It is often said that we live in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. It may be overlooked that our water systems have always been interconnected, integrated systems that are managed by numerous utilities, municipalities, and governing bodies. Water systems impact how the world’s communities develop, are key economic drivers, and offer public health and environmental protection. Water use does not happen in a vacuum; the water used in one location can greatly impact water use in other locations. For example, a recent research effort by Stanford University identified 55 potential conflicts between planned groundwater withdrawal projects and surface water flows. As California’s drought has intensified, water use has become even more closely examined.
Taking a holistic view of a water system represents a major leap forward in terms of how the water utility community works with stakeholder groups that have significant interests in the water system.
Stories like the one in California reinforce the Water Research Foundation’s (WRF) mission to advance the science of water and to provide research that informs utilities in their efforts to manage safe, reliable, and affordable water supplies for their customers. Increasing concerns about environmental impacts of new supply development, rapid population growth, and changes in weather patterns have led to a need for a more integrated approach to water resources management. Although conservation efforts such as water usage awareness campaigns by utilities and the installation of more efficient household appliances, have been successful in lowering potable water demands, these efforts alone will not be sufficient to address future water supply challenges. Additional efforts, such as improved leak detection and water loss control, reductions in outdoor water use, and improved water management by the agriculture and energy sectors are needed to extend current water supplies even further.
For some water utilities, demand forecasts exceed current supplies, indicating that these utilities may not be able to deliver enough water to serve their customers’ future needs. As a result, an increasing number of water utilities are engaging in Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). IWRM considers all aspects of the water cycle across the whole watershed, going beyond individual jurisdiction boundaries. IWRM cannot be implemented by a single entity, but requires the coordination and collaboration of stakeholders that manage drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater, along with other partners such as land management, agriculture, energy, and industry. The public, government agencies, funding organizations, and other water users must also be a part of the IWRM planning and implementation processes.