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Water Scarcity And Water Stress: The Difference And Solution

Water Scarcity And Water Stress: The Difference And Solution

Source: Badger Meter

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Water stress, as experienced on the East Coast of the U.S. and other parts of the world, is a different challenge from water scarcity, which has occurred on the West Coast, in the Midwest, and elsewhere. Water utilities are struggling under the weight of these problems and addressing them with varying degrees of success.

While the challenges of water scarcity and water stress may be different, the solutions are often the same. Understanding the distinction and similarities is the first step in building a plan for a more sustainable, resilient water distribution system.

Differentiating Stress And Scarcity

Water scarcity is when there isn’t enough water in the region. If you live in Pittsburgh, there are two rivers running through your community. If you’re anywhere in Arizona, you are likely miles away from an easily accessible water source.

By contrast, water stress is a combination of water availability and water quality. The most glaring example of this the supply of salt water. Los Angeles and many major cities are situated by the ocean. It’s still water, but it’s not potable. In Flint, MI, water was abundant — but poor infrastructure upkeep rendered it too toxic for use.

In essence, water scarcity is a form of water stress. The core of the problem is that the population does not have enough access to potable water.

Long-Term And Short-Term Solutions

In the U.S., one of the biggest challenges to water supply is how water is allocated. For example, approximately 70% of the water withdrawn from Lake Mead is used for agricultural irrigation, leaving just 30% for public supply. If every citizen conserved 10% of their water, the total impact would be just 3% savings.

With this data in hand, it may seem impossible to resolve the issue of water stress and scarcity. After all, the need for food is equal in importance to the need for potable water.

However, solutions do exist: Water reuse can help reduce dependence on freshwater sources. An investment in advanced treatment technologies opens access to otherwise unusable sources. In the U.S., about 40% of the population lives within 100 miles of an ocean, which makes desalination an expensive — but necessary — technology.

These are long-term solutions, and in the short term utilities must maximize the efficiency of their water distribution system. To do this requires deep and insightful visibility into every aspect of the system, including flow rates, pressure, and in some cases temperature. This data must be collected with reliable technologies. Instrumentation must be accurate, with only the smallest margin of error possible. It also has to be repeatable, meaning two instruments measuring the same flow rate must send back nearly identical readings. The data collected also has to be relatable to other data, so that contextually accurate analyses can be made. Lastly, it must be timebound to ensure that trends can be observed and compared.

The data, once in hand, has to be actionable. Analytic software must integrate with smart water systems that can translate numbers into action items that operators, managers, or other personnel can execute to conserve water and protect potability of the water. This allows the utility to be more resilient and react quickly to problems such as leaks or pipe bursts, storage depletion, and pressure loss.

Water utilities have an obligation to use this technology and data to facilitate water conservation and minimize waste, particularly in regions with large agricultural users. This also allows them to set conservation goals, track results, and evaluate successes and failures. It can also be used to determine the cost of moving water across a greater distance versus treating or reusing water.

Further, even if public usage represents only a small portion of total water usage, it is still critical for consumers to participate in efforts to reduce usage in response to scarcity and stress. Of course, utilities can’t force consumers to reduce their usage, but they can make it easier for them to do so. This means using consumer-facing portals that make extensive use of the aforementioned data collected and providing the means for them to consider their own usage and how to reduce it.

How much can water scarcity and stress be reduced using intelligent measurement and actionable data? That depends on a variety of factors, far too numerous to include here. But with the right technologies in place, water utilities can begin to make both long- and short-term plans to conserve water and begin the journey toward more sustainable water usage. 

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