One Water Management: The Role of Research to Meet a Growing Demand

As the 21st Century unfolds, water, sometimes referred to as the "New Oil," is increasingly recognized as a finite natural resource that must be carefully managed. Not surprisingly, just as the limits of freshwater are becoming more apparent, the demands for it are also increasing dramatically.

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Dollar 1311ww

By Rob Renner

Water is the lifeblood of all life on earth. It is no mere coincidence that the oldest cradles of civilizations - Egypt (the Nile River Valley), Iraq (Tigris and Euphrates Rivers), India (Indus River Valley), and China (Yellow River Valley) - were all located around ample supplies of freshwater. It is these rivers that provided the water to irrigate crops, served as the first transportation highways and, most importantly, sustained life. In areas of the globe where water is plentiful, it has been largely taken for granted. In others, it has been the source of tension and conflict for millennia.

As the 21st Century unfolds, water, sometimes referred to as the "New Oil," is increasingly recognized as a finite natural resource that must be carefully managed. Not surprisingly, just as the limits of freshwater are becoming more apparent, the demands for it are also increasing dramatically. Consider the following data, provided by the United Nations1:

  • The world's population is growing by roughly 80 million people each year.
  • Freshwater withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years. Demand for freshwater is increasing by 64 billion cubic meters a year (1 cubic meter = 1,000 liters).
  • Changes in lifestyles and eating habits in recent years are resulting in more water consumption per capita.
  • The production of biofuels has increased sharply in recent years, with significant impact on water demand. Between 1,000 and 4,000 liters of water are needed to produce a single liter of biofuel.
  • Energy demand is also accelerating, with corresponding implications for water demand.

What does all this mean? We need to rethink how we manage, use and reuse water in order to meet these varied and growing demands; the future of communities around the globe depend on it.

The Evolving Value of Water

In North America, we have historically enjoyed abundant quantities of high-quality water in most areas. However, access to adequate supplies of freshwater is being increasingly threatened by pollution and the demands associated with population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and agriculture. In addition, climate change and extreme weather events, with resulting drought, flood and wildfires can dramatically impact the quality and quantity of water supplies as well as the demand for it. Accordingly, the Government Accountability Office recently determined that within a decade, 39 U.S. states predict they will be suffering from water shortages.2

As supplies of high-quality freshwater have dwindled, the cost to source, transport, treat, and distribute that water has grown. In fact, water bills have increased in recent years because of increasing costs associated with providing water service (related to population growth, more stringent water quality regulations and infrastructure replacement costs, among others) and the need to fully recover those costs. Between 2008 and 2010, the average American consumer's monthly water bill increased 6.3 percent each year.3

With increased scarcity and cost comes the recognition of value. Whereas water has historically been viewed as a limitless resource to use and sometimes abuse at will, it is increasingly recognized as a vital resource that serves as the lifeblood essential to the economic, social and environmental health of individuals and communities around the world and so must be properly managed. Further, it is in this context of increasing demand, diminishing supplies and enhanced value that water utilities are wrestling with meeting their mission of providing adequate supplies of safe water for their customers.

One Water: Options for Utilities

Traditionally, water utilities have relied upon two major sources of water - surface and groundwater - to meet water needs. In 2005, the United States consumed 410 million gallons of water per day, 80 percent of which was surface water.4 However, both have come under increasing strain in recent years. For example, a crucial source of water in the western portion of the United States is the Colorado River, which is fed by snowpacks in the Rocky Mountains. However, the ongoing drought and resulting diminished snowfalls in that part of the country have significantly impacted water supplies in the Colorado River watershed and hence throughout the Southwest.

The situation with groundwater is no better. From 1900 to 2008, the nation's aquifers were diminished by more than twice the volume of water found in Lake Erie. One example of an aquifer being overtaxed is the High Plains Aquifer System stretching underneath 170,000 square miles of the Midwest. The aquifer has been subject to extensive pumping over the past several years to the extent that the water table has declined up to 160 feet; the rate of depletion is also increasing. In fact, the depletion from 2001 through 2008 is approximately 32 percent of the cumulative depletion during the entire 20th century.5

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In this environment of expanding demand and diminishing supplies, the concept of One Water, which looks at all possible sources of water for various uses - ground and surface water, stormwater, wastewater, and seawater - and integrates them into a comprehensive water management strategy to help meet society's larger economic, social and environmental needs, becomes a sensible and necessary means of addressing related challenges. Likewise, it recognizes that all water is a potential resource to be used and reused in a cost-effective and environmentally-responsible manner.

Drinking water utilities adopting the One Water concept are provided with the diverse water supply needed to help meet the ongoing challenges associated with sustaining increasing demand with decreasing supplies, while still ensuring compliance with stringent quality standards. In fact, when one starts to "think outside the box" of traditional sources of water, a number of options are available.

Stormwater harvesting collects water from drains or creeks, which is then treated and stored for later use. Capturing rainwater in urban and suburban areas and using it for beneficial purposes could decrease demand on potable water supplies and also provide environmental benefits. For example, in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing established close to 500 rainwater collection projects around the city. Captured rainwater was used to water urban landscapes and help expand green coverage throughout the city.6

Desalination has become a viable option for some areas in the United States as well as globally. In 2002, there were approximately 12,500 desalination plants around the world in 120 countries. They produce 14 million cubic meters of freshwater per day. In the United States, desalination can play a critical role in local water supplies, especially in California and parts of Florida.7 At the same time, desalination is an expensive means of procuring freshwater and is therefore not an optimal option for many communities.

Reuse is another option, one of growing importance both domestically and abroad. Reuse is the use of treated or reclaimed wastewater for drinking, agricultural and industrial purposes. In a world where sources of freshwater are diminishing, reuse can become an attractive and potentially necessary means of supplementing existing supplies. Currently, the United States discharges 12 billion gallons of wastewater into estuaries and oceans every day - six percent of the nation's total daily water use. Reusing this water represents a sizeable potential "new" source of water to supplement existing sources.8

In some limited ways, water reuse has been practiced for many decades in the United States. After all, a city that draws its water from a river downstream arising out of a city that discharges treated wastewater into the same river is reliant, at least to some extent, on reclaimed water. This is the scenario with Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas, which discharges wastewater into the Trinity River that subsequently flows into Lake Livingston - a major water supply for Houston. The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County has used highly-treated reclaimed wastewater since 1962 to augment its water supplies. Similar systems are in operation in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Georgia.9

The Role of Research

In an environment with competing demands for diminishing water resources, maximizing those assets through the One Water lens becomes a paramount concern, and research plays a pivotal role. In fact, scientific research organizations such as the Water Research Foundation can serve two critical functions. The first is to help answer the immediate questions the water community poses regarding water quality, especially as it relates to reuse. Those concerned with water - utilities, regulators, elected officials, and, most especially, end-users - want to be confident that the water they consume is safe. Further, scientific research organizations are providing the answers and solutions to help utilities develop the treatment processes that ensure that quality.

At the same time, there is a larger, more holistic role that our organizations can play. As the concept of One Water gains traction throughout the water community, research becomes more critical to the successful implementation of related water management strategies, which can include any combination of water sourcing, storage and treatment. Broadly speaking, scientific organizations can:

  • Conduct scientific research on a wide range of One-Water-related issues that no single utility could afford to conduct on its own. In addition, given the impartiality of the organizations and the research conducted, we are able to draw experts from the public and private sectors and coordinate large-scale projects and execute them in a timelier manner than might others.
  • Serve as the primary source for One-Water-related research information and resources. We can share new sourcing, treatment, storage, delivery, and operational technologies with utilities, government organizations, regulatory agencies, non-governmental organizations, and others throughout the water community interested in One-Water-related topics.

As a result of scientifically-sound research and results sharing, water utilities will be better able to leverage the One Water concept to strategically plan more integrated and sustainable approaches into day-to-day operations and long-term planning to meet current and future demands. Likewise, research organizations will serve as the catalyst from which others can advance informed decision-making and appropriate public policy agendas to better manage our water resources at the state, regional and national levels while protecting public health and the environment.


In the future, all stakeholders interested in society's access to safe, adequate, reliable, and affordable supplies of clean water - utilities and public officials, as well as residential, business, agricultural, and industrial customers - will need to take a more holistic and cooperative view towards water management. Moving forward, it will be imperative that water operators have a comprehensive and trusted array of resources at their disposal to make informed decisions about how best to meet their diverse water needs. The scientific research community has an important role to play, and we look forward to continuing our long-standing partnership with the water community to help it meet the increasingly complex challenges that a One Water approach can help address.

Value Of Water 1311wwAbout the Author: Rob Renner is the Executive Director of the Water Research Foundation (, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that sponsors research to enable water utilities, public health agencies and other professionals to provide safe and affordable drinking water to the public. He can be reached at


1 Worldometers – Real Time World Statistics,

2 "Forecasting the Future: Progress, Change, and Predictions in the Water Sector," Water Research Foundation, Report #4232, page 32.

3 Water and Wastewater Rate Survey. American Water Works Association, Denver, Colo., 2010.

4 "Surface Water Use in the United States, 2005," USGS,

5 "U.S. Groundwater Consumption Accelerating," Environment News Service, May 2013.

6 "Forecasting the Future: Progress, Change, and Predictions in the Water Sector," Water Research Foundation, Report #4232, page 34.

7 "Saline water: Desalination," USGS,

8 Ibid, Page 2.

9 Understanding Water Reuse, The National Academies, Page 4.

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