Emergency Preparedness, Plumbing, Sustainability/Business Continuity

What Is Aridification, and How Can Facility Managers Help Address the Issue?

An elderly but long-time Californian remembers 1976 as a fun year. The economy was finally pulling out of a recession that started in 1973. The Watergate “nightmare,” as then-President Ford called it, was behind us. And Californians were having a lot of fun with—of all things—a drought that year.

They made up comical jingles to remind each other to save water, especially when using the bathroom. Because they were not supposed to water their lawns, Californians turned to cloak-and-dagger espionage to keep outdoor vegetation irrigated and healthy.

They would get up in the middle of the night, ensuring no one was watching them, and then turn on their waterspouts. Well, everyone was doing the same thing, so it turned into a joke.

But why was the drought of 1976 not taken more seriously?

Because most everyone in the state believed it would be over very soon, a year or two at the most, so have fun with it. And sure enough, in a year, it was history.

But something different is happening today: In California and in many western states, drought is anything but a joke. These areas of the country for the past two decades have been experiencing more droughts and longer droughts than ever before. What they are experiencing is aridification. The effects will have long-term implications for people, businesses, and facility managers, especially in this region.

This article intends to help readers better understand aridification and how we can address it. It is also to let us know we are fortunate. We live in a time when several water-related technologies have been introduced to help us grapple with severe water shortages. That’s not to say adjusting will be easy. It’s just to say that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Defining Aridification

The word aridification is not new. According to Merriam-Webster, it was coined in 1855. But few people have heard of the word because it has not been used that much—until now.

Merriam-Webster defines aridification as the “gradual change of a region from a wetter to a drier climate.”

The key word here is “gradual.” Aridification is a gradual process that evolves over many years. Additionally, it often is associated with progressively hotter weather.

Scientists believe the first example of aridification and its negative impact on the world began around 2,200 BCE and lasted for at least 100 years. In Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, and parts of Asia and China, it was severe.

So severe that aridification is believed to have caused the collapse of governments and civilizations in this part of the world and helped bring about the end of the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age was more than about the use of bronze metal. It was a time of high commerce. Many countries were experiencing healthy economic times, but aridification—and the lack of water for consumption and manufacturing— were instrumental in ending these.

We should also point out this was a natural occurrence. The climate did not change thousands of years ago due to greenhouse gas emissions. Today, aridification is primarily caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

A Quick Q&A About Aridification

Before discussing how this will impact the facility management industry and what we can do about it, let’s review a few questions people often have about aridification. Among the most commonly asked are the following:

How do we know aridification has set in?

Today, we have many ways to measure it by examining rainfall trends. But it is also based on the reduction of moisture in soil. In drier and hotter temperatures, moisture evaporates, leaving soil drier. Further, scientists use tree rings going back hundreds of years to measure weather patterns. Many tree rings and wider tree rings indicate lots of wet weather. Few, absent, or narrow tree rings correspond to dry weather.

Does aridification mean there is little or no rainfall?

There will be wet periods, but few and far between. California started its fall wet season last year with ample rain. But instead of lasting a few months, it was over in two.

What does 1924 have to do with aridification?

The last time California and the western half of the U.S. were as dry as they are today was in 1924. However, most experts believe this is the driest period in about 1,200 years.

Will aridification get worse?

While there may be some wet years, because the aridification we are experiencing today is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, the answer is yes. Things will get worse. We need to view aridification as a permanent change in our climate.

How to Adjust

There are many things facility managers can do to adjust to aridification. For instance, in the future, facility managers must consider water whenever making a purchasing decision. Typically, when purchasing water-using devices, we consider their cost, design, durability, etc.

We don’t always consider how much water they use because water has always been plentiful. That’s over now. Water consumption of any device, from cooling towers to urinals, must now be at the top of the list when making a purchasing decision.

Additionally, facility managers must now conduct water audits regularly. In the past, a water audit, if it was conducted at all, was performed every few years. Now a water audit in a large building should be conducted every two years. Water audits determine where water is being lost to leaks, where it is not needed, or where it is not being used efficiently. Consider it a journey. There is no end point because new ways to reduce consumption will invariably appear with each audit.

Something else, a point that might be a bit unsettling, is that managers must adjust to paying more for water. Still, in large sections of the country, water is viewed as a “right,” and as a right, we are not paying the actual cost of water. That has to end now for two fundamental reasons:

  1. Paying more for water is an impetus for finding ways to reduce consumption.
  2. It will also help water utility companies pay for infrastructure improvements and find ways to end waste.

But we will need to turn to state and federal government agencies to make the most significant advances in grappling with aridification. Each year, billions of gallons of water destined for commercial and residential facilities in the U.S. are lost due to leaks and poor water infrastructure. That is no longer sustainable.

Furthermore, we must take advantage of technologies such as desalination to help address our water needs. In the past, desalination has been prohibitively expensive. It requires vast amounts of energy and produces large quantities of waste, negatively impacting the environment.

However, advances have been made. Costs have come down, green energy sources power some desalination plants, and we are finding ways to reduce the environmental impact of these plants. But the benefits are there. Today, Israel, one of the world’s driest countries, produces 20% more water than it consumes.

Finally, we must start taking steps to address aridification now. This is not something that can be put off another year. Aridification is real, and it is going to be a major part of our lives in the 21st century.

Klaus Reichardt is CEO and founder of Waterless Co. Inc., based in Vista, Calif. Reichardt founded the company in 1991 with the goal of establishing a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water efficiency in mind. Reichardt is a frequent writer and presenter, discussing water conservation issues. He can be reached at klaus@waterless.com.