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The Value of Water: Scoping a Research of Analysis

Project ID: 7013
Principal Investigator: Darlene Tuel
Research Topic: Water Marketing
Funded Fiscal Years: 2012
Keywords: None

Research Question

Although submitted under Advancing Water Supply Technologies, this proposal could be considered under Improving Water Operations Decision Support, DS3: Water Operation Models and Decision Support Systems, DS4: Water Resource Data Analysis, or DS2: Water Supply Forecasting.

This proposal will refine these questions for a subsequent research plan:

1. How can the concept of a water footprint, that includes the total embedded water, be implemented in a practical and meaningful way in order to make informed decisions in water resources management?
2. How can a powerful water footprint tool, which incorporates the use of alternative energy options, be used as a guide to sustainability, improve water management and efficiencies in water?
3. What are the associated environmental impacts?

Need and Benefit

Based on "virtual water" and the total water embedded in consumer goods and activities, the water footprint concept is a growing body of work with the increasing scarcity of fresh water sources, especially in the arid southwest. First introduced in 2002 by A.Y. Hoekstra as an alternative indicator of water use, the water footprint concept is still relatively new to the water industry. Some research on this concept is already being done by water institutions and academic sectors. Mathematical models were developed to quantify the virtual water flows. Accounting methods were established with a series of publications. Cooperation between global leading institutions in the field has led to the establishment of the Water Footprint Network in 2008, which aims to coordinate efforts to further develop and disseminate knowledge on the water footprint concept, methods and tools.

Despite the fact that many communities are taking on "green initiatives" and the public is supportive of sustainability concepts in general, not many have participated in sustainability and water footprint research. This can be partially attributed to the lack of practical and straightforward tools for conducting complicated environmental impact assessments and energy and water footprint calculations. Some published high-level studies are all very conceptual and cannot relate to a community's everyday needs. They often overlook significant components of water conveyance and treatment operations such as residuals handling, concentrate management, infrastructure rehabilitation, they tend to oversimplify and underestimate operation and maintenance costs, and they don't include the costs and savings of alternative energy options. Other research may have attempted to consider more details of water conveyance and treatment by conducting detailed life cycle assessments (LCA). However, such efforts involve time consuming inventory analysis, especially when dealing with large water and wastewater treatment systems, and this is not the primary scoping focus. Typically, an LCA could take months, sometimes years and still cannot address sufficient details. The reason that it takes so long is that the current database used for an LCA are used mostly for industrial applications and building products, and are not customized for the water industry. Significant data gaps must be filled before such a database would be more friendly and useful in water industry application. For example, the current LCA database includes very little water treatment equipment and considers all pumps and compressors as one category expressed in US dollars. This may be sufficient for the building industry but not for the water industry. The water-energy nexus component needs to be factored into the above, which may trigger a need for further investigation, but at least provide a basis.

The water footprint is a multidimensional indicator, showing volumes of water uses as well as making explicit the location and timing of such uses, and the types of water. It is not difficult to understand that a gallon of water in Africa has different values than that of Phoenix. Similarly, the value of water during an extended drought differs from that in the wet years. When considering the water use type, it is common to look at things like consumptive use of rain water, surface water or groundwater, but it is not sufficiently differentiated by a waters quality. From irrigation water, reclaimed water of different classifications, to drinking water, from effluent treated for indirect potable reuse, desalinated brackish sources to super pure water for industrial uses, water quality is a key factor that determines the value of water. For the manufacturing industry, pollution of water deteriorates water quality in exchange for the value of the product it makes. For the water industry, various energy, water and wastewater treatment processes deteriorate/improve the water quality at a cost of financial investment.

Contributing Partners


Research Products

A scoping document will be submitted for public viewing.

This information was last updated on April 24, 2014
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