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Plugged In

More than wires - exploring the connections between energy, environment, and our lives

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

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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.

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

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