The Water-Energy Nexus

By Megan Hatch, Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District

Monday night as I sat huddled under blankets because of a snowstorm-induced power outage, I found myself contemplating several “would you rather” scenarios. With no electricity to power my usual evening activities, this felt like a reasonably good use of time. Now, at least, if ever forced to choose between having three legs or three arms, I know exactly what I would decide.   

When my iPhone battery hit a critical four percent charge, I finally asked myself, “Would I rather live in a civilization with no power, or a civilization with no water?” As an employee of a water utility, I thought this question would be easy, but a few hours in my dark, cold house had started messing with my mind. Unintentionally, I had introduced myself to one of the most complicated “would you rather” scenarios ever.

You see, developing, treating and delivering water requires a lot of energy. Generating energy requires a lot of water. Scarcity of one disrupts the supply of the other. This relationship is called the water-energy nexus and it means that either choice I made in my “would you rather” scenario would make it difficult for a civilization to have either.    

Throughout the world, examples of this nexus have been manifest. Drought has affected power plants by limiting water availability, and water treatment plants have shut down when a storm knocked out the power supply.

In Utah, we have been lucky. Our use of energy for water production is relatively low compared to other locations — we can thank our primarily gravity-fed water supply for that. But the era of relying on mountain runoff and gravity to pressurize water systems is rapidly ending. Future water development is likely to be more expensive and more energy intensive. New ways of thinking about energy and water will be needed to meet future demands for both.

Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District and its electricity provider, Rocky Mountain Power, offer one example of how leaders in the fields of water and energy can work together to make important changes. After realizing that efforts to use electricity as efficiently as possible are consistent with its other programs to conserve water resources, Jordan Valley Water underwent an energy management program sponsored by Rocky Mountain Power. After two phases of the program, Jordan Valley Water reduced its energy footprint by 19 percent. Similar programs are likely to continue throughout the state as water and energy leaders collaborate.

Unfortunately, adequate supply has led to a relaxed attitude about water and energy use for a lot of Utahns. Sometimes it isn’t until you are sitting in a cold, dark house, or facing a long-term drought that you realize what these resources are really worth. In the future, that is going to have to change. The good news is that when we conserve water, we also save energy. And when we save energy, that can help us save water. As we all do our part, we can help create a scenario where our civilization has sustainable access to both.