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Saving Water Even as We Grow

Blog Post | Food & Hunger

Saving Water Even as We Grow

Amid record drought, communities in the American West are finding ways to do more with less water.

Summary: Amid record drought, communities in the American West are finding ways to use far less water. This article examines how innovations such as wastewater recycling, desalination, and water markets conserve water while allowing the West to prosper and grow.

The American West is in the grips of its worst drought in more than a millennium. Reservoir levels in some areas have dipped to all-time lows. The shortages are especially dire in the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to 40 million people and irrigates four million acres of farmland.

There are plenty of gloomy headlines on the West’s water crisis. But beyond the front page is a lesser-known story of remarkable adaptation: over the past few decades, western communities have found ways to use far less water, even as populations grow and economic output increases. It’s a testament to the ability of humans to respond to water scarcity, and it illustrates what more is needed to enable continued adaptation in the future.

Consider Las Vegas. Since the drought began two decades ago, the city has cut per capita water use by half. Total water use has fallen by 26 billion gallons since 2002, even as its population has grown by 800,000 residents. Or take Phoenix, another fast-growing metropolitan area. Since 1980, the city’s population has more than doubled, yet its total water use has declined by one-third

The same is true in much of the American West. Since 2000, Albuquerque’s per capita water use has fallen 48 percent; Denver’s by 38 percent; and Los Angeles’ by 29 percent. San Diego’s water use has plummeted from nearly 220 gallons a day per person in 2007 to less than 140 gallons per person. Total water use in the city is down 40 percent. A recent study of 20 western cities found that population growth from 2000 to 2015 increased by an average of 21 percent, while total water use declined by an average of 19 percent. 

How has this happened? In his book Water Is for Fighting Over: And Other Myths about Water in the West, the writer John Fleck explores the impressive ability of people to adapt to water scarcity without sacrificing economic growth. When people have less water, Fleck writes, they find ways to use water more efficiently. Often, that’s through stormwater capture, wastewater recycling, aquifer storage, lawn buyback programs, and other innovations.

In San Diego, city officials have invested in desalination plants, sewage recycling, raising dams, and other water-saving measures. A new wastewater recycling project is expected to meet roughly half of the city’s drinking water needs by 2035. In Nevada, water managers have implemented “cash for grass” programs, which offer rebates to businesses and residents who tear out lawns and replace them with water-efficient alternatives. The program has resulted in significant per capita water-use reductions, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority. 

Modern cities, it turns out, are quite water efficient, especially when compared to irrigated thirsty desert croplands. In Arizona, building houses to accommodate a growing population has resulted, somewhat counterintuitively, in significant water savings in the region. By one estimate, converting 100 acres of Arizona cotton fields into subdivisions with quarter-acre lots can cut water use by roughly a third. 

Prices also play a role. Water prices in San Diego reached as high as $1,736 an acre-foot  (enough water to cover an acre of land, about 326,000 gallons) last year, up from $620 in 2007, encouraging conservation and spurring water-saving innovations. In other parts of the West, however, water prices remain low despite recent drought conditions. Salt Lake City, for instance, has among the lowest water prices of major U.S. cities; it also consumes more water than other desert cities. 

The agricultural sector, which uses roughly 80 percent of all water in the West, is also conserving water. In California, for example, farm water use in 2015 was 14 percent less than in 1980, while economic output from farming was up 38 percent. This is due in large part to rising crop yields. Farmers can now grow more crops on less land while using less water, enabling them to transfer some of that saved water to cities or, in some cases, to increase environmental flows for fish and wildlife habitat.

This adaptation story is one to celebrate and sustain. Contrary to apocalyptic media reports, western communities have decoupled water consumption from economic growth. But despite these recent successes, more water conservation is needed in response to today’s prolonged drought conditions.

Tapping water markets is one way to do so. Markets allow users to move water from lower-value to higher-value uses, thereby encouraging conservation and promoting more efficient use. In practice, however, a variety of legal and policy barriers can prevent win-win water trades from occurring. Reducing barriers to water markets is crucial to enabling further adaptations to drought in western states.

The American West has a remarkable ability to adapt to water scarcity. Current drought conditions are bad, but they are likely to spur even more water-saving innovations and policy reforms in the future. Ultimately, that ingenuity will enable people to conserve water while allowing the West to continue to prosper. 

World Bank | Water Use

The GCC’s Journey Towards Water Security

“Thanks to innovation driven by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, notably advancements in membrane technologies and energy efficiency, the price of desalinated water has plummeted from US$5.00 per cubic meter in the 1980s to as low as US$0.40-0.50 in recent projects. This is making desalination increasingly affordable for countries worldwide.

Beyond desalination, the GCC countries are implementing diversified water management strategies to manage water demand. One of the most important areas is the reduction of ‘non-revenue water’ (NRW) — physical and commercial losses of water.”

From World Bank.

BBC | Water Use

How Our Drinking Water Could Come from Thin Air

“Friesen, an associate professor of materials science at Arizona State University, has developed a solar-powered hydropanel that can absorb water vapour at high volumes when exposed to sunlight. 

It is a modern-day twist on an approach been used for centuries to pull water from the atmosphere, such as using trees or nets to ‘catch’ fog in Peru, a practice that dates back to the 1500s and is still being used today.

Amid the flashy transparent televisions and electric vehicles at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, there were a few start-ups claiming to have new ways of exploiting this ancient, and often overlooked source of clean drinking water. And with the help of artificial intelligence, they’re finding ways of pulling even more water out of the air.”

From BBC.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.



Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce


Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats




Other comebacks



Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation


Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing


Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources



Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development


Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment



Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s


Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases



Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations



    Artificial intelligence



    Construction and manufacturing


    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles


    Other innovations


    AI in science


    Chemistry and materials






      Blog Post | Water Use

      Desalinating Water Is Becoming “Absurdly Cheap”

      Elon Musk schools Bill Maher.

      Bill Maher recently interviewed Elon Musk. When Maher claimed that we are running out of water, Musk replied that “Earth is 70 percent water.” Maher shot back that “you can’t drink that.” Musk calmly replied that desalination is “absurdly cheap.”

      How cheap is cheap? Energy Monitor notes that “globally, around 1% of the world’s drinking water is desalinated, but in Israel, that figure is around 25%.” Israel’s desalinated water comes from five desalination plants. The Sorek B plant has a capacity to desalinate 52.8 billion gallons a year and is contracted to produce water for $0.41 per cubic meter. There are around 264 gallons per cubic meter, so this puts the cost at about a penny per 6.4 gallons.

      One hundred percent of the municipal water supply in the United Arab Emirates is desalinated. Dubai bloomed out of the desert with desalination technology. There are some 186 desalination facilities under construction or at the pre-construction phase around the world.

      According to the website Filtration and Separation, in 2012, the cost to desalinate was $0.75 per cubic meter. In 2012, the average U.S. unskilled labor hourly wage was $10.97. In 2022, it had increased to $15.72. That puts the time price at about 4.14 minutes in 2012 and 1.56 minutes in 2022.

      Put differently, in 2022 we were getting 165 percent more gallons of clean water for the same time price as was the case in 2012. Water abundance from desalination is growing at a 10.22 percent compound annual rate, doubling in abundance every seven years. These gains happened while we added 860 million people to the planet. Population was growing at a 1.14 percent annual rate, while desalination grew almost nine times faster.

      We’re replacing salt with knowledge and turning a liability into an asset. Humans are exceptionally clever at innovating. Never underestimate our ability to adapt and thrive as long as we are free to discover valuable knowledge and share it with others in open markets.

      This article was originally published at Gale Winds on 9/4/2023.