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Saving Wisely

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Water-conservation strategies are essential in drought-stricken California, but decisions must be made through the lens of public health.

AS CALIFORNIA ADOPTS INCREASINGLY aggressive water-conservation measures in the face of a severe drought, a Fielding School faculty member warns that such policies can have unintended and potentially harmful consequences on the health of the state’s residents.

Brian Cole (DrPH ’03), adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and program manager/lead analyst for FSPH’s Health Impact Assessment Group, says draconian water rationing and escalating water prices in response to the crisis could have severe implications for lower-income Californians, especially those who already have cut back on all but the most essential water uses.

Last year, a Fielding School team headed by Cole issued a health impact assessment (HIA) offering short- and long-term recommendations for urban water conservation strategies to protect and promote public health. The HIA concluded that any plan should be based on a “quadruple bottom line” – assessing the amount of water it saves, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it creates, cost, and impact on local health. Among the potential health impacts:

The Fielding School’s health impact assessment concluded that any plan should be based on a “quadruple bottom line” – assessing the amount of water it saves, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it creates, cost, and impact on local health.

  • Physical Inactivity: Cole notes that if cities stop watering public parks, valuable green space – already in short supply in many low-income communities – could be lost. By making outdoor exercise less appealing, this could have an unintended health consequence.
  • Hotter Temperatures: In some areas, the urban heat island effect (in which a city is hotter than surrounding areas as a result of human activity) could be worsened if vegetation isn’t sufficiently watered and trees are lost.
  • Poorer Air Quality: Switching to water sources that generate more energy to pump or treat water, such as desalination plants and long-distance aqueducts, could increase emissions, adversely affecting air quality.
  • Economic Hardships: Sharp increases in the cost of water to the consumer as a result of the scarcity could also disproportionately affect low-income communities. “For a household that’s barely making ends meet, a sudden rise in the price of water can be significant, and financial difficulties can lead to health problems,” Cole says. Given that low-income families are already more likely to have low water use, he explains, these households would benefit from a tiered pricing structure that charges significantly more for high-volume use while keeping rates for low-volume use in check.

Pursuing the right mix of water conservation measures can actually bring health benefits, Cole points out. He is currently working with an FSPH doctoral student, Sharona Sokolow, to study the long-term effects of water recycling. In addition to being more sustainable, the strategy could reduce the state’s carbon footprint and improve air quality by cutting back on the energy currently required to import water.

The bottom line, Cole argues, is that given long-term climate projections, expected population growth and the projected depletion of water reserves, California needs to prepare for the long haul. “The longer we delay meaningful action, the more severe the consequences will be when we are faced with no other choice,” Cole says. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that if we run out of this valuable resource it’s really going to harm people’s health. Looking at it through that lens will help us to make wiser decisions.” •

Read the Report "Urban Water Conservation Alternatives in California"