A friend just pointed me (thanks E!) to a provocative column by Bill deBuys last month published via High Country News last month on the loss of societal resiliency that accompanies water conservation efforts. DeBuys (author/editor of two of my favorite western water books – Salt Dreams and Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell) calls water conservation “a hoax, or at best a waste of time.”
Part of his argument is a familiar one: Why should I conserve water at my just to enable all that sprawl development to continue on the fringe of my city? But he’s also making an argument more nuanced:
[W]ater conservation is good for the short-term economy because the water it frees up keeps the real estate industry, the building trades and much else going. But it doesn’t work out well for the resilience of our communities because it leads to “hardened demand.” That means that the water is needed all the time, no matter what.
This is the big irony of water management: In dry times, the practice of wasting water becomes our best friend. When water has been used wastefully, it is easy to deal with drought. Once everybody stops watering the lawn or washing the car, current demand drops like a stone.
But when everybody conserves all the time — putting in low-flow toilets, xeriscaping the yard and all that other good stuff in both the public and private sectors — the demand for water “hardens.” The uses that remain are essential; you can’t turn them off, and sometimes you can barely pare them back.
Conservation enables a community with fixed water resources to continue growing. But the more it grows on the strength of conservation, the more vulnerable it becomes to drought. Then when dry times inevitably come, there’s no flex in the system.
If you agree with deBuys’ argument, what’s the appropriate response?