CIVIL ENGINEERING 365 ALL ABOUT CIVIL ENGINEERING



AbstractForum papers are thought-provoking opinion pieces or essays founded in fact, sometimes containing speculation, on a civil engineering topic of general interest and relevance to the readership of the journal. The views expressed in this Forum article do not necessarily reflect the views of ASCE or the Editorial Board of the journal.While John Denver’s songs predate my usual musical tastes, they resonate with me more as time goes on. Perhaps it’s his numerous references to water, or the folksy environmentalism of a bygone era, or his calm, clear voice in an inharmonious world. These lines from “Annie’s Song” (reproduced from Denver 1974, with permission from Kobalt Songs Music Publishing) were hardly meant to be an ode to hydrology, but the lyrics have taken on new meaning today in the American West: You fill up my sensesLike a night in a forestLike the mountains in springtimeLike a walk in the rainLike a storm in the desertLike a sleepy blue oceanYou fill up my sensesCome fill me againThe western United States, a frequent setting and subject of Mr. Denver’s music, is very different now than at the time of his 1974 hit song. We have mostly addressed the environmental issues of his day, notably the egregious pollution of land, water, and air that led to the big bang of US environmental policy in the 1970s, but we face new challenges today. We have endured withering drought, sizzling heat, and rampant wildfires that continue to break records year after year. A walk in the rain and a storm in the desert have become relative rarities in some places. A night in a forest is more charred than charming after so many have burned, turning clear waters turbid when it does rain. The mountains in springtime are producing less runoff, and reservoirs are begging, “Come fill me again.” Even the sleepy (and salty) blue ocean is now being taken seriously as a drinking water source. During the same 50 years or so, the country’s population has swelled from 205 million to 330 million, with the bulk of the growth occurring in western states, especially since the last census (Davis 2021). Demand for water by agriculture, industry, and cities has grown not just with the population but also with the warming climate. This year, the US Bureau of Reclamation for the first time declared a water shortage on the Colorado River, a sign of just how severe things have become (Fountain 2021; Juricich 2022).But more than an occasion to reflect on an iconic songwriter’s lyrics, the changes mean it is high time for serious solutions to sustainable water management in the West. This is a call for contributors to this journal to focus their work on both securing water supplies and reducing water demands in the western United States and other drought-stricken lands.I have seen many promising technologies develop in recent years, from smart water meters to decision support tools to leak detection methods. In particular, the concept of treating urban stormwater as a resource rather than a waste seems to have found a home in this journal. While these ideas may take years to become mainstream practice and still need local execution, the fundamental engineering research is there and should continue.But real solutions will necessarily extend over the boundaries of engineering and into other fields. Interdisciplinary teams, then, are part of the recipe for success. Agricultural scientists, urban planners, software developers, and, above all, water practitioners (Sowby and Walski 2021) may be appropriate members of a research team. At the risk of leaving something out, I suggest that social science, economics, and policy are particularly valuable lenses for studying the present problems, as described below.Water supply is a sociotechnical system, and too often we miss the social part (Berglund 2015; Baki et al. 2018). Water users, especially in cities, drive water demand; water suppliers merely respond by operating the infrastructure. Viewed as agents, water users have a much larger role in water resources than they realize, even if they are unaware of how water systems really work. Much of the research on water management, however, focuses on the system itself, with little consideration for how agents interact with and impose water demands on the system. Accordingly, more research from a social science perspective is needed to characterize water users’ behaviors, preferences, and acceptance of interventions. Those findings should then lead to controlled experiments and ultimately to best practices to influence user behavior, on a large scale, in favor of more sustainable water use.Similarly, economic studies could play a greater role in informing how water rates and water rights might adjust to better suit the West’s generally scarcer water resources and antiquated allocation systems. Water rates have many components such as base rates, usage rates, tiers, and drought surcharges, and it is not always obvious which combinations are both effective and equitable in the local context. Sometimes, water rates are subsidized by property taxes or other funds, obscuring the true cost of water. In any case, price signals on water use need to be clear in order to curb excessive consumption and enhance public perception about the value of water (Gaudin 2006; Baerenklau et al. 2014; Shurtz et al. 2022). Water banking is another interesting idea, providing a market that matches financial incentives with users’ inclinations to use or forgo their water rights, depending on the water’s actual availability rather than its historical allocation (Howe et al. 1986). Overall, more work is needed to understand how economic measures can join the sustainable water toolbox.Hydrology may be at the whim of Mother Nature and water demand may be at the discretion of users, but we are not powerless. We can craft policies that provide much-needed and long-term continuity. Even a basic policy like requiring all water uses to be metered, despite its obvious benefits, is not universal in the West. Likewise, land use and development decisions are often made with little regard for their potential impacts on water demand, runoff, and stream health. To outlast the pendulum of federal priorities that changes direction with each administration, we need effective policies at local and state levels, where governance is more consistent and the issues are closer to home. When supported by research and developed with proper stakeholder engagement, local and state policies could help generate awareness, funding, and accountability for solving our water problems.While I was writing this forum, a few sprinkles of rain fell from the smoky sky above my Utah home. The shower didn’t last long, but I was glad to see it before the drops evaporated into the hot air or soaked into my parched soil. This gift from the sky reminded me of John Denver’s “Blue Water World” (reproduced from Denver 1997, with permission from Kobalt Songs Music Publishing), which he composed later in life: A blue water world of oceans and oceansRain that falls like love as a gift from the skyA blue water world of rivers and streamsLike wishes and dreams that will come true by and byAnd in all that we may say, in all that we will doThe gift that was given to us is given to youWater is indeed a gift, more precious and (I hope) more appreciated now than at any time in recent memory. The American West is not alone in its distress, and actions to resolve the crisis will benefit communities elsewhere that now face, or soon will face, similar challenges in our beautiful blue water world.Data Availability StatementNo data, models, or code were generated or used during the study.References Baerenklau, K. A., K. A. Schwabe, and A. Dinar. 2021. “The residential water demand effect of increasing block rate water budgets.” Land Econ. 90 (4): 683–699. https://doi.org/10.3368/le.90.4.683. Davis, E., Jr. 2021. “2020 census shows fastest-growing states.” U.S. News & World Report, April 28, 2021. Denver, J. 1974. “Annie’s song.” In Back home again. Denver: JD Legacy Publishing. Denver, J. 1997. Blue water world. Denver: JD Legacy Publishing. Fountain, H. 2021. “In a first, U.S. declares shortage on Colorado River, forcing water cuts.” New York Times, August 16, 2021. Howe, C. W., D. R. Schurmeier, and W. D. Shaw Jr. 1986. “Innovative approaches to water allocation: The potential for water markets.” Water Resour. Res. 22 (4): 439–445. https://doi.org/10.1029/WR022i004p00439. Shurtz, K. M., E. Dicataldo, R. B. Sowby, and G. P. Williams. 2022. “Insights into efficient irrigation of urban landscapes: Analysis using remote sensing, parcel data, water use, and tiered rates.” Sustainability 14 (3): 1427. https://doi.org/10.3390/su14031427.



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