional coordination could help facilitate public-private stormwater projects, such as through alternative compliance options;
  • Reduce the onerous voter-approval requirements for stormwater services. While SB 231 could help local agencies develop dedicated funding sources, it is not a silver bullet and additional policies that increase long-term funding and cover operation and maintenance (O&M) expenses are needed.

Improve overall clarity and make the portfolio more actionable

1. Define resilience

The portfolio centers around the concept of resilience. This term however is not defined. A recent article suggested that those who use the term must grapple with questions around which system is to become resilient, for what purpose, and for whose benefit. We recommend that the state consider these questions deeply when reviewing and executing this portfolio.

2. Create a timeline and metrics for measurement.

Re: Action 32 of the portfolio

We recommend including an action (32.3) that directs relevant agencies to create metrics, goals, and a timeline for measurement and tracking of progress. This will create a more effective, accountable, and adaptable portfolio.

3. Distinguish between tasks already underway versus tasks that need new leadership or legislation.

We recommend drawing a distinction between these two types of actions in an appendix list or through a type of signaling, for example, an icon next to the action number.

4. Build connections across stakeholders

Re: Actions 19-24 of the portfolio

The tasks around ‘building connections’ are narrowly focused around infrastructure.

We recommend expanding the section around building connections (page 22) through alignment of datasets, engagement with CII users, encouraging top-down and bottom-up engagement throughout all state actions.


We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments and look forward to working with the state to advance water sustainability and resilience in California.

Best Regards,

Heather Cooley, Director of Research, Pacific Institute
Sonali Abraham, Research Associate, Pacific Institute
Michael Cohen, Senior Researcher, Pacific Institute
Morgan Shimabuku, Research Associate, Pacific Institute
Sarah Diringer, Senior Researcher, Pacific Institute

California faces increased pressure on its water resources due to a changing climate, population growth, and aging infrastructure. Managing the state’s water resources will require comprehensive and collaborative planning, and a robust Water Resilience Portfolio will be instrumental. To summarize the letter above, we believe the state’s Water Resilience Portfolio would be strengthened by prioritizing resilience strategies using multi-benefit criteria; ensuring consistency throughout the report on the importance of water efficiency; improving actions around the Salton Sea; expanding recommendations around local stormwater projects; and improving overall clarity to make the portfolio more actionable.

Learn more about our California water policy work here. Read our water policy comment letters here.


Taps, Toilets, and Good Hygiene: Critical Ingredients for Resilient Agriculture

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By Mai-Lan Ha


2019 was a critical year for climate and water. Major events – from hurricanes to droughts and brushfires – highlight that climate’s impacts are being felt now and that the world needs to take action to build resilience while also accelerating action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the UN Climate Action Summit and at COP 25, Secretary General António Guterres announced that, “ We must put adaptation and resilience at the centre of decision-making.”

The UN Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved if adaptation and resilience are not integrated into planning processes. This is the imperative of our lifetime and impacts all sectors, particularly affecting the poor and most vulnerable. One of the sectors that will see the most significant impact will be agriculture. Changing climate patterns that affect water availability and quality will be one of many issues that farmers will need to contend with. Though the water and climate communities are looking at how to increase farmers’ long-term resilience, much more can be done, particularly at the intersection of health, well-being, and environmental policies.

While some companies are beginning to recognize this and are integrating water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs into their long-term water stewardship and management practices, much more can be done.  One of the biggest challenges for many companies is how to tackle WASH deep in their supply chains, reaching down to the farm level where action can perhaps have the greatest impact on workers’ health and well-being, thereby improving and ensuring resilient supply chains for companies. This is an area that has been generally unexplored and where few companies have taken action in an integrated manner. Last year, the Pacific Institute, in its capacity as co-Secretariat of the CEO Water Mandate, worked with the WaterAid, WASH4Work, Diageo, and the Alliance for Water Stewardship to publish the booklet Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene: Three Essential Ingredients to Resilient Agricultural Supply Chains.  

Why Should Companies Invest in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene at the Agricultural Level?

Similar to the risks that companies face from poor water management, there are also physical, financial, reputational, and regulatory issues related to investments in WASH. From helping to ensure good quality water (through improved sanitation) to ensuring long term worker health and well-being that leads to financial gains, and building long term community relations, investments in WASH in agricultural supply chains leads to more resilient supply chains. 

·       Physical risks: We know that increasing water stress will impact communities’ ability to access safe water. What has been less documented is the potential impact that poor sanitation can have on local water quality. These conditions can negatively impact workers’ health and well-being, and thisis further exacerbated by warming climates and the potential for more heat stress to lead to losses in productivity.

·       Financial: The macro-economic case for investments in WASH has been well-established with studies showing that for every $1 invested in WASH, $4.30 is generated through increased productivity. There is also some evidence demonstrated by companies that this has also translated to the factory or farm level, though more work is needed to document these outcomes further.

·       Reputation: Providing good WASH access can improve a company’s relationship with its workers and stakeholders and improve its social license to operate by showing commitment to communities’ well-being and improve long-term supply chain resilience.

·       Regulation and compliance:  Providing WASH services to employees is often part of general regulatory compliance and expectations by governments and authorities by companies related to labor rights. 


Where to Start?

Many companies have recognized the water risks their companies face and have adopted stewardship practices. One way for companies to begin to take action is to look particularly at the WASH components of their stewardship practices. In Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene: Three Essential Ingredients to Resilient Agricultural Supply Chains, we’ve utilized some of the steps from the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s standard to demonstrate a way to start on this work. These general steps include:

1)     Understand the local WASH context;

2)     Develop a WASH stewardship plan for the local context;

3)     Integrate WASH into companies’ existing stewardship plans;

4)     Where relevant work with third-party standards with an agricultural focus to embed good WASH practice;

5)     Engage with international agribusiness groups on WASH;

These are just beginning building blocks; much more needs to be done to explore the climate connections related to WASH and its impacts on agribusiness and workers. The potential cross-cutting impacts on the health and livelihoods of those who are potentially most vulnerable to climate change’s impacts will require innovative solutions, towards building resilience for all.