Hearing: Water: Is it the 'Oil' of the 21st Century?
Testimony of Dr. Peter H. Gleick
Before the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment
Of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
United States Congress
June 4, 2003
Mr. Chairman, Representatives:
thank you for inviting me to offer comments on the importance of water
for our nation and on new ways of thinking about protecting, preserving,
and sustainably using that precious resource.
There are two ways
to think about the title of this hearing: Is Water the Oil of the 21st
Century? First, are we going to permit water to become a commodity like
oil, to be overpumped, underpriced, and used wastefully, leading to
water wars, international conflict and competition, and environmental
destruction? Or second, can we avoid the problems that have arisen with
the stupid use of oil by planning for efficient use of water, environmental
protection when we extract it and use it, proper allocation, and international
My testimony will
focus on one piece of what we call "the soft path for water"
- improving the efficient and wise use of this precious resource. My
single most important conclusion? Water conservation and efficiency
are the greatest untapped sources of water in this nation - cheaper,
cleaner, and more politically acceptable than any other alternative.
National Water Challenges
As we enter
the 21st century, pressures on the water resources of the United States
are growing and conflicts among water users are worsening. Attention to
these problems is growing, as shown by the recent consideration by Congress
of a new National Water Commission, the Department of the Interior's 2025
report, and new disputes with Mexico over our shared water resources.
Awareness of the importance of water is also growing internationally as
evidenced by the focus on water at the Johannesburg Earth Summit and the
Kyoto Third World Water Forum. Moreover, 2003 has been declared the International
Year of Freshwater by the United Nations.
In addition to growing tensions over allocations of water, the United
States faces new water challenges. Climate change is increasingly threatening
the operation and design of our expensive water systems. Controversy is
developing over the proper role of expensive dams and infrastructure,
private corporations, and local communities in managing water. Municipalities
are faced with billions of dollars of infrastructure needs and growing
disputes over the role of public and private water management. Arguments
among western states over allocations of shared rivers are rising, as
are tensions between cities and farmers over water rights. The U.S. and
Mexico have unresolved disagreements over the Colorado and Rio Grande/Rio
Bravo rivers, and our Canadian neighbors are concerned about proposals
to divert Great Lakes or Canadian water for U.S. use. Communities are
facing new challenges in meeting water quality standards and ensuring
that safe drinking water is available for all.
Yet the United
States has not offered adequate leadership in providing resources, education,
and our vast technological and financial experience to address these
Responding to Water Challenges: A New Focus on Reducing Wasteful
and Inefficient Uses of Water
In many cases, the resolution of these problems requires
smart state and local action. But national policies and actions
are also needed, as is leadership at the national level. Unfortunately,
there is inadequate attention being given to national water issues,
and what efforts are being made are often contradictory or counterproductive.
Responsibility for water is spread out over many federal agencies
and departments, operating with no overall coordination.
The focus of water
planners and managers in the 20th century was finding ways "to
increase water supplies in every region of the country." This cannot
be the approach in the 21st century. Overall water supply is not a problem,
with some regional exceptions. And even in these regions, increasing
supplies is the most costly, slow, and environmentally damaging response.
The greatest water problems facing the United States are not lack of
infrastructure, but inefficient use, inappropriate water allocations,
water pollution, and ecological destruction.
Indeed, water use
in the United States has decreased in the past 20 years, reducing pressure
on overall supply, as shown in Figure 1. Figure 1 shows that total economic
growth in the U.S. has continued, even as overall water use has leveled
off and even declined. On a per-person basis, this decrease is substantial,
as shown in Figure 2. Per-capita use in the U.S. has decreased 20 percent
since 1980 - a remarkable change. Moreover, where the problem is "shortage,"
the fastest, cheapest, and most environmentally acceptable solution
will not be an increase in "supply" but a reallocation of
existing uses and improvements in efficiency.
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California dropped water use
16 percent from 1990, despite a 14 percent increase in population.
Smart conservation and smart watershed management has saved NYC billions
of dollars in avoided expenditures for new supply and water and wastewater
treatment plants. Total water use in 2001 was 25 percent below the level
of 1979, a savings of 375 million gallons per day.
programs in the Boston area have reduce water use 30 percent since the
late 1980s and eliminated the need for a new dam.
per-capita water use 30 percent between 1989 and 2001 with toilet and
washing machine rebate programs, and landscape retrofits.
The City of Seattle
has grown 30 percent since 1975 but total water use has remained the
same through strong conservation programs. Over this period, per-capita
use has dropped from 150 gallons per person per day to around 115 gallons
per person per day.
in the US used to require 200 tons of water to make a ton of steel.
Today, the best steel plants use 3 to 4 tons of water per ton of steel.
Drip and precision
sprinkler systems can both boost crop yields and reduce water demands.
What is particularly exciting and important is that no water agency,
city, or state has exploited the full potential for improving efficiency
and reducing wasteful use. In California, despite years of talk and
many innovative actions, we estimate that additional cost-effective
reductions in commercial and industrial water use of 40 percent are
possible with existing technologies. Even greater savings are possible
in the residential sector. And vast savings are possible in agriculture,
while keeping a healthy and productive farming sector.
The challenge is
reducing unfair pricing structures that encourage wasteful use of water,
investing in smart water-wise technology, recycle and reuse water for
the right purposes, and educate people about the potential for using
water wisely and the benefits of doing so.
and efficiency not only makes sense, they make more sense than any other
alternative available to us.
Thank you for your
Dr. Peter H. Gleick
Figure 1. Total gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States and
total water withdrawals: 1900 to present. Note that total economic growth
has continued, but total water withdrawals (for all purposes) have actually
declined since 1980. Graph reproduced from Gleick, 2000 "The World's
Water"(Island Press, Washington, D.C.)
Figure 2. Per-capita water withdrawals in the United States, from 1900
to the present. Total use is now below 550,000 gallons per person per
year, down from over 700,000 in 1975. Data are from the U.S. Geological
Figure 3. Total Water Withdrawals in the United States, 1900 to 1995,
in billion gallons per day. Total withdrawals dropped 10 percent from
442 billion gallons per day in 1980 to 400 billion gallons per day in
1995 as water-use efficiency improved and the U.S. economy became more
Higher quality renderings of these figures are available in the downloadable
version (PDF) of this testimony.