Conserving Water Resources

Conserving water is one of the tenets of environmental sustainability. Learn how making money and saving nature combine to improve the well-being of the planet.

| October 2014

In Nature's Fortune (Basic Books, 2013), Mark Tercek, along with conservation biologist Jonathan Adams, argues that economic growth and environmental stewardship are not mutually exclusive, and that in fact, saving nature is the smartest commercial investment any business or government can make. In the following excerpt, the pair explains how money and saving nature combine to change our concept of conserving water.

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Rebalancing water consumption to sustain the competing needs of agriculture, cities, rivers, and lakes requires changing ingrained patterns of behavior. That includes changing who uses water, for what, and how much they pay for the privilege.

A popular view among economists places the last part, price, above all other considerations. Indeed, some who study the problem believe that getting the price right would magically solve our water problems and all sorts of other natural resources problems as well. If only investing in nature were that easy.

People around the world have been buying and selling oil for 150 years but have yet to figure out an economically and environmentally sensible way to do the same with water. When the price of oil goes up, people drive less and turn down the heat in their homes, and businesses seek efficiencies or alternative energy sources. Get the price of water wrong, on the other hand, and the consequences are dramatic. Raise the price of water and yes, some people will use less—but rising prices might also force farmers out of business and cause food shortages.

The controversy over sharing water between farms and cities in Southern California has a simple cause: not enough water to go around. The contentious issues are allocation and value. Should farmers use water in the Imperial Valley to grow vegetables or should the residents of San Diego use it for drinking, cooking, and household needs? Elsewhere, the issue is not scarcity but access, moving small amounts of water at high cost by building new pipes and treatment plants, to get water to poor urban areas. In either case, the underlying principle is clear: water, like all earth’s goods and services, should not— or at least not always—be free.

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