What Brings Americans Together? The Energy-Water Nexus. (Really!)

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With so many contentious issues debated this election year, few would have seen the water-energy nexus as a bridge across the cavernous partisan divide. But there it is in a poll recently conducted by the Civil Society Institute (CSI): At a time of drought persisting across nearly two-thirds of the country, Americans overwhelmingly agree that the nation must transition to a new energy future that protects our water supply.

Concern for drinking water might as well be hard-wired into our DNA – if freshwater becomes scarce it’s no secret that things can get dicey real fast.  This year, much of the US has gotten a preview of how it feels to be concerned about drinking water supplies, with the CSI poll reporting that 40 percent of Americans have “personally experienced the impact of drought in the last year,” and more than 80 percent are concerned about increased drought.

It’s no wonder then that when you combine this newly-acquired drought experience with a better understanding of how water-dependent our energy system is, the public picks up on the energy-water collision quickly.  In fact, even more than higher gasoline prices or higher utility bills, the poll revealed that Americans are concerned about shortages of safe drinking water due to drought and diversion of water for energy production.

The solution is straightforward: Instead of relying upon water-dependent sources of energy like fossil fuels and nuclear, we should move to nearly water-free forms like solar photovoltaics and wind. And, guess what, Americans overwhelmingly agree! The poll found that 75 percent of respondents believe the country should shift to energy sources that require less water, like solar and wind.

It gets even better. Prompted with the unfortunately accurate fact that the US federal government doesn’t have a comprehensive understanding of our national water resources, 90 percent of respondents felt that, yes, it would be a good idea to plan for energy production with full knowledge of how much water is available. Consider it an energy-water “road map” – a Congressional idea that’s been kicked to the curb for the past seven years.

Even when the decidedly wonky “precautionary principle” (there must be evidence that a technology is safe before it can be used) was brought up in the poll, 70 percent of respondents agreed that precaution should be used to guide water and energy policy.

The endlessly-hyped US partisan divide sure fades away when lobbyists aren’t butting into the conversation, doesn’t it?  And since the energy-water nexus is about the last thing you're likely to hear about in this election cycle, the CSI poll illustrates that it’s a classic case of Washington, D.C. being out of touch with the concerns of voters.

So if suggesting that we upgrade the nation’s energy system to reduce carbon emissions leads to partisan sniping, but investing in renewable energy to protect our water brings public agreement, it’s a no-brainer about where the focus of the energy discussion must shift.