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Meet the Minds: Newsha Ajami on Innovation in the Water Sector

California helped to reinvent the energy sector, and now the drought is providing a perfect opportunity to help the state break out of its old structure for managing and funding water, says Stanford University’s Newsha Ajami.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Stanford University;s campus in Palo Alto, Calif. AP/Paul Sakuma

For Newsha Ajami of Stanford University, California’s drought is not only a massive challenge, but also a huge opportunity. “I really hope that we as Californians use this drought as an opportunity and build on the current momentum to become a leader in moving the water sector into a new era,” she told Water Deeply recently.

Ajami is the director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford’s Water in the West program and NSF-ReNUWIt initiatives. She has focused much of her research efforts on the role of big data in building sustainable water resource management solutions, water policy, innovation and financing.

Water Deeply spoke with Ajami as part of Meet the Minds, our series canvassing experts working on California water issues.

Water Deeply: What are you working on that you want the world to know about?

Newsha Ajami: Our group is very excited about a new study evaluating how the media has been impacting water use in California during the current drought. Some of the results show that water issues that were politically important or part of the policy discussions in Sacramento, California, or nationally – for example the 2014 drought emergency declaration or 2015 mandatory water savings by Governor Jerry Brown – triggered extensive media coverage of the California drought, which in turn has led to wide behavioral changes at the customer level.

The study is a good example of the broader work we are doing on water informatics. We are overlaying water data with other related data such as climate, socioeconomic, demographic, political and others to better understand how different factors are affecting water use in various regions. This kind of knowledge can inform the decision-making process and help the water utilities rethink and reimagine future supply planning, and demand management options and move more towards a sustainable water resource management strategy.

Water Deeply: What surprised you in the past year about work in the water field?

Ajami: The drought has certainly altered the way we as a society think about water. Two things that have surprised me the most are the level of water conservation that different communities were able to achieve in the past year, and increased public awareness of the drought and California’s water challenges.

Water Deeply: Is there anyone, or anything, that particularly inspires you?

Ajami: The level of innovation in the water sector has been really inspiring to me. There are so many great ideas, but I personally love the ones that think outside the box and go beyond our conventional approach to water management and governance. There are so many lessons we can learn from other sectors such as the energy sector, which has gone through a crisis and has had the opportunity to reinvent itself during the past few decades.

I really try to find projects that utilize existing data and information to better understand the availability of our water resources and to change decision-making processes in the water sector. For example, the new groundwater initiative in Pajaro Valley that is using sensors to measure groundwater recharge is very interesting and useful, since it can be used to measure the performance of various groundwater recharge projects and green infrastructure, as well as implementation of innovative financing mechanisms.

Water Deeply: What’s the one most important thing California should be doing right now to create a more sustainable water future?

Ajami: California has an opportunity to embrace change in the way we value and govern our water resources. The water sector is still operating based on an old business model that doesn’t necessarily fit the current paradigm shift in the sector. We have to re-envision the current economic structure that guides the water business in our state from the way we price water, plan and invest in solutions and projects, recover the cost of service, and engage with customers. It could ultimately lead to more reliable and sustainable funding sources, which would not only focus on operation and maintenance of our current water system, but also enable us to invest in innovation, conservation and efficiency, and provide better and more consistent service to low-income and disadvantaged communities.

Secondly, California needs to do a better job gathering, standardizing and using data and improve its soft infrastructure – information technology, related data repository and sharing platforms. I believe the effective use of data and information is a foundation to change in the water sector.

Water Deeply: Looking to 10 years from now, what do you hope California will have accomplished on water issues?

Ajami: It would be great if California can repeat and replicate its success in overhauling and reinventing the energy sector in the water sector. The state can become a hub for new ideas and trigger change in the water sector, from innovative policy initiatives and financing mechanisms, to diversifying local water supplies and demand management solutions, to revisiting our water management and governance tools in order to reimagine the development of the next generation of physical and virtual infrastructure.

I really hope that we as Californians use this drought as an opportunity, and build on the current momentum to become a leader in moving the water sector into a new era, and change the way we value and manage this vital resource for decades to come.

More in the Meet the Minds Series:

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