"Water on the Alvord desert, Oregon" by Bonnie Moreland (free images) is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Water Scarcity Keeps Legislators & Private Companies Finding New Solutions

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As the planet warms and populations grow, the United Nations expects a 40% shortfall in the world’s water supply just 7 years from now. Partnerships and cooperation are essential to realize the human right to water and sanitation, and sometimes these allegiances come from unusual places.

Water scarcity protections fall within a complex network. One focus could be about safeguarding water, food, and energy security through sustainable water management. Maybe the center of attention turns to providing water supply and sanitation services to all, with a subset of supporting human health and livelihoods. Certainly water emphasis needs to include mitigating the impacts of climate change and extreme events and sustaining and restoring ecosystems and the valuable services they provide.

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As UNESCO explains in its World Water Development Report 2023, “Water is our common future, and we need to act together to share it equitably and manage it sustainably.” Nearly every water-related intervention involves some kind of collaboration. Let’s look at some of the dilemmas and solutions that have taken place over the past few months that demonstrate how water partnerships should — but unfortunately don’t always — create shared goals to peacefully manage and use water resources at the local, national, regional and international levels.

Blue Jeans & Blue Water: Scarcity Commands Innovative Solutions

Levi Strauss & Co. no longer wants to be a company known within the garment industry for wasting water. Like many companies, its bane has been an inability to control its supply chain.

Making jeans is a water intensive process. Starting in the cotton field and ending up in the consumer’s closet, a single pair of jeans may consume up to 3,800 liters of water. In order to save water, Levi Strauss & Co. is focusing on “contextual water targets” in which the company saves water where it’s scarce. That’s not always easy in arid climates, for example, and it would surely be easier to manage water in its more plentiful locations. Nonetheless, analyzing water scarcity locations within a supply chain is a smart mechanism to reduce overall water usage and maintain production targets.

An article in Bloomberg Green chronicles how Levi Strauss compares the locations of its mills and factories against the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas. Frequent analyses can identify which local suppliers face the greatest water stress, enabling the famous jeans-maker to zoom on on vulnerable facilities.

Solutions to water scarcity in the company’s supply chain have included areas such as innovating by reusing and recycling water during production or by implementing new, low-water finishes. What would happen if, instead of detergents, a thimble of water and ozone gas was used? Could jeans be softened by tumbling them with bottle caps and golf balls? In that way, fabric softener and water wouldn’t be needed. Levi Strauss & Co. is also looking at what other clothing companies are doing to offset water scarcity, such as growing cotton with regenerative agriculture, recycling waste water, and changing dyeing chemicals.

Levi Strauss isn’t alone. H&M, the world’s second largest apparel company, is partnering with the World Wildlife Fund and enacting a series of contextual water targets to 1,100 suppliers in 24 countries. Ralph Lauren has cited similar targets “in priority water-stressed locations” to cut water consumption at least 20% by 2025.

It’s a start. A more exact science-based target (SBT) focuses on hydrological data and lays out the quantity and quality thresholds required to make a freshwater basin sustainable. A group called Science Based Targets Network has announced the first release of science-based targets for nature, which will be publicly available on May 24, 2023. This release will include integrated technical guidance for companies to assess and prioritize their material impacts on the environment and then set targets accordingly. The first targets will help companies improve their impacts on freshwater quality (specific to nitrogen and phosphorus) and freshwater quantity as well as protect and restore terrestrial ecosystems.

What Do We Want? To Stop Water Privatization. When Do We Want It? Now.

In late April, environmental and justice organizations wrote to the Florida state legislature in response to a bill that has the potential to enact predatory water system pricing and excessive water rate hikes.

CS/SB 194/HB 125 is legislation designed to encourage the private takeover of public water and sewer systems. Food & Water Watch/ Public Water for All campaign director Mary Grant issue the following statement. “Access to safe, affordable water is a basic human right — yet, increasingly, corporations are eying these public resources as a private cash cow. In their endless thirst for profits, the private water lobby is now eyeing Florida’s public water systems, putting more than 90% of residents at risk of a private takeover. CS/SB 194/HB 125 is dangerous legislation that will lead to the predatory pricing of Florida’s water systems and rising water rates — it must be stopped.”

A  2022 study determined that state laws friendly to large water corporations drive higher water prices. By their own analysis, Florida House staff admitted that CS/SB 194/HB 125 could lead to higher rates for such utilities’ customers.

Letter signatories include Food & Water Watch, Catalyst Miami, Central Florida Jobs with Justice, Earthjustice, Florida Conservation Voters, Florida Rising, League of United Latin American Citizens, and ReThink Energy Florida.

Clean Water Protections Sought for over 250 Tribes within US

In early May, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced proposed federal baseline water quality standards (WQS) for water bodies on Indian reservations that do not have Clean Water Act (CWA) standards. The goal is to ensure protections for over half a million people living on Indian reservations, as well as critical aquatic ecosystems. This proposal would extend the same framework of water quality protection that currently exists for most other waters of the US to waters of over 250 Tribes and is the result of decades of coordination and partnership with Tribes.

If finalized, this proposal would safeguard water quality on Indian reservations until Tribes are able to adopt their own CWA standards for their water bodies. EPA estimates this proposed water quality standard will increase protections for 76,000 miles of rivers and streams and 1.9 million acres of lakes, reservoirs, and other open surface waters within Indian reservations, protecting aquatic life and the health of over half-a-million residents living within reservation boundaries.

Water quality standards define the goals for the condition of a water body by:

  • Designating its uses, such as fishing and swimming
  • Establishing maximum levels (or water quality “criteria”) for pollutants that protect those uses
  • Outlining policies that protect water quality from degradation

The proposed baseline WQS would provide a common set of designated uses, criteria, and antidegradation policies for Tribal waters, with certain built-in flexibilities to enable EPA to tailor the standards where needed to best protect local circumstances.

Gerald Wagner, National Tribal Caucus Chairman, states, “As one of the 4 elements of life, it is critical that Tribes and Alaskan Native Villages are provided a reasonable means to protect their water resources and ensure the protection of tribal environmental health, aquatic ecosystems, and tribal beneficial use waters. We recognize that the national baseline water quality standards is one important step in ensuring the gap is closed for impaired waters to be protected, while providing the opportunity for Tribes to gain status toward establishing their own water quality standards. The National Tribal Caucus welcomes this unique start in recognizing the importance of water quality in the livelihood of tribal communities and we hope to see further meaningful advancements that integrate tribal identities.”

Legislation Focuses on Restoring Coastal & River Areas, Post-Floods

The Water Resources Development Act of 2022 (WRDA) passed through Congress last December. This update of the biennial legislation allows the US Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) to play a critical role in protecting, enhancing, and restoring coastal and riverine areas from climate-impacted flooding and storms.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) advocated for the inclusion of particular WRDA provisions, and the EDF approves that USACE is now able to invest and effectively address 4 key components that will maximize coastal resilience:

EDF notes that these provisions emerged immediately after “unprecedented investments in climate resilience” made under the Biden administration. Funding comes as a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), as well as historic new guidance under the President’s Executive Order 14072, enlisting nature to address the climate crisis.

With a focus on restoration and conservation to build resilience, these WRDA 2022 provisions provide an opportunity for federal agencies to prioritize nature-based solutions. In this promising context, constituents are now taking steps to implement the WRDA 2022 language in order to build a flood and storm resilient future for the communities who live, work, and play around the nation’s coastlines, rivers, and waterbodies.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1279 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna