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Drought is the 'new normal,' water strategist says

A water strategist warned Friday that the drought is here to stay and said Utahns need to take water conservation seriously.
A water strategist warned Friday that the drought is here to stay and said Utahns need to take water conservation seriously.

SALT LAKE CITY — A water strategist warned Friday that the drought is here to stay and said Utahns need to take water conservation seriously.

"We need to stop calling it a drought. This is now the new normal," said Will Sarni, who has worked for both the public and the private sectors over the last three decades. "A 'good rain' is not going to make life good."

Sarni was the keynote speaker at the Salt Lake Chamber's "Water is Your Business" forum Friday. He said both public and private leaders are playing "catch-up" as they create new policies to combat current water shortages. Part of the rush is because they are running short on time as water projections created to mimic the year 2025 are a reality in 2015.

The water issue expands far beyond the concern of whether there is enough water for Utahns to turn on their sprinklers or faucet. Water is essential to the emerging middle class and a growing economy, he said.

At fist glance, it's difficult to trace part of the water issue to a growing socioeconomic class. To explain the concept, Sarni projected three food options and the amount of water that the items require to be produced: An apple requires 19 gallons of water; a hamburger, 634 gallons; and a 10.5-ounce steak, 1,189 gallons.

Because of dietary preference and a more expendable budget, middle-class residents increasingly pick food options with higher protein values to replace lower production cost items, in terms of both money and water. That means that as the middle class grows in numbers, the number of gallons of water it takes to produce these types of food will also increase.

As for the economy, water is essential to attracting new businesses to a state, Sarni said. "If you have water over the next several decades, that has value."

The "value" of water to businesses is no longer solely dependent on the monetary cost of receiving water in an operational facility or office; rather, water is now seen as a "business risk" by water conscious companies, he said.

The absence of water in an economy can be costly. In fact, Sarni cited water issues in California as causing the state approximately $3 billion in economic growth because the value of water in the state was considered too risky based on three categories of evaluation: physical, regulatory and reputational.

Physical is the simplest of the categories, it deals with water availability in a geographical sense. In other words, is there enough, and is the proper infrastructure present for water delivery?

Regulatory deals with relationships between businesses and local governments. It specifically investigates the public policies that have been implemented by local governments and value is based on the types of regulations and restrictions placed on industries' ability to get water. Monetary value is also an aspect of this category.

Reputational deals with how the businesses and states manage their water, specifically if these entities are considered water stewards or water consumers.

Water reputation is evidently important on a social level, seeing that one of the proposed post-2015 Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations is to "ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all," but water reputation is now important to a successful business model, Sarni said.

However, the way that businesses treat water is becoming increasingly important. "Millennials now buy on brand value," he said.

Millennials and others who are environmentally conscious spend more money on products that are conscious of the environment. Thus, water is becoming an issue that extends beyond public policy.

Sarni suggested that businesses and governments begin on a path of water stewardship. This can be accomplished by developing policies that serve as catalysts to preservation, innovation and engagement in the context of the water issue.

Suggestions for getting consumers on the path included incentives for less water usage, educating consumers about water use, and measuring water consumption in units that are familiar for consumers.

"I think it has to be more than just trying to convince the consumer that conserving water is a smart move. There has to be market signals, there has to be incentives, and you have to mobilize other industry sectors," said Sarni.