Managing Water With Digital Technologies
Kasantha Moodley - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
Kasantha Moodley

Every sector is in the midst of a digital transformation. Artificial intelligence supports mobility on demand, offering the quickest and most efficient transportation options and routes. Blockchain is enabling decentralized energy-generation schemes that allow communities to create power and buy and sell energy among their neighbors.

Wireless sensor networks are used to detect natural disasters and industrial hazards. In recent years, digital technologies have expanded in scope and application; however, we have not yet seen their full potential due to data sharing concerns and funding and infrastructure needs. These barriers can be overcome, especially in the wake of a health pandemic. It is during difficult challenges like these that we are incentivized to innovate and break away from conventional approaches.

Water security shouldn’t be seen any differently. It is consistently ranked as one of the top five global risks. According to CDP Water, 196 cities have reported the risk of water stress and scarcity and 132 reported a risk of declining water quality. In the United States water-stressed cities are located around the Colorado River Basin. The basin supplies more than 1 in 10 Americans with some, if not all, of their water for municipal use, provides irrigation to more than 5.5 million acres of land, and the dams support 4,200 megawatts of electrical generating capacity.

The demands on the basin have been expanding over the years, all while its resource capacity has historically been overallocated. Furthermore, climate change is expected to exacerbate water shortages in the region. The ecological and socio-economic importance of the basin, combined with the urgent need for improved water demand management, makes the Colorado River Basin a strategic testbed for digital water technologies.

ELI’s Innovation Lab and Water Foundry, a global advisor in solving water-related challenges, undertook a brief research project and workshop to identify feasible digital technology applications for water-related challenges in the Colorado River Basin. This project was supported by Intel, Microsoft, and Blue AB, a Swedish innovation fund. The research report, titled Digital Technology Opportunities for the Colorado River Basin, focused on successful applications of AI, blockchain, and sensor networks in the water sector. In California, sensor technology is combined with blockchain to quantify groundwater use and allow for the trading of groundwater usage rights.

Sensor mesh networks are used in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to measure snowpack. In New York, a network of sensors is used to gather physical and chemical data on Lake George, while machine learning algorithms analyze the data for improvements to the sampling program (i.e., where and when to sample).

In Florida, a community-owned utility installed AI-guided software that controls pumping of groundwater resources by evaluating real-time data, adjusting the pumps to abstract the volume needed at a given time. Similar AI platforms have been employed in the United Kingdom, where utilities use AI to predict and remedy infrastructure degradation or failures and in planning for high demand.

The technology and research experts involved in these cases were invited to join a one-day ELI workshop to engage utility managers, funders, and other private actors working to manage water challenges in the Colorado River Basin. The workshop was held last October in Denver.

Participants were asked to prioritize a set of pre-defined challenges or problems that could be addressed through digital technologies. Three key problem areas and associated needs emerged. First, there is a lack of data integration for informed decisions. There is a need for a platform to gather data from varied sources and translate that into actionable information for all stakeholders. Second, poor demand management compounds the water scarcity challenge. There is a need for financial incentives for water conservation in the agriculture sector and other sectors that rewards stakeholders for their efficient choices and behavior. Finally, there are barriers to investment and new markets. There is a need for structured opportunities that leverage investment based on a project’s stage of development and the risk appetite of investors.

Attendees participated in a design charrette at the end of the workshop, during which conceptual ideas were formed for each of the above-mentioned priority areas. ELI’s Innovation Lab is working to transform these conceptual ideas into pilot projects. It is clear that the technology exists; however, innovative funding portfolios and long-term collaboration are key to harnessing the potential of these technologies for current and future risks.

Managing Water With Digital Technologies.

ELI Report
Anna Beeman - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue

50th Anniversary | Technology, even more than regulation, will lead the next half century of environmental improvement

Beginning with passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, followed a few months later by establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the last 50 years have reflected the growing need for regulation to protect human lives and livelihoods as well as the planetary ecosystem that supports them. However, it seems that each success, and there have been many, has been followed by news of other challenges that are often even more dire.

The Environmental Law Institute, established in December 1969 alongside these events, has grown to become a leader in analyzing — and shaping — developments in the burgeoning field that grew following passage of NEPA and the other foundational statutes. Over the last 50 years, the Institute has fostered innovative, just, and practical law and policy solutions to ensure environmental legislation and regulation adequately defends the earth’s natural resources at a price society can afford.

The experience of a half century makes it apparent that regulation alone will no longer drive environmental protection. Technology has grown to become a powerful tool in implementing the rapid changes that are needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change and biodiversity collapse.

And technology has also significantly changed the landscape of methods addressing environmental issues. Drones, artificial intelligence, and advanced sensor networks are changing the way pollution and natural resources are monitored and assessed. Emerging technologies are now managing and reducing the environmental impacts of the manufacturing, energy consumption, and services sectors. Bioengineering and biotechnology could change the way that food is produced, such as lab-grown meat or seafood.

In early October, ELI and innovative companies such as Intel, Amazon, BNSF Railway, First Solar, Google, Microsoft, Apple, bp, Exelon, and Bayeco as well as law firms, nonprofits, and law schools held the inaugural GreenTech Conference in Seattle, Washington. The conference explored innovative and transformative technologies influencing environmental sectors, and discussed the unique opportunities and challenges they present for protecting the planetary ecosystem.

Experts from diverse business sectors spoke on the role of law and public policy in facilitating the development and deployment of emerging technologies, their societal benefits and costs, and public reaction to some of these technologies and the management of change. Speakers also shared their experiences and successes through case studies and demonstrations. Additionally, the discussions highlighted opportunities for cross-cutting technological applications, particularly with advancing a circular economy that eliminates waste and reduces resource extraction.

ELI President Scott Fulton gave opening remarks to the conference, followed by keynote speaker William K. Reilly, a former EPA administrator. The workshop spanned three days, with six panel discussions on eliminating waste from the manufacturing economy, the food industry, and energy systems.

A panel titled “The Evolution of e-Services” explored technology as an integral part of the service sector. The service sector accounts for around 80 percent of the United States’ GDP and comprises around 70 percent of the U.S. workforce, thus has large implications for the environment.

The panelists debated how the service sector can harness data services such as cloud computing and blockchain, as well as make effective efforts in reducing their energy and environmental footprints. The panel, moderated by Kathryn B. Thomson of Amazon, also included IBM Lead Counsel on Blockchain Ecosytems Joan Burns Brown, Google Staff Software Engineer Eddie Pettis, and Amazon Director of Energy and Web Services Nat Sahlstrom.

The workshop concluded with a group discussion on legal models for change in tandem with the growth of technology, as well as a colloquium moderated by Fulton on planning for the future.


New Zealand workshop schools ocean protection professionals

Area-based management and Marine Spatial Planning are important ocean resources management techniques. They are essential to separate marine uses, find opportunities for compatible uses, and establish protected areas. Many countries have expressed interest in developing MSP through legal reform. There is also a growing international community of legal experts that work on drafting laws to implement MSP. However, as far as we know, there are no guidance documents to help these professionals do their work.

In continuing a partnership with the Waitt Institute on supporting legal guidance for drafting MSPs, in early September, ELI, Waitt Institute, and IUCN conducted a four-day MSP workshop in Auckland, New Zealand. The workshop brought together legal drafters for MSPs and identified best practices and guidance for developing MSPs within the region and beyond.

The workshop was attended by 24 representatives from 14 different nations, mostly small island nations in the Pacific region. The workshop also hosted participants from ocean resources management organizations such as Conservation International and The Pacific Community, as well as a number of scholars who focus on MSP issues.

The workshop covered an overview of global MSP legislation. Participants also discussed how MSP fits into a nation’s legal landscape.

Topics discussed included the use of legal provisions addressing preliminary matter and definitions for MSP legislation, the scope of an MSP law and ocean jurisdiction, ocean spatial planning and zoning processes, public participation and access to information for MSP, and sustainable funding mechanisms for ocean management.

The Blue Prosperity Coalition led the final day of the workshop on maritime security and implementation of Maritime Domain Awareness, as well as provided updates and news from the National Maritime Intelligence Integration Office.


Session explores tech solutions to Colorado basin water needs

The Colorado River basin, a historically stressed riparian system, is facing a critical water shortage. California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming depend on its water supplies, generating $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs, equivalent to 1/12 of the total U.S. domestic product. With an anticipated shortage looming by 2020, the states have been tasked until January 31 to develop a plan before federal intervention. Given the wide geographic, financial, and political contexts within this region, tackling this issue is complicated and requires cooperation among many stakeholders.

One promising potential solution for managing water scarcity in the region is the use of transformative digital technology solutions, such as blockchain or artificial intelligence.

In late October, ELI and Water Foundry held a workshop in Denver, Colorado, that brought together public, private, and nonprofit actors to work together on developing and mapping feasible technological solutions for the basin. Ultimately, the goal of the workshop was to ensure the more efficient, effective, and resilient stewardship of water in the region through technological innovation.

The workshop and associated research builds upon a recent report by the World Economic Forum, which explored a number of technologies that could address challenges in the water sector. The workshop featured technologies of blockchain, sensor nets, and AI, delving into the nuances for each for participants to capture a deeper understanding of their implications for public policy in the context of the region, in addition to identifying the barriers and potential solutions for commercialization and scaling.

AI and blockchain are useful in targeting the traceability of water from the watershed to users such as cities, agriculture, and consumers. Moreover, AI-enabled technologies have great potential to manage water supply and demand.

Areas explored during the workshop included the use of blockchain tokens to reward water conservation efforts at a household or business level, combined blockchain and sensor technologies to monitor and report water quality in municipal water systems, or sensor and AI networks to better measure and predict seasonal fluctuations in water availability.

By pinpointing the current water use and supply challenges and the dynamics of water management in the Colorado River Basin, the workshop participants worked to prioritize two digital technology pilot projects to implement in the region, as well as established a long-term collaboration for the pilot projects.


Field Notes: Ex EPA Chief Reilly keynotes ELI Press book launch

“It’s an extraordinarily consequential piece of work,” said former EPA Administrator William Reilly to kick off the book launch of Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States, published by ELI Press.

“The kinds of approaches that the book describes are attractive, practical, and cost effective and can be undertaken well before we reach a climate crisis,” said Reilly.

The Institute also presented a panel to discuss proposed legal methods to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as efforts already underway to put these recommendations into action.

The panel included book editors Michael B. Gerrard of Columbia Law School and John C. Dernbach of Widener University Commonwealth Law School. Commentary came from NRDC’s Kit Kennedy, Earthjustice’s Peter Lehner, and Charles Sensiba of Troutman Sanders LLP.

59 authors contributed to the book, and with 35 chapters of over 1,000 legal tools and recommendations to choose from, the report is instrumental in providing policymakers and lawyers the best legal tools for reducing carbon emissions within the federal, state, tribal, local, and private sectors.

Although the goal of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 is indeed a challenge, Dernbach contended that the concrete recommendations show that the goal is technically feasible and would only cost 1 percent of national income.

The panelists dove into debates about pathways to carbon=neutral agriculture, clean energy technologies, and lower-emission transportation options.


With the generous support of the Hewlett Foundation, ELI and the China Environmental Protection Foundation have published Environmental Public Interest Litigation: Selected Cases. This casebook, published in Chinese with an English version following, features 120 environmental public interest litigation cases decided by Chinese courts in recent years. The cases include those filed by NGOs and prosecutors and cover a broad range of issues.

The book conducts a systematic examination of the legal issues arising out of environmental public interest litigation in China, and couples the primary sources with in-depth legal analysis.

This new enforcement tool came into broad use only in recent years, specifically due to the implementation of the new Environmental Protection Law in 2015. The publication will be a valuable resource for environmental lawyers at both enforcement agencies and private practice, environmental judges, and NGO workers who are interested in environmental public interest litigation.

ELI expects this book will help to build the capacity of Chinese environmental law communities and promote a more transparent, fair, and predictable environmental rule of law system in China.


In April, ELI hosted a public webinar featuring the article Managing the Future of the Electricity Grid: Energy Storage and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, included in this year’s ELR Environmental Law and Policy Annual Review. The article, written by NYU Law Professor Richard L. Revesz and Burcin Unel of NYU Institute of Policy Integrity, challenges the conventional wisdom that utilization of energy storage systems will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and proposes that state and federal regulators adopt policy reforms that internalize emission externalities, eliminate entry barriers, and modify market rules to guarantee accurate price signals that value the benefits of clean energy storage.

The webinar hosted an interesting discussion among the authors and industry experts as they weighed the feasibility and direction of Revesz and Unel’s proposal.


ELI hosted a special seminar in May to explore the implications of Rapanos v. U.S. and the proposed new jurisdictional rule for the future of wetlands. The panel was moderated by Amanda Waters of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies and featured National Wetlands Awards winners Greg Sutter, Joel Gerwein, and Angela Waupochick.

Innovation Lab poised for next half century of tech.

The Debate: Dangerous Intersection: Climate Change and National Security
Francesco Femia - The Center for Climate and Security
Leo Goff - Center for Naval Analyses
Alice Hill - National Security Council
Thilmeeza Hussain - Voice of Women -- Maldives
Marcus King - George Washington University
Maureen Sullivan - Department of Defense
The Center for Climate and Security
Center for Naval Analyses
National Security Council
Voice of Women -- Maldives
George Washington University
Department of Defense
Current Issue

The dangers of climate change are not usually couched in terms of national security, but awareness of the issue is growing rapidly. What could be more basic to security than a climate conducive for agriculture, abundant water supplies, ecosystem health, industrial production, biodiversity, and human comfort? What could be more threatening than extreme weather events or mass migrations because of rising seas and crop failures? The annual ELI-Miriam Hamilton Keare Policy Forum brought together top experts on the topic.

Five Things to Consider When Developing and Adapting Water Policies and Programs in the West
Marion Boulicault & Adam Schempp
Date Released
January 2014
Five Things to Consider When Developing and Adapting Water Policies and Programs

This guidebook identifies common factors that influence the success of water policies or programs in the prior appropriation context, and provides examples of each factor to further clarify the issue. The guidebook is intended to help decision-makers at the state and local levels develop new policies and programs that are best tailored to navigate potential obstacles to achieving the desired outcomes.

Hazard Mitigation Planning

Recently, increased emphasis has been placed on non-structural and nature-based hazard mitigation solutions, including the restoration of wetlands and floodplains, as cost-effective alternatives for flood hazard mitigation that also help achieve conservation goals like maintaining biodiversity. FEMA hazard mitigation grant programs could provide potential funding that could pay for the restoration and protection of critical natural infrastructure and improve outcomes and reduce costs from the next disaster.

At the Confluence of the Clean Water Act and Prior Appropriation: The Challenge and Ways Forward
Adam Schempp
Date Released
January 2013
At the Confluence of the Clean Water Act and Prior Appropriation: The Challenge

This report (1) details the impact that water quantity law and practice has had on water quality, and likewise water quality rules on water quantity management; (2) analyzes the legal authorities of states and the federal government over water quantity and quality, respectively, and briefly recaps the current state of takings law relevant to appropriative rights and the Clean Water Act; and (3) identifies laws, policies, government structures, and other factors that can advance relationships between, and ultimately the outcomes for, water quality and quantity management.