You’re Drinking What? The California Water Crisis from a Nexus Perspective

Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, once said, “Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” The nasa-photocitizenry of California are acutely aware of this observation. Articles such as a recent one given on AgWeb ( draw further attention to the growing crisis. This begs the question of “what caused the crisis?” as well as “where can we find more water?” The answer to both questions is not obvious to most and perhaps surprising to others. A better way to view the genesis and exacerbation of the California water calamity is to analyze this problem using nexus thinking.

The Super Nexus
So what is a nexus? A nexus is a connection or series of connections linking two or more things. In “Other Inconvenient diagramTruths Beyond Global Warming” (Rozich, 2015), the Super Nexus is a three-way confluence of the need for environmental and economic sustainability, depletion of resources with increased resource costs and availability, and economic expansion.The McKinsey Group (2011) brought attention to the impending resource crisis noting that resources are increasingly interlinked and it is that interlinkage which creates a nexus. Increased human populations and an increased in standard of living exacerbate resource requirements, resource interlinkages, and related issues of the Super Nexus. With a resource nexus, the costs or availability of one resource impacts the costs or availability of the other resources in a resource nexus. If for example, the cost of energy goes up by 10%, the cost of water may rise by 20% because energy is needed for water production and water is often needed for energy production. The incremental effect of a nexus on resource costs is not linear, but multiplicative.

The incremental effect of a nexus on the supply requirements of a resource is also multiplicative. For example, if one needs more energy to increase the standard of living, more water is often required to make the additional energy. Since more water is needed to make the energy, greater supplies of raw water are then needed.

The Agricultural, Water, and Energy Nexus
In addition to the overall Super Nexus, there is the Agricultural, Water, and Energy Nexus. Agricultural production demands water and energy. Similarly, water demands energy for extraction, treatment, and distribution and energy demands water for extraction, processing, and distribution. These three resources all have a variety of “entrained” resource demands by virtue of the fact that they use commercial products that in and of themselves have requirements for energy and water. For example, agriculture requires fertilizer which requires energy and water in the manufacturing process.

The current relationships between the three resource systems is deepened with increased environmental pressures, climatic changes, as well as the dual impact of growing economies and populations. Hoff (2011) noted that “A new nexus oriented approach is needed to address current levels of insecurity in access to basic services; one “that better understands the inter-linkages and inter-dependencies across water, energy and food sectors as well as the influence of trade, investment and climate policies.” Hoff (2011) in Global Risk 2011 report presented by the World Economic Forum and sponsored by the Swedish Environment Institute, also indicates that the agriculture (food) water energy nexus is a global risk that is a fundamental threat to societal functionality. There are likely to be unexpected consequences as politicos seek to address one part of the nexus and inadvertently compromise another part. The California Water Crisis could actually be worsened if a nexus approach is not used to determine a solution. Because of the substantive interlinkage of resources, it is paramount in solution formulation to use a nexus focus. A nexus approach necessitates the use of a holistic framework that explicitly defines the links between resources and understands the effect one has on another.

You Are Drinking What?
Recycling spent water is likely to be the only long term solution for the California crisis (Kix, 2012). Water and other resources are somewhat different than energy. Once water resources are exhausted, the alternative options for new sources are reduced dramatically. Recycling is the only alternative for inserting water resources back into the economy or into the ecosystem. Some may think that the oceans or large bodies of fresh water may represent viable alternatives. This thinking is flawed on a couple of levels. First, other “new” sources of raw water may have onerous energy requirements for processing, entrained energy needs for transportation, or both. Second, unbridled consumption of oceanic or large freshwater sources may wreak havoc on ecosystems that depend on water. Ecosystem damage could spill over and impact societal functionality. In order to avoid damage to ecosystems due to inordinate water withdrawal, society must be mindful of what has been termed, “peak ecological water” (Gleick and Palaniappan, 2010). Peak ecological water is operationally defined as the amount of water in naturally occurring systems that must be preserved to avoid causing irreparable damage to existing ecosystems. It represents a boundary that cannot be breached without inflicting

unacceptable damage to aquatic ecosystems. In summary, water recycling is a reality that society needs to embrace if it is to avoid more situations such as that which is currently occurring in California.

A Final Note Submitted for Your Consideration
poolThe population of California is projected to increase by 14 million people by 2060 ( The impact of this population increase on water resource requirements for domestic use is likely to be staggering if current practices prevail. The associated increase in water resources needed to supply the additional population can be calculated using a domestic water footprint of 100 gallons/capita/day. This analysis shows the need for an additional 1.4 billion gallons per day of water resources and does not include the supply requirements for industrial operations and other non-domestic activities. A point of reference is that this amount of water is contained in about 2,100 Olympic-sized swimming pools. California’s choice is simple. Either find an additional 1.4 billion of water resources per day or recycle used water in a prudent manner that complies with a nexus-friendly strategy.

1) Rozich, A. F., Other Inconvenient Truths Beyond Global Warming, Super Nexus Press, West Chester, PA, 2015.

2) McKinsey Global Institute, Resource Revolution: Meeting the World’s Energy, Food, and Water Needs, McKinsey and Company, San Francisco, November, 2011.
3) Hoff, H., “Understanding the Nexus”, Stockholm Environment Institute, Presented, Bonn2011 Conference The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus, November, 2011.
4) Kix, P, “You Are Drinking What?”, Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2012.
5) Gleick, P. and Palaniappan, M., “Peak water limits to freshwater withdrawal and use”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, (25): 11155–11162, 2010.

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