Making Water Conservation Pay

City officials usually respond to shortages of clean drinking water by upgrading their infrastructure, namely, drilling, damming, and laying pipes. Nature, it turns out, can play an important – and so far largely untapped – role in water delivery and treatment.

NEW YORK – Call it a sign of the times. Rarely a month passes in which a water crisis does not make headlines somewhere in the world. In early August, an algal bloom in Lake Erie, the result of agricultural runoff, contaminated drinking water in Toledo, Ohio. In September, the reservoirs in China’s Henan province dried up, leaving crops to shrivel and forcing some residents to drink from puddles on the ground. In late October, the city of Hyderabad, India, discovered that its water supply might be diverted next year for agricultural uses upstream, leaving some eight million people to wonder where they will find the 190 million gallons of water they need every day.

City officials usually respond to such supply crises by upgrading their water infrastructure, namely, drilling, damming, and laying pipes. Every day, the world’s largest 100 cities move 3.2 million cubic meters of water more than 5,700 kilometers to address local water shortages or problems with pollution. But this is an expensive solution, one that only the wealthiest cities can afford. It also puts city managers at odds with environmentalists, who campaign for restrictions on development to ease pressure on forests and watersheds. Fortunately, it is not the only option.

Nature, it turns out, can play an important – and so far largely untapped – role in water delivery and treatment. Protecting water at its source can be cheaper and more efficient than treating it after it has already been polluted. In a new report, my colleagues at The Nature Conservancy, the C40 Climate Leadership Group, and the International Water Association show that investing in forest protection, reforestation, stream bank restoration, improved agricultural practices, and forest-fire management can reduce the amount of pollutants flowing into supplies of drinking water.

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