Op-Ed

Does Whatcom need to save enough water for salmon?

A chum salmon is hooked in 2013 in Whatcom Creek in Bellingham.
A chum salmon is hooked in 2013 in Whatcom Creek in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

Second of two parts

There are many different ways to save water (as well energy and money, and improve environmental quality). These changes in technologies and operating practices apply throughout society, in the residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors. Now we must realize these potential benefits.

Past efficiency improvements have occurred with only modest utility efforts to encourage water-use efficiency. Although much more could be accomplished, several challenges confront efforts to improve water-use efficiency. These challenges include water prices that are generally too low to encourage much efficiency, lack of metering (and therefore data on actual water use) for non-utility sectors, tradition and insufficient institutional support for water-use efficiency. Although water-use efficiency faces serious obstacles, new supply and storage projects likely face even greater hurdles.

Because economics is a key driver for many decisions, increasing the variable price of water could spur greater efficiency (as well as better reflect the societal costs of water use).

What can we do to capture the many benefits of more water-use efficiency? Collectively, we need to decide whether it is important to keep more water in the creeks and Nooksack River and protect against future droughts. If the answer is yes, we have many opportunities to improve efficiency and save water in all sectors of society.

Recommendations

Because economics is a key driver for many decisions, increasing the variable price of water could spur greater efficiency (as well as better reflect the societal costs of water use). Pricing for efficiency involves:

▪  Seasonal rates (with higher prices during the summer when water is scarce);

▪  Increasing block structures (in which the price increases with usage), and;

▪  A shift from the fixed-cost component to the variable-cost component of retail prices.

We want to be sure that the measures, operating practices and programs adopted actually save water and do so cost effectively. Therefore it is important to test the technologies, behaviors and programs intended to achieve those goals.

Finally, without active leadership from state and local governments and other entities, few water-use efficiency opportunities and benefits will be realized. Generally, government organizations responsible for water do not take efficiency seriously. Neither Ecology nor Agriculture at the state level has any programs that focus on efficiency. The Department of Health does have an efficiency program but, in my view, it is limited. It requires water utilities to run water-use efficiency programs but the programs are generally limited to the “soft sell” of public awareness and information.

At the local level, Whatcom County, the city of Bellingham, Public Utility District No. 1, and/or the six agricultural watershed improvement districts could take the lead. But, to date, none has done so. Several local water utilities run modest programs that encourage their customers to be more efficient. Only Bellingham provides rebates to help customers purchase more efficient technologies.

Conclusions

Although Whatcom County has serious water quantity (supply and demand) problems, solutions are at hand. A key part of our efforts to restore instream flows should focus on improving water-use efficiency. These technologies and operating practices not only save water, they also save money and energy, reduce flows through sewer systems and enhance environmental quality. Some improvements are occurring naturally as people and businesses become more environmentally conscious, but much more could happen if we address key obstacles.

Obstacles to greater efficiency include pricing that does not encourage conservation, lack of data on the details of current water use and the benefits and costs of alternative efficiency methods and lack of leadership. What we most need is an institutional leader – some organization to galvanize and organize support, including financial incentives, to improve efficiency and reduce water waste.

Eric Hirst holds a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University and worked for 30 years as an energy policy analyst at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since moving to Bellingham, he has served on three advisory committees for the city of Bellingham, was involved with the formation and early operation of the Whatcom County chapter of Futurewise and served on the board of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities.

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