Then there is water.
Water may be the most important item in our lives, our economy and our landscape about which we know the least. We not only don’t tabulate our water use every hour or every day, we don’t do it every month, or even every year.
The official analysis of water use in the United States is done every five years. It takes a tiny team of people four years to collect, tabulate and release the data. In November 2014, the United States Geological Survey issued its most current comprehensive analysis of United States water use — for the year 2010.
The 2010 report runs 64 pages of small type, reporting water use in each state by quality and quantity, by source, and by whether it’s used on farms, in factories or in homes.
It doesn’t take four years to get five years of data. All we get every five years is one year of data.
The data system is ridiculously primitive. It was an embarrassment even two decades ago. The vast gaps — we start out missing 80 percent of the picture — mean that from one side of the continent to the other, we’re making decisions blindly.
In just the past 27 months, there have been a string of high-profile water crises — poisoned water in Flint, Mich.; polluted water in Toledo, Ohio, and Charleston, W. Va.; the continued drying of the Colorado River basin — that have undermined confidence in our ability to manage water.
In the time it took to compile the 2010 report, Texas endured a four-year drought. California settled into what has become a five-year drought. The most authoritative water-use data from across the West couldn’t be less helpful: It’s from the year before the droughts began.
In the last year of the Obama presidency, the administration has decided to grab hold of this country’s water problems, water policy and water innovation. Next Tuesday, the White House is hosting a Water Summit, where it promises to unveil new ideas to galvanize the sleepy world of water.
The question White House officials are asking is simple: What could the federal government do that wouldn’t cost much but that would change how we think about water?
The best and simplest answer: Fix water data.
More than any other single step, modernizing water data would unleash an era of water innovation unlike anything in a century.
We have a brilliant model for what water data could be: the Energy Information Administration, which has every imaginable data point about energy use — solar, wind, biodiesel, the state of the heating oil market during the winter we’re living through right now — all available, free, to anyone. It’s not just authoritative, it’s indispensable. Congress created the agency in the wake of the 1970s energy crisis, when it became clear we didn’t have the information about energy use necessary to make good public policy.
That’s exactly the state of water — we’ve got crises percolating all over, but lack the data necessary to make smart policy decisions.
Congress and President Obama should pass updated legislation creating inside the United States Geological Survey a vigorous water data agency with the explicit charge to gather and quickly release water data of every kind — what utilities provide, what fracking companies and strawberry growers use, what comes from rivers and reservoirs, the state of aquifers.
Good information does three things.
First, it creates the demand for more good information. Once you know what you can know, you want to know more.
Second, good data changes behavior. The real-time miles-per-gallon gauges in our cars are a great example. Who doesn’t want to edge the M.P.G. number a little higher? Any company, community or family that starts measuring how much water it uses immediately sees ways to use less.
Finally, data ignites innovation. Who imagined that when most everyone started carrying a smartphone, we’d have instant, nationwide traffic data? The phones make the traffic data possible, and they also deliver it to us.
The truth is, we don’t have any idea what detailed water use data for the United States will reveal. But we can be certain it will create an era of water transformation. If we had monthly data on three big water users — power plants, farmers and water utilities — we’d instantly see which communities use water well, and which ones don’t.
We’d see whether tomato farmers in California or Florida do a better job. We’d have the information to make smart decisions about conservation, about innovation and about investing in new kinds of water systems.
Water’s biggest problem, in this country and around the world, is its invisibility. You don’t tackle problems that are out of sight. We need a new relationship with water, and that has to start with understanding it.