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Future of water use becomes focus of 'Changing Planet' town hall at ASU

Panelists on stage at "Changing Planet" town hall at ASU
August 28, 2011

Water – its scarcity and adapting to its future – took center stage in the thirsty Southwest at Arizona State University, Aug. 25, for a town hall videotaped by NBC Learn. The fast-paced event will be broadcast in November on The Weather Channel and featured in the December issue of Discover magazine.

Panelists included former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, climatologist Heidi Cullen, Nevada water manager Pat Mulroy, and ASU sustainability scholar and senior research fellow Grady Gammage Jr.

The lively discussion touched on global and domestic water issues ranging from the Colorado River Compact to the effects of population growth, the role of the federal government to drought and starvation in Africa, and how agriculture and technology impact fresh water usage. The event, the third in a series held at major U.S. universities, was interspersed with news video clips and questions from the audience. It was moderated by NBC News chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson.

“The Earth’s supply of fresh water is stressed as our plant’s population approaches 7 billion this year,” Thompson said.

“We have to decide whether we’re going to keep growing. If we are, we’ll have to make sacrifices,” said Gammage, lead author of the report “Watering the Sun Corridor,” released Aug. 25 by the ASU Morrison Institute for Public Policy. Gammage also is a sustainability scholar, at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

“Do we need to modify and discourage population growth as a goal?” he asked.

Another question that surfaced was whether to make water more expensive?

“Yes,” said Richardson, who helped create the Western Climate Initiative and served as U.S. Secretary of Energy.

“We’ll grow as a nation, but let’s grow in a sustainable way,” he said.

In the United States, the top user of water no longer is agriculture. “It’s power,” noted Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

To address that, Richardson stressed the need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Audience member Colin Tetreault, who has a master’s degree in sustainability from ASU’s School of Sustainability, asked the panel about the role of industry and business in the new paradigm.

“Industry should be innovators,” said Richardson, adding that if someone can figure out how to bank water, that person should be given the Nobel Prize.

Mulroy said industry has a leadership role to play, not just innovation.

“And, technology will play a big role,” Mulroy said. For example, there are grasses being developed that use one-third less water to grow, she said.

At different spots in the discussion, the panelists stressed that water also has a strong political aspect. Thompson went so far to note that some believe wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.

They already are, in Africa, for example, said Richardson. “It’s an international issue about to explode,” he said.

Climatologist Cullen, author of “The Weather of the Future: heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changes Planet,” said flooding in the Midwestern United States “is the new norm.”

As we move forward in time, the influence of climate changes we’re seeing today will only make it worse, noted Cullen.

Mulroy called for creative thinking and thinking differently when designing solutions. “One man’s flood control project is another man’s water supply,” she said.

The panelists had a spirited discussion about moving water great distances, for example, from the Great Lakes region west across the plains.

“That’s political,” several noted. To further make their point they singled out the Colorado River Compact, a nearly 100-year-old agreement among seven states in the Southwest, which has been amended several times, but will likely not disappear.

“It’s evolving and will continue to evolve,” said Mulroy.

The town hall conversation took on a more reflective tone when Vernon Masayesva, a former tribal chairman of the Hopi Nation, spoke of the need to think differently about water.

“There is a misconception that we manage water. Water manages us,” Masayesva said. “We need to learn to live within limits,” he said, adding that humans have the ingenuity and intelligence to do so.

The Hopi are dry farmers, Masayesva explained, “no running water, no irrigation. But, guess what? I’m here. We survived. This is an important lesson that we all need to understand."

In response to Masayesva’s comment, Cullen concluded that “this is fundamentally a values discussion: How to live on this planet that keeps us all happy and healthy.”

That theme is central to the knowledge enterprise at Arizona State University, said President Michael Crow in welcoming remarks.

NBC’s Thompson expanded on his point. “At ASU, the faculty and students have identified sustainability as the ‘issue of our age,’” she said. “From architecture, to engineering, to the first degree-granting program in the country in sustainability, this campus is overflowing with innovative solutions to looming environmental problems.”

The town hall at ASU, titled “Adapting to Our Water Future,” was hosted by NBC Learn, the National Science Foundation and Discover magazine. ASU hosts included the School of Life Sciences, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the School of Sustainability, and the Global Institute of Sustainability.

The “Changing Planet” series was developed to encourage student learning and open a dialogue between the public and scientists, thought leaders, business people, educators and students around the issues and facts of climate science. Its goal is to promote the understanding of the implications of climate change, brainstorm solutions and provide avenues to get involved in climate research through citizen science projects on