Water conservation plan unveiled

Jan. 21, 2010, 12:03 a.m.
Emeritus professor of history David Kennedy introduces a new initiative with law school professor and Woods Institute Director Barton Thompson to conserve water. The initiative, called the Joint Program on Water in the West, will soon launch on campus. (DANIEL SHAFFER/The Stanford Daily)
Emeritus professor of history David Kennedy introduces a new initiative with law school professor and Woods Institute Director Barton Thompson to conserve water. The initiative, called the Joint Program on Water in the West, will soon launch on campus. (DANIEL SHAFFER/The Stanford Daily)

Amid torrents of rain and a thoroughly drenched campus, esteemed emeritus professor of history David Kennedy and law school professor and Woods Institute Director Barton Thompson ironically explained a new water conservation initiative, in an event jointly sponsored by the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Woods Institute for the Environment.

The proposed Stanford initiative — the Joint Program on Water in the West — brings together environmental researchers, historians, economists, policy makers and engineers in an attempt to find solutions to the unique water problems facing California and the West.

“The irony is not lost on me, as I’m sure it’s not lost on you, that we’re having this conversation about water on one of the wettest days of the year,” Kennedy said, jumpstarting his talk with audience laughter.

Wednesday evening’s discussion, appropriately held in the Yang & Yamazaki Energy & Environment Building (Y2E2), explained the primary goals of Water in the West. Kennedy and Thompson, two of the leaders of the project, showed the ways in which water issues have shaped the western United States throughout history, displayed the varied water problems facing the region and explained potential scientific and political solutions.

Approximately 60 personally-invited professors, researchers and members of a water-focused “Downstream the Colorado River: A Holistic Examination of the Colorado River’s Contribution to Our Nation’s Water and Energy” spring break trip braved the rain to attend the event.

“Water is definitional of the very character, identity and fate of this region,” Kennedy said.

Dressed in a red, penguin-covered tie, Kennedy began by discussing what he calls the “Fabled 100th meridian,” — west of this imaginary line, nearly every state faces water problems. Further slides showed how water influenced the settlement of the West and the success of that settlement. The West accounts for one-third of the nation’s GDP and half of the nation’s integration with the emerging Asian markets that may determine the future of the world economy.

However, Kennedy emphasized that previous success gives no guarantee of future safety.

“These systems worked, but these systems were built almost uniformly by men born in the 19th century . . . with early- to mid-20th century technology,” Kennedy said. “Maybe we’re approaching a time of reckoning.”

As he illustrated the dangers of days ahead, Kennedy’s next photo caused numerous gasps throughout the audience: a man standing next to a pole many times his height, illustrating how far the land itself sunk between 1925 and 1977.

“In this area, the rock formations collapse when the water is withdrawn [from underground aquifers],” Kennedy explained.

Increased population in the West, combined with lack of water monitoring, drought and transportation issues caused by the fact that most water comes from northern California, have aggravated California’s water problems over the years. And the threat, initially caused by stream depletion, to the state’s large number of endangered freshwater fish species has decreased the amount of water people can use.

“There is a growing sense that we are facing a crisis in California,” said Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center.

“But,” he added, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

After Kennedy concluded his portion of the talk, Thompson discussed potential engineering solutions to California’s water problems, including specific initiatives planned by Water in the West.

“Just like one of the best ways and least expensive ways of generating new energy is to conserve energy, the same thing is true of water,” Thompson said. “We’ve already done a great job in the last 15 to 20 years of conserving water in the western United States . . . but there are still significant opportunities for additional conservation.

“One of the best ways to encourage this type of conservation is through economic incentives,” he added.

Thompson suggested a tiered system of charging for water, rather than a flat fee system, so that those who use more water are charged more by the gallon. Scheduling irrigation more efficiently could also conserve water by up to 17 percent. Agricultural use makes up 80 percent of California’s water use — a situation that has caused many conflicts over the years as urban centers such as Los Angeles have grown.

“The one thing that always bothered me with previous initiatives is that they always focused heavily on urban use, which is only 20 percent [of total water usage],” Kennedy told The Daily before the talk. “The real gains are to be had in the agricultural sector.”

At the end of his slideshow, Thompson laid out three of Water in the West’s current concrete goals: pioneering low-energy distributed treatment systems, examining some of the contaminants that make people wary of drinking recycled water and getting rid of some of the institutional barriers that make water reclamation difficult.

Several of the Water in the West initiatives will be tested first on Stanford campus dorms and then in Palo Alto. Kennedy mentioned the possibility of including the changes in future “green dorms” to eventually be built at Stanford. Students, he said, can look forward to drinking water in ways that might soon stretch to the rest of the nation and then to Australia and other arid regions of the world.

Palo Alto officials, as well as Australian researchers, are already in cooperation with the program.

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