The Science-Policy Interface

Authors: Policy Horizons Canada
Document Type: Archives
Published Date: Saturday, March 1, 2008 - 5:00am
ISBN number: PH4-43/2008E-PDF , ISBN 978-0-662-48074-7
Alternative Format: 2008-0030-eng.pdf


In Canada, policy research and the science-policy interface occur inside government, at universities, or to a lesser extent, in think-tanks and lobby groups. In the US, think-tanks play a much larger role in both research and influencing the public policy agenda, although government and universities are also important contributors.

While linkages already exist between Canadian and US governments, Canadian and US academics, and Canadian and US think-tanks, the links between Canadian universities and US think-tanks are – at best – weak. Thus, there is potential gain to be had in improving those links. For example, links could be fostered between individual researchers, between institutions, or along topical lines. Among these possibilities, a topical approach to strengthening these ties is likely to be the most useful for developing strong, long-lasting linkages. 

Several themes have been suggested for piloting an initiative to strengthen such links. One such theme is freshwater. Several aspects of freshwater give rise to policy issues, many of which are common to both Canada and the US.  

On June 15, 2007, the Government of Canada’s Policy Research Initiative (PRI) organized a planning meeting to identify freshwater topics that could be pursued. The participants decided to examine areas of collaboration on “Water and Climate Change” and “The Energy-Water Nexus,” and how different systems of governance, different needs, and different political drivers have influenced current science and policies in Canada and the US. 

On October 2, 2007, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a meeting in Washington, D.C., to explore possible areas and means of improving CanadaUS policy research links in freshwater policy in the context of “Water and Climate Change” and the “Energy-Water Nexus” (see Appendix 1 for the meeting agenda). 

The roundtable meeting was organized by the PRI and chaired by Dr. Howard Alper and Dr. Heather Munroe-Blum. An equal number of Canadian and American experts in freshwater science and policy participated, observed by senior Government of Canada officials from Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (see Appendix 2 for a full participant list). 

The content of this paper reflects the presentations and discussions that occurred on October 2, beginning with a review of “Water and Climate Change,” followed by “The Energy-Water Nexus.” The paper also includes a synthesis of the policy “pushes” and science “needs” identified by the participants, and closes with a short discussion of conclusions and next steps. A link to background materials is provided at the end of the 6 text. This material, which was prepared by participants, will provide additional information on many of the subjects discussed in the document. 

The Energy-Water Nexus


The use of energy and water are closely related. Energy is required to treat, pump and distribute water, and water is used in the energy sector for cooling, extraction and other processes specific to the energy source. Although there are many interdependencies in these resources, we will discuss the two sectors separately. 

The Use of Energy in the Water Sector

The water sector requires significant amounts of energy. As the demand for water grows in urban areas, more energy is needed to transport and treat the water, particularly if new water sources are required. When dense urban areas exceed the capacity of existing water supplies, planners are often forced to rely on additional water sources that are far away and of poorer quality. Energy is needed to pump this water from greater distances or from deeper aquifers, and to treat the water to the desired quality. Coastal communities also have the option of desalinizing water to meet the demand, but this alternative is both energy-intensive and costly.

With warmer temperatures, severe precipitation events are expected to occur more frequently, requiring additional pumping to manage the excess water. Increasing energy prices and the growing demand for energy will lead to tradeoffs whereby expensive repairs and upgrades to the water infrastructure will often be sacrificed to cover energy costs, leaving the system more vulnerable to failure. Energy-management solutions for water utilities are therefore being explored. For example, pumping water at off hours (as opposed to peak hours) could reduce energy costs in some areas, and moving towards decentralized systems will mitigate energy costs by containing failures related to excess water. 

Over the years, irrigation costs have risen steadily in line with rising energy prices. In response, the agricultural sector has found innovative ways to cope. For example, solar energy can be used to power water pumps and pivots, and technologies and practices that increase water efficiency, such as low-pressure applicators and drip irrigation, are also energy efficient. To date, technology has the potential to yield approximately 20 percent efficiency gains in irrigation. Another option that has yet to be fully explored is rain-fed agriculture. Assessing the rain-fed potential of different crops is an area of research that should be pursued in the context of rising irrigation costs. 

The close link between energy and water resources could have serious consequences in the event of long-term and widespread power failures or other threats to traditional power supplies. To ensure that our crucial water supplies are not compromised by such events, redundancy and resiliency are needed from a water-security perspective to sustain a minimum supply of water. Establishing agreements with neighbouring jurisdictions to acquire energy and water during emergency situations may prove to be a sound approach, given that decisions will often need to be made very quickly. Although renewable energy sources may have the potential to treat and distribute water in emergency scenarios, there is still some uncertainty as to the reliability of such sources. As discussed, the agricultural sector has successfully used technology for solar powered pivots for irrigation. Conversely, the use of wind power for desalinization has been explored but it is unclear if enough energy will be generated. More research is needed in 10 this area, particularly in regards to the potential of renewable energy in municipal supplies.

Reducing the amount of water we use will in turn reduce energy use and thus maximize efficiency, thereby facilitating management of energy costs in the water sector. Attaching a monetary value to the amount of water used will certainly help manage energy costs and could encourage conservation. 

However, the majority of municipalities in North America are not recuperating the basic operation and maintenance costs of water infrastructure through economic pricing, let alone charging for the water itself. In fact, the US has the lowest rates for water in the OECD. Expensive technologies such as desalinization, which are being adopted or seriously considered in many coastal communities, may be further distorting the rational pricing of water. Without a cost-benefit analysis on the economics of desalinization, a realistic application of market price signals for water use may be difficult to envision. Many researchers and policy-makers feel that pricing will lead to sustainability not only for domestic and urban uses but for industrial uses as well. 

The issue of subsidies in the agricultural sectors is particularly contentious. Those in support of removing subsidies and pricing the use of water believe that markets will run efficiently without policy interference: they cite examples from New Zealand. Those opposed to the removal of subsidies fear that full pricing of water and in turn energy will increase the cost of food. 

Another strategy for managing water use and energy costs is to take a place-based approach. Many experts agree that managing at the watershed level is desirable. In general, our activities are limited by the supply and quality of water within a given watershed and thus any attempts to manage the resource should occur at that scale. Protecting land within a watershed can have positive effects on water supply and quality. For example, increasing forested land cover by 10 percent can reduce treatment costs by up to 20 percent, which saves energy. Protecting land is an effective tool for source water protection and can have many benefits for the communities within a watershed. In the US, purchases of land trusts by private donors doubled from 2000 to 2005. Perhaps a similar opportunity exists for developing a ‘water trust’ program. 

Place-based management approaches are typically more attractive to many stakeholders because local citizens and industries have a vested interest in the area surrounding them – it is therefore easier to engage people at this level. Such approaches require distributive governance and resources with multiple stakeholder engagement – the foundation for which is being set in many Canadian provinces. Such watershed-based governance systems can be tasked with developing long-term watershed plans in co-operation with local stakeholder groups that recommend how water resources are to be protected and improved as land uses change. 

In terms of defining the scale at which to manage, there is no right size to work with: it is often best to take a nested approach, where the different needs of the watershed are determined and then the appropriate jurisdictions are identified to address the needs. Flexibility and adaptability are required with respect to governance, since each watershed will have unique issues that may require the involvement of different players. 11 The many approaches that have already been used in North America present a tremendous opportunity to share best practices and demonstrate sustainability. 

Water Use in the Energy Sector

The energy sector is an intense user and consumer2 of water. For example, thermal power generation is the largest user of water in Canada and one of the two largest in the United States. Beyond the generation of electricity, large amounts of water are needed for hydro power; oil and gas extraction and production; refining and processing various energy sources; and transportation. This heavy use of water could affect both water quantity and quality, especially in areas of intensive use.  

Water efficiency has improved in the energy sector by more than 66 percent over the past 50 years, but with energy use increasing seven-fold over this period, water use in the sector is increasing. Furthermore, the areas of highest growth and highest energy demands often have the least amount of water, and as water shortages increase, supply issues will become critical. In the US, 36 states are predicting water shortages in the next decade, suggesting that solutions need to be found now. 

Water-efficient technology and innovation will continue to be essential in the energy sector. Many opportunities for improvements with technology and alternative water sources are being explored. For example, air cooling can be used as an alternative to water cooling in thermal power generation, although its benefits are limited to cooler climates – this method is not efficient in warmer climates, where water shortages are most severe. Investing in technology will not only benefit the environment, but the bottom line – which is an important driver for industry. In some cases, a relatively small investment in existing technologies could lead to considerable savings.

One industry that is in urgent need of innovation is the oil sands. In Canada, water use discussions in the energy sector are largely focused on oil production in Alberta, which is second only to Saudi Arabia in oil reserves. Oil-sand production reached one million barrels a day in 2005, and is expected to double by 2015. 

Extracting bitumen from the oil sands is very water-intensive. On average, 2 to 2.5 barrels of water are needed to produce 1 barrel of oil, and most of the water that is withdrawn to extract the oil is too toxic to be returned. Only 10 percent of the water that is removed from the Athabasca River is returned. Such large withdrawals are decreasing the flow of the Athabasca River and many of the tributaries that feed the Mackenzie River. The changing climate is also contributing to decreasing these rivers’ flow. This reduced flow is particularly problematic in winter, when there is not enough water available for oil production if the province’s in-stream flow guidelines are to be met. Water will be the limiting factor for this industry unless more efficiencies are found and implemented. This will be a huge innovation challenge and opportunity for Canada. 

Another rapidly growing energy sector that is gaining a lot of attention is biofuels. The use of ethanol is gaining political favour because it is perceived to be an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. However, there are still a number of environmental concerns associated with this industry, including the negative impacts it will have on aquatic ecosystems. For example, the majority of corn production in the US occurs in existing agricultural areas that have some of the highest nutrient and pesticide levels in the country. As corn production increases, water quality problems will only worsen, both locally and downstream. Furthermore, marginal agricultural land may be brought into production to accommodate the growing demand for corn. To achieve adequate yields from these areas, above average amounts of water, fertilizer and pesticides may be required, thereby putting additional stress on ecosystems.3  

In addition, new ethanol plants are proposed in areas that have declining aquifers, thus causing additional strain in water-stressed environments. With corn production expected to grow to 93 million acres in the next few years, there is a potential for serious water quality impacts and water shortages. The gains that are linked with biofuel renewable technologies may not be enough in terms of minimizing the environmental effects associated with our energy use. In the short to medium term, it may be more beneficial to invest in reducing the impacts of non-renewable energy supplies, rather than rushing into renewable technologies for which the true environmental gains and costs are not completely recognized. 

Another area of research that is relevant to the energy-water nexus is the impact of carbon reduction strategies on water. Because of the strong interdependence of water and energy resources, it is thought that carbon reduction strategies, such as a cap and trade system, may lead to more efficient water use. Carbon sequestration, whereby carbon dioxide is pumped into deep aquifers, has unknown implications for water. If this practice is to increase, we must determine the potential impacts for drinking water and groundwater dynamics in general. 

Water and Climate Change 

There is a general consensus that the earth’s temperature is rising due to increased levels of greenhouse gases. Impacts resulting from a changing climate will have important consequences for water, including: 

  • A change in the seasonality of flow, marked by higher flows in the winter, particularly in areas where water is stored as ice and snow; 
  • Increased evapo-transpiration resulting from higher temperatures, which may be responsible for lower total annual flows; and 
  • More-frequent, high-intensity precipitation events that can change drainage patterns and produce flash floods that could have safety implications, not only in terms of physical hazards, but also for water quality.1

Climate-related impacts on the hydrologic cycle can have serious implications for water availability, because they can often pose serious storage challenges. There are four types of water storage – reservoirs, groundwater, soil moisture, and snow and ice. Increased temperatures will cause premature melting of snow and ice, and will increase evapotranspiration that will remove moisture from the soil, reduce surface-water levels, and have implications for groundwater recharge. The latter will also be limited by the high, fast-flowing runoff that is associated with extreme rainfall. Changes in the timing of flows will also present storage-related challenges. For example, short supplies in the summer will coincide with periods of high usage. Managing our stores will thus be a critical issue in the face of climate change in order to ensure a sufficient supply of water. Planners will need robust tools and innovative strategies to cope. 

Although our current scientific understanding can provide us with a fundamental sense of the types of impacts we can expect, there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty associated with climate change. It is critical that we incorporate this uncertainty into our modelling tools and our decision-making processes. 

Current modelling relies heavily on the historical record to inform outputs. This approach is no longer appropriate. Not only is climate change introducing the potential for large surprises, there is also a need to consider naturally occurring events that the scientific community is only recently beginning to understand and appreciate, such as the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO). All of these phenomena are associated with potentially significant departures from normal conditions and need to be regarded jointly, not in isolation. A new paradigm in modelling is therefore required – one that shifts away from stationary models and acknowledges both the potential for deep uncertainty and the links between climate and the hydrologic cycle. 

New approaches are needed in other domains as well. Existing legal frameworks in Canada and the US treat surface water and groundwater separately, which limits our ability to plan for the resource. From a scientific perspective, however, our understanding of the connections between surface and groundwater is increasing, providing a good opportunity to create science-based policy. By considering surface and groundwater jointly, we can make more-informed decisions regarding supply and storage and we can also develop conjunctive-use strategies. For example, some areas (such as dry climates) are more suited to using groundwater supplies, whereas others would benefit more from using surface water. With storage becoming an increasingly important issue in the face of climate change, it is important to understand all of the options, including whether groundwater recovery is feasible. Such decisions are difficult to make without having a complete picture of the resource. 

Management challenges in this regard are perhaps greater in Canada, where different agencies are often responsible for surface and groundwater. Furthermore, Canada has a more limited data capacity than the US, due to reductions in the scale of water measurement programs, particularly with respect to groundwater. Although the legal framework poses a management challenge, the combination of dispersed management and sparse information can also make it very difficult to plan. 

Another important consideration in water-use planning that will be relevant in adapting to climate change is how much water will be required to meet in-stream flow needs. Scientific research is needed both in terms of defining what in-stream flow needs are, and establishing a methodology for qualifying the amount of water that is required to meet such needs on a case-by-case basis. There is a consensus that such information is essential for establishing a baseline for allocation – a baseline that will not compromise the ecological integrity of a given freshwater system. In the US, there is a policy push to advance scientific work in this area in response to the Endangered Species Act. A parallel need to establishing in-stream flow requirements is the need to determine the non-market economic benefits of a healthy ecosystem.

We must also make changes to our planning approaches. In general, sewage and water infrastructure in North America is old and in worsening condition. Maintenance and updating costs are growing. When planning for the future, current design assumptions need to be revised. Given the 75-100 year lifespan of new systems, it is critical that our systems be designed to withstand a wide range of scenarios beyond those that are traditionally planned for (such as a 25 or 100 year flood). The large-scale surprises that could be experienced in a changing climate, such as frequent and intense precipitation events, can exceed the capacity of urban infrastructure, exposing limitations in terms of treatment capacity and structural integrity. Furthermore, a shift from centralized facilities towards a decentralized system of smaller facilities may be a more feasible option in the future for containing any failures that do occur. 

Site-specific planning will also be important, tailoring systems to local conditions. To achieve this new planning paradigm, revisions will need to occur at the academic level. For example, engineering associations could consider integrating “green” technology education into their accreditation processes. More generally, we need to take a multidisciplinary approach when educating engineers, scientists and planners to gain an appreciation and understanding for the many factors that are involved in designing robust systems. 

From a policy perspective, there is a sense that “no-regret” strategies can be employed in moving forwards. The desired policy directions need to be promptly identified, based on our current knowledge but allowing for adjustments and changes as our scientific understanding of climate change and its impacts increases. A number of short-term and long-term strategies relating to water efficiency are being pursued and could be further developed without compromising deliberation on the broader policy. For example, demand management encompasses a number of tools and strategies that can reduce the amount of water we use, and will be a critical element of climate-change adaptation. 

An important element of demand-management is the use of efficient technologies. Waterefficient technologies can have a large impact, both at the household level and for largerscale users. The agricultural sector, for example, is a major user of water, although the sector uses 30 percent less water than it did only 25 years ago, due to innovative technologies. Improved irrigation-conveyance technologies, and instruments that monitor soil moisture, are among the technologies that allow for the increased re-use and recycling of water with respect to irrigation, and increased efficiencies in the sector as a whole. Although we have made many advances in efficient use of irrigation water, we need more innovation to identify and prevent significant losses of treated water throughout distribution networks in the urban environment. It should be noted, however, that efficiency improvements in water infrastructure have finite gains: with continued population growth and development, additional policy and planning solutions are needed to cope with limited water supplies.  

Using economic instruments to influence industrial and societal behaviour is another option for managing the demand on water. Economic price signals place a monetary value on water, which may affect how people use the resource. With respect to agriculture, market-based water prices are critical to rationalizing the choice of crop; however, economic decision-making in this regard is distorted by current irrigation practices and agricultural subsidies. In the urban setting, we need further research to determine at what price households are willing to make changes – affordability of water is seldom an issue in many North American homes. Behavioural change could be encouraged without financial incentives by using effective communication strategies and programs. History shows that societies can adapt if needed. 

“Soft path methodology” is an example of a long-term approach to reducing our demands on water. Such approaches involve large-scale changes to water infrastructure and governance, while being mindful of ecological limits and the importance of public involvement. Soft-path approaches incorporate a number of tools and strategies to promote the sustainable use of water. Research in water soft paths has illustrated that it is easy to achieve 50 percent savings at the local, watershed and provincial levels. However, we need more data to understand the full potential of the soft-path process. 

To cope with a changing climate, both Americans and Canadians need to rethink how we integrate our scientific understanding of water resources into the decision-making process and our governance structures. We also need to maximize the robustness of our decision-making tools and planning approaches in the face of deep uncertainty. No-regret strategies that are founded on demand management will need to be pursued, and adaptive management principles will need to be adopted, to facilitate the efficient integration of new science into policy. 

Further Reading 

PRI Documents

The PRI has a number of water-related publications (listed below) that touch on some of the themes discussed in this paper. 


Does Pricing Water Reduce Agricultural Demand? An Example from British Columbia

Briefing Note February 2007


Wet Industry: An Opportunity for Strategic Municipal Water Demand Management

Briefing Note June 2005


Integrated Landscape Management Modelling

Workshop Report June 2005 


Towards a National Capacity for Integrated Landscape Management Modelling

Briefing Note May 2005


Market-Based Instruments for Water Demand Management I: The Use of Pricing and Taxes

Briefing Note February 2005 


Market-Based Instruments for Water Demand Management II: Water Markets

Briefing Note February 2005


Economic Instruments for Water Demand Management in an Integrated Water Resources Management Framework

Synthesis Report February 2005


Integrated Landscape Management Models for Sustainable Development Policy Making

Briefing Note January 2005


Integrated Water Resource Management

Briefing Note June 2004