James Pinsky: Quenching our economy’s thirst

James Pinsky


Water’s a pretty big deal.

No. Actually, it’s the biggest deal in the history of humankind.

You see water, the universe’s perfect marriage of oxygen and hydrogen is the absolute key to all known life.

We know, we know, this is not news Jay, but thanks for dressing up as Captain Obvious for Halloween. We all know without water, we’d all die of thirst.

We’d die penniless too …

You see, without water not only would we dry up, but our nation’s economy would as well. In a November 2013 report by the Environmental Protection Agency titled “The Importance of Water to the U.S. Economy,” the natural resource driven federal agency built a persuasive argument that water is one of the most significant aspects of America’s economic success – and if you read the entire report, you may find yourself convinced that water actually is the key ingredient. The report stated, “water is essential to life, making its total economic value immeasurable. At the same time water is a finite resource, and one for which competition is likely to increase as the U.S. economy grows. Driven by this heightened competition, the economic value of water will rise, and decision-makers in both the private and the public sectors will need information that can help them maximize the benefits derived from its use.”

Now, we’re not talking about water being the funding source for the next generation of Pepsi drinkers or even backyard Slip-N-Slides. No. You see, water, plays a key role in everything and this role is probably best described by what the EPA calls the energy-water-food nexus.

What is the energy-water-food nexus? It’s important. Not just for Americans, but for everyone worldwide.

According to the United Nations group, UN-Water, an inter-agency mechanism on all freshwater related issues including sanitation, water, energy and food are inextricably linked. The U.N. said water is an input for producing agricultural goods in the fields and along the entire agro-food supply chain, and energy is required to produce and distribute water and food: to pump water from groundwater or surface water sources, to power tractors and irrigation machinery, and to process and transport agricultural goods.

The EPA said to further understand water’s economic importance and its interconnected nature, it is helpful to focus on three areas of water use that form the core of the nation’s economy: energy production; water supply; and food production. These activities and their interactions form a major economic hub – an energy-water-food nexus – that accounts for more than 94 percent of off-stream water use nationwide.

• Water/Energy – The use of water is critical to many aspects of energy production, including extraction of energy resources (e.g., mining), refining petroleum, transporting fuel by barge along waterways, and generating electricity through hydropower or thermoelectric power (where water is used as a coolant). In addition, water resource management itself uses a lot of energy. Due to symmetry in the use of water to produce energy and the use of energy to produce (and deliver) clean water and treat wastewater, increased efficiency of either the production or use of energy or water can yield many benefits throughout the economy.

• Energy/Food – Modern, large-scale agriculture is highly dependent on energy to produce our food. Energy is used directly to operate machinery and equipment, and is used indirectly to produce fertilizers and chemicals used to grow crops. At the same time, biofuels are increasingly becoming a major energy source, creating a link between agricultural production and energy production. Ethanol and biodiesel – produced from corn and soy, respectively – currently account for about four percent of the energy consumed by the transportation sector. This share is expected to grow. Biofuels also have an effect on the mix of crops produced and crop prices, both internationally and domestically.

• Water/Food – The use of water to support food production includes cropland irrigation, livestock watering, aquaculture, and food and beverage manufacturing. Irrigation is the largest consumptive use of water in the U.S., though shifts in irrigation methods and technology have improved water use efficiency in this sector.

So, water matters to us for a lot more than thirst, which is why organizations like us, the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District, have and embrace a key role in keeping Virginia’s water healthy and plentiful. A safe, plentiful supply of water for the Commonwealth obviously keeps our residents alive, but it also keeps our economy alive as well. After all, who doesn’t want a life full of ice-cold water and cash?

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.