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Water: Act Now to Conserve the New Oil

By Sharon Nunes/Fortune Magazine

Companies need to start thinking about saving water the same way they think about saving energy. 

 Water is the new oil. In the same way that the 1973 oil crisis forced Americans to scrutinize their reliance on fossil fuels, today's water shortages and rising occurrence of contaminated water supplies are shining a spotlight on our seemingly ubiquitous supply of H20. Only 1 percent of the world's water supply is easily available for drinking, but much of that is in jeopardy of growing contamination. It's time to start including water in the national conversation as readily and regularly as we discuss energy.  Water is a resource every bit as critical. It needs to be conserved and managed as energetically as we assess global warming, protect the ozone layer, and work to ensure clean air. With a thoughtful combination of planning and new technology, we can do it.

The problems with our water supply

The United States has a host of water issues.  In 2003, the US General Accounting Office estimated that at least 36 states would not have enough water within ten years. Sprawling population, drought, and patterns of waste will put severe pressure on the ability of communities to protect their water supplies. These shortages exact a huge economic toll. Consider Georgia in late 2007. The massive drought that caught the Southeast by surprise – and was attributed to explosive population growth combined with unsustainable water consumption habits – cost the local economy about $1.3 billion.

This country's neglected water infrastructure adds to the problem. Hundred-year old pipes are still used; there are even water mains in the U.S. that are made of wood. The system is close to collapse in too many places. Each year, there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks. That means every hour, 27 water mains on average somewhere across the US spring leaks and spill clean water into the streets, reservoirs or aquifers – water that will need to be filtered all over again.

Dirty water is also an issue. Groundwater is much more at risk for contamination than Americans casually turning on the tap realize.  Boron, from natural environmental sources as well as industrial and municipal wastewater, is now a leading concern, with the potential to damage the stomach, liver, kidneys, even the brain. Other contaminants include lead, chlorine, arsenic, pesticides, organic chemicals, and various microorganisms. It's important to be vigilant -- and innovative. The need for clean water has helped drive the creation of energy-efficient, low-cost membrane filtration technologies and a market for in-line filters both in the home and in industrial settings.

How we can fix our water problem

It will take $334.8 billion over the next twenty years to make our water system safe and reliable, according to the EPA. Some funding is already beginning to flow. The stimulus bill, for example, contained $2 billion to improve our nation's water infrastructure. Yet it is just a drop in the bucket. Concern needs to be built into public policy. Business and government need to unite around this issue to innovate, raise awareness and change behaviors.

In fact, it is already happening, albeit at a trickle. In 2007, for example, IBM joined with New York's Beacon Institute and Clarkson University to launch the first technology-based monitoring and forecasting network for a major American estuary, the Hudson. Researchers there record information about oxygen content, temperature, and wind speed. They plan to place sensors along the entire length of the Hudson to collect data that will increase our understanding of the effects of global warming, the movements of migrating fish and the transport of pollutants. Ultimately, these insights will inform the improvement of water systems all over the country, well beyond the 12 million people living within the Hudson's watershed.

On the other side of the country, the University of California at Berkeley is testing a Floating Sensor Network that will collect real-time data about its waterways during heavy rains, levee breaches, or contaminant spills. Mobile sensors are put into the flowing water and then transmit maps of how the water is moving via cell phone network and short‐range wireless radios. Together these sensors can create a Google-like traffic map for an entire river delta, creating a comprehensive real-time view of the water's speed, depth and level of contamination. By deploying this network rapidly during an emergency, it can help agencies contain disasters more quickly and efficiently by giving them a precise understanding of where the water is going. This innovation also has tremendous potential for improving river management in other parts of the world.

California is extending its quest for smarter water management beyond its river ways. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, for example, is using software to develop smarter management of the city's 1,000 miles of sewer system and three treatment facilities. The software has already improved the organization's ratio of preventive to corrective maintenance by approximately 11 percent. It also helps reduce water pollution.  For example, work order histories can show that a pump has already been rebuilt 10 times. That means it's time to replace it, before a failure leads to contamination. For an organization that processes as much as 370 million gallons of wastewater and storm runoff a day, this small step is actually a quantum leap in smarter water management.

We need more of those quantum leaps. It's time to add water and stir up the national dialog about what our national and global ecosystems will look like for future generations. If water is indeed the new oil, let's learn from the past and work together now to conserve every drop.

Sharon Nunes is Vice President of Big Green Innovations at IBM where she works closely with IBM researchers and clients around the world to address emerging environmental management opportunities and collaborate to solve global environmental challenges.