Addressing the disconnect between water supply and demand

When Robert Glennon spends time at his seasonal residence in Martinsville, he says he can’t help being mindful about his well and the groundwater it supplies. Groundwater, in fact, is something Glennon thinks about quite a bit—along with every aspect of how humans get the water they need to sustain their lives. A professor at the University of Arizona’s Rogers College of Law, Glennon’s specialty is water policy and law, which involves searching for ways to solve the serious challenges this and other countries face around water sustainability and planning.

“Groundwater is a much misunderstood resource,” Glennon says. “And it’s an incredibly valuable resource. We have a well and I think most people on this peninsula have wells. So private wells in Maine have a very special importance for the people of Maine—more so than for people in big cities. We don’t have any surface water to use here and that makes it different even from Arizona, where my home is, because although it’s a desert, there’s the Colorado River. A big chunk of the water used in Phoenix and Tucson is from surface water, from the Colorado River, delivered through a 336-mile canal known as the Central Arizona Water Project. Really, throughout the West you see that. But in Maine, in the Great Plains states and in most of the world, people are using groundwater accumulated over tens of thousands of years, but they are using it in mere decades.”

Glennon says the biggest controversy around water in Maine has been Poland Spring and its bottled spring water. The company gets its name from the original spring in Poland. The spring’s water first began to be sold commercially in 1845. Poland Spring is now a subsidiary of Nestle, which has promoted Poland Spring water as particularly pure and refreshing as a way to increase sales. Demand today is so great that the brand’s water is now derived from multiple sources in Maine. The problem, Glennon says, is that spring water is a finite resource.

“An aquifer is like a giant milkshake glass and each well is like a straw in the glass,” he explains. “If you allow anyone to put a straw in, as most states do, you pretty quickly exhaust the supply.”

Recharge rates, he adds, often don’t compensate for demand.

“When we use well water here in St. George, some of it gets recharged in your septic system. So when you take the water out, some of it goes back. But in the case of Nestle and Poland Spring, it’s 100 percent consumptive. Every drop that they pump out and put into a bottle goes away, never to come back to the watershed where it was drawn. In the case of springs, the spring is a tiny rivulet flowing into a pond and Nestle is putting in wells a short distance from these springs, pumping 500 to 600 gallons a minute. This devastates the spring because the ground water is connected to the surface water. In addition, the cold fresh water from the spring is what provides the nutrients and the temperature control for the fish habitat in the pond or the bigger river. So it is all connected. If you are pumping water from springs, you are intercepting water that is flowing to the rivulets, flowing to the river, flowing to the ocean.”

Glennon was among the first to focus a spotlight on the impact the bottled water industry was having on the nation’s groundwater in his 2002 book, Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters. He is also the author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It (2009), in which he details the ways extravagance and waste are depleting the nation’s water supply and offers what he calls “a policy quiver” of solutions.

“For fresh water, the problem to be addressed is really the disconnect between supply and demand,” Glennon says. “The earth is now at 7.6 billion people. The United Nations predicts we’re going to add another billion people by 2030. And by 20 years after that a billion more. Where are we going to get resources, water included, to feed and clothe and provide drinking water and sanitation water for that many people? And there’s an answer to that, I’m not pessimistic, but its going to require all of the political will and moral courage we have to keep this from becoming a human tragedy.”

Foremost in his policy quiver of solutions, Glennon says, is the arrow of conservation.

“Conservation is about using more wisely the water you have. That could be anything from replacing an old six-gallon flush toilet to one that uses 1.4 or 1.28 gallons. It can be changing shower heads to use less. Two things that people don’t usually think about, which I think are big are, one, stop using your kitchen food disposal. If you use that disposal two minutes a day to get rid of food scraps you may use as much as 150 gallons a month just to get rid of food scraps. So put them in your compost pile. Or in the trash—putting them in the landfill is better than putting them into your septic system. Or two, if you want to save water, turn off the light or stop posting videos of your cat on You Tube—all of that is costing electricity.”

The second arrow in the quiver is reuse. “Water treatment plans have been used to dump the treated water into the ocean and that’s because treated water has been considered waste water,” Glennon says. “But all you have to do is purify that water.”

Desalination, too, while very expensive can also be part of the solution. As can water marketing and reallocation, the practice of allowing no new pumping unless an existing pumping facility is shut down. “Price is big,” Glennon says. “I want people to pay for water.” A 2014 publication he and two co-authors prepared in collaboration with the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution (Shopping for Water: How the Market Can Mitigate Water Shortages in the American West) details how putting a price on water could promote more efficient methods of using water. Glennon says farmers, in particular, need to be encouraged to use water more efficiently. “Farmers consume 80 percent of the water. But as long as they have water rights there is no incentive to stop practices such as flooding fields.”

Glennon absolutely believes that the U.S. is facing a water crisis, as his book Unquenchable details. And he also notes, with a wry smile, “The unlimited human capacity to ignore reality.” In the case of water, he says, “it is always that there is an oasis out there somewhere and all we have to do is augment the supply, bring more in, tow an iceberg, divert the flow of rivers. But I say let’s look closer to home. I’m not despairing. Things are happening. We have the tools available to fix the problem. But we have to be realistic. Water is a public resource, but right now access to it is limitless, so it’s a complete contradiction.”­—JW

PHOTO: Julie Wortman

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2 thoughts on “Addressing the disconnect between water supply and demand

  1. Ernie Johnson

    This is a SUPERB overview of an essential but limited resource that is too frequently taken for granted- until the demand exceeds the supply- which may be where we are headed even here on the Maine coast…


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