Your glass is less full

February 23, 2015 admin

2-22 Water glassI think of myself as a cautious optimist — a glass half, or maybe 45 percent, full type. So when I read the headline of the report NASA released last week that indicated large portions of the United States could experience droughts the likes of which we haven’t seen for 1,000 years or more, and being the editor of Institutional Investing in Infrastructure, where I see water systems of all types serving so many people in so many ways, one of my first thoughts was, “Sure, but we can fix it.”

As I read more of the press release and portions of the report, however, my typical cautious optimism became less so. In the statement, Ben Cook, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City, and the lead author of the study, notes: “Natural droughts like the 1930s Dust Bowl and the current drought in the Southwest have historically lasted maybe a decade or a little less. What these results are saying is we’re going to get a drought similar to those events, but it is probably going to last at least 30 to 35 years.”

These types of droughts aren’t the variety that caused the Dust Bowl and you have to go back centuries to medieval times to get a comparison of what the potential future NASA outlines in the report.

Of course, the risk of droughts of this type can be reduced, the report goes on to note, but “if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase along current trajectories throughout the 21st century, there is an 80 percent likelihood of a decades-long mega-drought in the Southwest and Central Plains between the years 2050 and 2099.”

Jeez, maybe we can’t fix it.

The areas the report says are most at risk include the Colorado Plateau in the Southwest United States where Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and Canyon DeChelly bear witness to the lost settlements of Native American cultures such as the Pueblo. Although it is not certain exactly why these societies abandoned their cliff dwellings and settlements, their migrations coincide with a mega-drought lasting 30 years in the late 13th century. And if their departure wasn’t explicitly due to a lack of water, conditions associated with the drought certainly seem to be a contributing factor. In any case, their story is in interesting one in the context of a future that could see similarly dry climates.

How might infrastructure investors come to play a role in helping the areas NASA has designated at risk of such mega-droughts?

I would say the place to start would be investing in water infrastructure and new technologies that conserve and get the most from our existing water resources.

This is because the need to rehabilitate and maintain existing water systems — in some cases more than a century old — and build new water systems in the United States increases as that need continues to be neglected.

What does that neglect mean?

It is estimated that each day in the United States, nearly 6 billion gallons of treated water is lost because of poor infrastructure. Annually, that figure is 2.1 trillion gallons or enough to flood the streets of Manhattan in 298 feet of water, Cleveland in 122 feet of water and Chicago in 43 feet of water. In other words, Americans are paying a lot for nothing.

In a state such as California, for example, where San Francisco did not receive a single drop of rain in the typically wet month of January — its driest January since 1850 when records began — this means water is becoming more and more precious, and expensive.

There is a lot of water out there that is going to waste that can, relatively speaking, be recovered easily. Maybe if we do a better job of that, then we won’t need to think about more expensive strategies, such as building pipelines or using rail or road to ship water to parts of the country that are in the midst of a mega-drought, or worse — picking up and moving out of areas that are too dry to sustain.

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DrewWebsiteDrew Campbell is senior editor of Institutional Investing in Infrastructure.

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