As a nation, we have become disciples of data. We interview 60,000 families a month to determine the unemployment rate, we monitor how much energy we use every seven days, Amazon ranks sales of every book it sells every hour.
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.