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Is water on the public’s mind? Not really. Not yet.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This is the question that bounced around my head after I read through the results of the latest Energy Poll out of The University of Texas at Austin. Every six months the poll asks a sample of Americans their views towards energy technologies and policies. Most topics dealing with the availability of energy resources dominate the list. Things like the cost of gasoline, cost of electricity, how much we spend on energy, and oil dependence.

But water only comes in at fifth place ahead of home energy efficiency and carbon emissions.

Water is connected to so many important social and technical issues: growth of cities, climate change, agriculture, natural gas exploration, cooling thermoelectric power plants, etc. I would hope it would register higher up in the poll.

But is it all that surprising to see energy topics at the top of the list? Gasoline is always on our minds. It stares us in the face when we fill up our cars. We see the price fluctuate every several days and keep mental lists of stations with “the best” prices. And because it’s election year, we’re hearing about gas prices a lot. President Obama is talking about it. Mitt Romney’s talking about it. A lot. You would be working pretty hard to NOT hear about the cost of energy. Whether or not energy is in the news because we’re talking about it, or we’re talking about it because it’s in the news is beside the point – it’s on our minds.

I’m convinced that water is severely undervalued and taken for granted, especially here in the United States. Those of us with reliable access to clean water have it real good. Water is pulled out of a river or the ground somewhere, sanitized, and delivered to our homes. It sits in endless rows of bottles at the grocery store, cold and inviting. And all of this costs us relatively little. The most recent water bill for our household of three 20-something males came to $25 (not including wastewater). Not too shabby, and definitely not what I would expect for a region in severe drought. I would posit that most of us only fret about access to water at music festivals, when we go ballistic at the thought of paying $6 for a bottle of something that is practically free from a faucet.

And with more and more of us living in cities and urban centers, we’re becoming more and more removed from the ups and downs of rainfall patterns out in the country. We’re left with a false sense of security that because water is flowing now, it will continue to do so
in the future.

But this is dangerous thinking.

I lump this in with our general inability to anticipate problems if they are far off in the future. Like social security or limiting carbon emissions, we’re kicking the can down the road by not planning for depletion of water resources and an increasing population that can be expected to consume even more water. It seems that if the problem isn’t immediate and staring us in the face, we tell ourselves we’ll get to it later.

Except water is both an immediate and long-term problem. For now, it’s not registering with the general public.

These results are only one snapshot in time. We’ll be able to track how popular views on water and energy change over time. You can read more about the UT Energy Poll here and you also might also enjoy Melissa’s write up about the UT Energy Poll.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. proteus 12:32 pm 04/24/2012

    You are spot on, David. Yes, water and its importance is not in the minds of the common man. There are few reasons for it: One, water is perceived as a right and years of subsidies have made it become very affordable (almost free). When you get something for free, it is not novel or exciting. Second, in the US water is not very scarce yet. We have not faced the kind of crisis that Australia faced. We need a calamity to jolt us into recognizing water as an important resource, in fact more important than energy or gas. Third, it is a marketing issue for the water industry. The water industry is populated by engineers and scientists. We want to remain invisible and do our ‘thing’ and speak to only ourselves. And when we did speak to the common man, we were pedantic and even condescending at times. What we furnish is not sexy! We did too good at being invisible, and now no one cares!
    This can be a long conversation if you want. :-)

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  2. 2. Rich102 2:55 pm 04/24/2012

    I don’t understand: why should water be an issue at all in an Energy Poll?

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 5:04 pm 04/24/2012

    Concerns about the depletion of natural resources must also consider future demand. Those being polled should consider that the U.S. population is projected by the U.S. Census Bureau to increase >33% to 422,554 by 2050. Not only are U.S. potable water supplies diminishing but demand (not including agricultural and technological demands, often for export products) is significantly increasing! I’m concerned…

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  4. 4. geojellyroll 8:18 pm 04/24/2012

    I hope that someone in Texas isn’t so myopic that they don’t realize that concern over ‘water’ is a variable governed by geography.

    Where I live there is no issue of water supply. Issues around water here are to do with processing costs.

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  5. 5. marclevesque 4:44 pm 04/25/2012


    “why should water be an issue at all in an Energy Poll?”

    I was wondering too. Then I thought it’s possible water can be considered the main energy resource for food crops and humans.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Steve3 2:10 pm 04/26/2012

    @Rich 102– yeah bit of an afterthought .. Lets tag on water huh?

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