Podcast: Mary Ann Dickinson, President & CEO of Alliance for Water Efficiency
Mary Ann Dickinson is the President and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency. And at a time when freshwater resources in America and the world at large are being pushed to the brink, her orders are tall ones.
She’s got years on me in the water realm, having spent the last 40 writing papers, producing films, and managing herculean water conservation efforts in places that desperately need it.
Prior to joining the Alliance in July of 2007, Dickinson was Executive Director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council, a non-profit organization composed of urban water supply agencies, environmental groups, and other entities managing statewide water conservation in California and implementing the nation’s first set of Best Management Practices.
Read a piece of our conversation below, and listen to the full version above on your next drive home from work, run, or lazy Sunday afternoon.
What are you doing in Jamaica right now?
I’m here working on a project where we’re recovering massive amounts of leaked water in the city of Kingston. The city of Kingston loses 65 percent of the water they produce. Last year, during their drought, they had to ration water to their customers because they didn’t have enough for 24-hour delivery, yet they were leaking all of this water under the street. So this is a big project funded by the Inter-American Development Bank to help Jamaica recover that leakage and be more efficient in their water use. My organization, the Alliance for Water Efficiency, is hired to help train and provide some skills transfer to the Jamaican staff, so that the new methods, new materials, new strategies that have been developed internationally are now being brought to Jamaica.
How did you begin working with utilities, and how did that shape how you look at the world and see how water is managed today?
In the mid-80s, I left state government — where I was working at the Department of Environmental Protection in Connecticut for 18 years — and went to work for one of the water utilities in south central Connecticut.
I had thought that it was going to be like government, and that’s when I learned that water was a very complicated issue. It was one that needed lots and lots of people paying attention to it. I learned real, profound respect for the public servants that deliver our drinking water supplies in the United States. We have the safest and the most affordable drinking water in the world, and no one who provides that service gets proper respect or credit — and largely not the funding they need to do the job well. That was my first exposure to water utilities. Then I flew out to California and started working for a very large wholesale water utility in Los Angeles. Same set of issues. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on the East Coast or the West Coast: Water concerns and water strategy are all the same in the terms of the barriers, the lack of public awareness, and support for what needs to happen.
How do we use things like data to neutralize the discussion about water management in a way that points us towards solutions as opposed to just conflict?
I’m a big fan of open data, and right now, water is not an open data resource. We don’t even have the background flow data that we need. We don’t have groundwater pumping data that we need. We’re starting to develop other strategies like satellite imagery because we’ve not been able to get reports from all of the many water providers who could be providing a lot more information. We don’t have that transparency in water.
Drawing on your experience in California, it’s pretty clear that they are in a pivotal place when it comes to water right now. What are the opportunities or pitfalls that California has in front of it right now?
One of the disappointments I have had in watching this most recent drought occur in California is that they had an opportunity with the Prop 1 Legislation — a $7.5 billion water bond that they passed in the beginning parts of the drought in 2014. That bond was all about building more storage, building additional infrastructure, maybe doing some better planning, but less than 1 percent of the funding was actually going to fund conservation and efficiency. One of the things we have all learned in conservation over the years is you get what you pay for. If you want permanent, reliable longevity in those savings, you have to pay for them.
What do you think is going to happen in the next 40 years in the world of water?
The next generation is going to have to pull this out. We are still stuck in a lot of the traditional ways of doing things that are not giving us the solutions both in water and other natural resource protection that we need.
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