There are many shades of gray along the spectrum of water for energy and energy for water—endless variety of contexts, constraints and drivers, as Maria Donoso (Florida International U., Global Water for Sustainability (GLOWS) Program) put it. Sometimes we have to tradeoff greenhouse gas emissions reductions for environmental damages. As an example, Donoso posed, what is the over all greenhouse gas emissions impact vs. the ecological impacts from one big vs. multiple small dams and reservoirs? Early studies are showing, she went on, that as much as two times as much greenhouse gas emissions (mainly methane) from many smaller reservoirs compared to one big reservoir. Whereas one big reservoir may have greater ecological benefits (though, ecologically and culturally speaking, no dam is preferable!) In the workshop, we heard about two case studies–from south Florida and Phoenix, AZ. For Florida we heard from the director of the Everglades Division Florida Water Management District, Dr. Fred Sklar, and the city engineer for Miami Beach, Bruce Mowry. (text continued below photo)
Sklar’s office manages those basins, pumps, and levees to keep enough water on the land to avoid drought, but not so much that it floods, in order to meet the variety of human land uses and ecological restoration needs. Sklar characterized the water management problems in the Everglades as ranging from tame to messy (climatic difficulties) to wicked (social – land use issues) to messy-wicked (climate – social – land use problems). Is this interdisciplinary characterization of environmental issues starting to sound familiar? Sea level rise is especially hard to prevent/adapt to because of the porous calcium carbonate substrate underlying most of south Florida. This rock’s porosity allows saltwater to easily intrude underground and move vertically up onto the landscape. Meaning sea level rise is not simply a rising surface level rolling over the landscape from the coast, rather sea walls actually keep flood waters upwelling from below trapped on the land rather than keeping out rising surface water. Rising sea levels are caused by the thermal expansion of water at warmer temperatures and melting land ice. These effects are not felt uniformly across the globe, rather localized changes in sea water temperature, salinity, and circulation lead water to “pile up” in certain regions and not others. Sklar approaches these issues with a balance between local and regional perspectives—in response to the US congress not working at the larger scale and the need for locally tailored solutions. He pointed out that we have to be systems thinkers to make sure we don’t use a solution that is beneficial at the local scale but not at the regional scale.
Here, the wealth generated from the status quo seals the city’s fate as the old school culture of growth is just too tempting to turn away from, preventing the powers that be in this sea level city from looking straight into the eye of the beast (climate change) and dealing with it head on through transformative solutions. Miami-Dade county relies on Miami Beach’s tourism revenue to support the rest of the county’s public services. Currently, the city government has tunnel vision for the status quo as the best economic solution. Deciding to raise sidewalk levels is easy, the hard part is brainstorming solutions that allow the city and county to diversify their revenue stream while taking advantage of Miami Beach as a tourist attraction. Dan Childers‘ (Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University) presentation was at times a striking contrast to the south Florida case study but also showed a few surprising resemblances. He spoke about the water-energy nexus in the Phoenix Valley metro area in Arizona, which includes 26 separate municipalities. To an Appalachian (such as yours truly), one desert city is the same as the next. But in order to understand the situation in Phoenix it is helpful to compare it to Las Vegas. The two cities are very similar in climate yet very different in hydrology: Phoenix has the Salt and Verde Rivers while Las Vegas relies solely on Lake Mead, which we all know is shrinking. This has put the two cities on very different cultural and water managerial trajectories: where Las Vegas has aggressively pursued water efficiency improvements (and out of basin water sources), Phoenix continues to be an “oasis city” where growth continues to be the economic mantra and the idea of water scarcity is swept under the rug.
Childers used three new terms. Academics, especially those in sustainability research, seem to love coining new terms, but these three are actually useful, demonstrated by how rapidly they were adopted into the discussion. They characterize the three types of barriers Childers sees to system-level changes: 1) systemic inertia--hindering novel or transformational change; 2) social inertia—people are okay with change as long as it happens to someone else; and 3) infrastructural inertia—it is easier to put bandaids on the current system than to build a new one from the ground up. We need a new framework for water and energy management that incorporates and engages all stakeholders….Altogether, our understanding of the water-energy nexus–identifying it, quantifying it, and transforming it–is just beginning. In our workshop discussion I could see that in order to get at the heart of this issue we need to pursue many paths, pull apart multiple layers of complexity, and integrate perspectives across many disciplines, including engineering, ecology, sociology, urban planning, and water management policy–sign me up! I’m excited to be part of this new working group and I hope to report back to you on our future discussions.