GAO Study Highlights US Governance Challenges At The Water-Energy Nexus

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Sustainable stocks and flows of water and energy are essential to societal health and well-being. Moreover, the two are inextricably linked and mutually dependent. Demand for both continue to rise in the US, with this year’s historic drought emphatically highlighting the economic, social and environmental costs, disruption and hardship dwindling water resources can cause.

US energy demand is forecast to increase 10% between 2010 and 2035, according to the Dept. of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), and growing demand for energy means growing demand for water. In a 2010 report, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) found that the US energy industry has been the fastest growing consumer of water in recent years. CRS projects that water demand from the energy sector will account for 85% of growth in domestic water consumption between 2005 and 2030, the General Accounting Office (GAO) notes in a report released Nov. 8.

Meeting the challenges at the water-energy nexus is going to require substantive, coordinated policy action by the Obama administration, Congress and federal agencies, the GAO asserts in its report, “Energy-Water Nexus: Coordinated Federal Approach Needed to Better Manage Energy and Water Tradeoffs.”

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Improving Policy Process at the Water-Energy Nexus

Climate change, population growth and demographic shifts were identified by sources interviewed and reviewed by GAO analysts as factors that pose significant uncertainties and are “expected to exacerbate the challenges associated with managing both the supply and demand of water and energy.” Formulating national policies addressing water and energy resources, capacity, and needs requires taking account of the uncertainties related to both, according to the GAO report.

At a basic level, meeting these challenges requires more comprehensive data and research related to the water-energy nexus, the GAO says. This includes better understanding of hydrological processes, including aquifer recharge rates and groundwater movement. “In the absence of such data and research, developing and implementing effective policies could continue to be a challenge for Congress and federal agencies,” the report states.

Such policies need to focus in on the water-energy nexus at local levels, the report continues. How increased biofuel production affects water resources depends on the type of agricultural feedstock and whether or not irrigation is required, for example.

At the same time, adopting technologies and approaches to reduce water usage in energy production is “inhibited by barriers such as economic feasibility and regulating challenges.” Congress needs to be aware and factor these into policy-making when “deciding whether to promote the adoption of these technologies and approaches,” the report authors continue.

Finally, improved energy and water planning will require better coordination among federal agencies and other stakeholders. Water and energy resource planning and management have traditionally been distinct and separated, or “stove-piped,” according to the GAO.

Improved planning will require federal agencies to work with one another and other stakeholders, such as state and local agencies, academia, industry, and environmental groups. Congress and some agencies have taken steps to improve coordination, but these actions are incomplete or in their early stages. For example, in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to establish a federal program to address the energy-water nexus, but DOE has not done so.

Graphic courtesy “Energy-Water Nexus,” GAO, 2012

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