The Future of Freshwater

In the next several decades, the human story is going to be a water story, Sandra Postel told a packed house at the WSU Compton Union Building auditorium during the 2013 Lane Family Lecture. “But the narrative of that story is still being written,” she added. “It’s being revised every day by the choices we make about how we use and manage and value and think about freshwater.”

Sandra Postel at the Lane LectureDespite fears of flooding that imply excess, less than one percent of the Earth’s total supply of water can sustain life. Postel, a National Geographic Society freshwater fellow and director of the Global Water Policy Project, introduced the topic of water scarcity with a look at how much the critical resource is embedded in our daily lives. For example, it takes 700 gallons of water to make a cotton T-shirt, and 600 for a typical feedlot-produced hamburger.

“Everything we buy and use and eat takes water to make,” she said. Since the 1960s, groundwater depletion rates have nearly doubled, leading Postel to believe that water will be to the twenty-first century what oil was to the twentieth century. “So what do we do?” she asked the audience of nearly 500 in attendance and live-streaming.

Postel has been working on a few ideas. She explained how taking steps to slow the pace of climate change, population growth, and consumption can help provide enough freshwater to sustain both humans and ecosystems. As part of the “Change the Course” campaign with National Geographic, she helped develop a water footprint calculator people can use to measure consumption and contribute to conservation.

“We are all in this pond; we are all in this finite water supply together,” Postel reminded those at the lecture. “Figuring out solutions that can work for everyone and sharing those is hugely important.”

– by Rachel Webber

Postel’s presentation was part of the Lane Family Lecture in Environmental Science series made possible by a gift from Bill Lane and his wife, Jean. Their son, Robert Lane (’83, Social Sci.), also established a fellowship to support graduate students studying environmental science at WSU. According to Bill, the Lane family is a strong proponent of public service, and they hope that the annual lecture and fellowship encourage efforts to find solutions to some of the global problems that confront society. “WSU is extremely grateful for this ongoing support,” said Steve Bollens, director of the School of the Environment. “We thank the Lane family for their generosity.”

For more on the WSU School of the Environment, visit