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Meet the Minds: Kelly Twomey Sanders on Water in a Changing Climate

In Water Deeply’s “Meet the Minds” series, we talk to Kelly Twomey Sanders of the University of Southern California about how climate change can disrupt our water and energy systems.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
In this image from February 2014 the bed of the Almaden Reservoir in San Jose, Calif., is cracked and dry. Climate change will have impacts on both water and energy in California in coming years.Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

California’s drought has helped the public see what many researchers have known for a long time: Water and energy are deeply intertwined. Kelly Twomey Sanders has been exploring this energy-water nexus in depth. She joined the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Southern California in 2014 after having completed her PhD at the University of Texas.

Sanders is working to identify the technical, market and regulatory interventions that can help reduce water-related disruptions to energy services in the context of a changing climate. “Climate change is altering the quantity, timing and quality of our water resources, and that can undermine the reliability and safety of our energy infrastructure,” Sanders told Water Deeply.

She recently spoke with Water Deeply about planning for water management in a world of climate change and why we should be committing to conservation.

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

Kelly Twomey Sanders: I am working to understand how trends such as climate change, technology transitions and emerging regulations will affect the water required for our energy infrastructure. Nearly all forms of energy require water for raw energy extraction, conversion or transport.

Power plants, in particular, often require large amounts of water for cooling, in the case of thermal-generation units, or for pushing turbines, in the case of hydroelectric power.

Climate change is altering the quantity, timing and quality of our water resources, and that can undermine the reliability and safety of our energy infrastructure.

I am working to analyze the interdependencies between energy and water resources and identify technical, market and regulatory interventions that can help reduce water-related disruptions to energy services in the context of a changing climate.

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

Sanders: An unfortunate surprise was how quickly we dropped mandatory water conservation targets. The current drought offers a huge opportunity to build sustainable water management strategies. If we can’t remain committed to working toward that sustainable water future now, while water is on the mind of California residents, it is hard to believe that we will do it in the future without a crisis forcing us into action.

Water Deeply: Who/what do you find most inspiring in your field?

Sanders: I am really inspired by the scientists and engineers who go beyond their day-to-day job functions to educate the public and engage with policymakers about the current and future water challenges we face across the state. It will take collaboration, education and political will to execute a sustainable water management plan for the future and luckily there are a lot of smart individuals engaging in the conversation.

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

Sanders: Although California has functioned for decades on engineered systems that transport water from where it originates to where it is demanded, trends such as reduced snowpack, prolonged drought and aging infrastructure are challenging the viability of that system moving forward. The state should invest in infrastructure and policies that support the efficient and beneficial use of alternative sources of water, such as recycled water and stormwater, so that we can do more with local sources, as well as reduce the need and environmental impacts of energy-intensive transfer projects and desalination in the future.

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

Sanders: I hope that California will execute an effective framework to protect the quality and quantity of its groundwater resources, especially during drought years.

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