Making Connections: Where Does Your Water Come From?

bewl water reservoir drought

My previous post was in response to an argument against the proliferation of dams and diversions. Therefore I should also offer a response to this diametrically opposite perspective written by Richard Black, in the article “Drought summit: Why not pipe the water from north to south?”, calling for engineered solutions to droughts in southern England.

The climate is unlikely to read from the script laid out for it by the global climate models.

It would be naïve to believe that we can accurately predict something as complex as the climate when we have never demonstrated skill at predicting any dynamic system. Nonetheless, it is pretty clear that the present climate is deviating from our past expectations and the future is likely to hold even more surprises. We are dependent on the climate to deliver predictable supplies of water to satisfy our many and growing needs. If the climate does not continue to deliver water where we need it, when we need it, then it may make more sense to move water rather than move our cities and agriculture to where the water is.

If bulk transport of water is necessary then what price should be put on the water?

There needs to be a satisfactory return on investment from the project costs. Perhaps there should also be some accounting for the consumption of natural capital.
Storing and/or abstracting water from a river changes everything. Rivers are self-organizing systems -forming channels that are adapted to transport the expected load of water and sediments. The resultant channel geometry dictates the species composition and diversity that can be supported by the distributions of water depth, velocity, and temperature. Solutes, including both nutrients and contaminants are concentrated or diluted in accordance to the river form and function. The health of a river is fundamentally inseparable from dynamic variability. Constraining that variability can lead to: water quality issues; loss of species diversity; sediment starved deltas; and cultural loss.

How do you place a value on taking your kids for a picnic on the banks of a free-flowing river?

Accounting for natural capital requires an understanding of the natural system. Arguably, trying to ‘fix’ a river system is about as wise as trying to repair your grandfathers Swiss watch. If we don’t know how the pieces are supposed to fit together – or lack the necessary tools, then we perhaps we shouldn’t start by taking it all apart.
I believe that the demand for water projects will keep growing, especially in the developing world but even in mature economies like England. I also believe that we need to do better than we have in the past with respect to predicting and constraining unwanted consequences. I think this can be achieved by increased monitoring so that we can develop an improved understanding of the dynamic inter-relationships that drive all freshwater systems. Future projects will not be like the Aqueducts of Roman times; instead they will be adaptive, evidence-driven, decision support systems that are designed from the outset to accommodate multiple objectives.

Photo Credit: Loz Pycock | Bewl Water Country Park  |  License


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