By Jim Thebaut and Erik Webb
Those Americans even aware of Zimbabwe’s recent fight against the disruption and death caused by cholera, a highly treatable water-borne disease, carry an unfounded confidence that clean, abundant water will always be available and a similar water-borne disease epidemic could never occur here. However, many areas of our nation aren’t far from the conditions facing third-world countries in ensuring adequate, clean drinking water for their people. Various regions of our country face problems including dwindling surface and groundwater supplies, non-existent water and sanitation infrastructure, closely packed septic systems, inadequate reinvestment in existing water treatment infrastructure, and expanding contamination of surface water including both biological and new chemicals (including pharmaceuticals) that all increase our risk of water-borne illness outbreaks.
Like the proverbial frog in slowly heated water, we are rapidly reaching crisis levels without truly being aware of the risks. This crisis is curable if the United States chooses to establish a modern, integrated, national water policy framework, implements sustainable water use planning, invests in the changes needed to pursue water resource sustainability, and provides leadership to assist the rest of the world meet similar goals.
The region of the country closest to the breaking point is the Colorado River basin, which provides drinking water for 30 million people in the American Southwest. Although most of the region’s residents still have adequate, untainted water, portions of the Navajo and Hopi reservation communities of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado – about 80,000 people – live with inadequate plumbing and sanitation and regularly drink untreated water. This portion of the Native American population suffers from birth defects and skin diseases out of proportion to the rest of the country. Additionally, it is anticipated that as climate change causes rising water temperatures greater disease risk will occur.
Creating plentiful, clean water for the Southwest’s Native Americans is one small part of a bigger picture. Similar water supply and sanitation challenges are emerging throughout the nation. Over two thirds of state’s chief water managers anticipate drought and other water crisis in the near future. Infrastructure investment is grossly inadequate to maintain current systems, let alone meet the demand anticipated by another 100 million people over the next 3-4 decades.
We’ve faced these issues before and started down a path of coordinated policies. In the post-World War II era, the nation faced a decade of drought that triggered intense national pressure to coordinate expansion of water supplies. Congressional committees and White House offices were coordinated in order to address water supply issues allowing water development to proceed at an accelerated pace. We then realized and began to face the environmental consequences of expansion with greater national emphasis on protection of natural resources. Unfortunately, while addressing environmental issues our over-reaction to development allowed us to sweep away the essential coordination functions embodied in the White House Water Resources Council. The consequence is that our nation’s water policy has devolved into a tangled mess of competing initiatives and policies intended to govern increasing demands, managing runoff, pollution abatement, improving quality, using reservoirs and underground water storage, conservation and efficiency improvements, all overseen by a complex infrastructure of federal, state and local bureaus, departments and agencies with overlapping and competing responsibilities. As a result, we have a hodgepodge of laws and regulations that benefit some at the expense of others. At best, our nation’s water use and planning structure is fractured and inefficient. At worst, it’s headed for complete breakdown.
Presently, at the federal level alone, 20 agencies and bureaus, under six cabinet departments, directed by 13 congressional committees with 23 subcommittees and five appropriations subcommittees are responsible for water-resource management. Consolidation of these responsibilities would make the job of managing water resources easier, but such consolidation of power and control is unlikely. A more likely approach might involve White House coordination of partnerships between federal agencies and coordination with state and local agencies to create integrated water policies as part of a national framework.
Additionally, decision-makers at every level must learn to embrace the principles of integrated water resources management, the concept of considering multiple viewpoints before making decisions. While this practice is gaining acceptance and application, it is woefully under-used in our highly fractionated U.S. water management system.
Integrated management would be based on clear principles. For example, as a nation, we must begin to treat water as we would any other scarce resource and learn to live within our means. This requires efficiency and planning for sustainable use in the face of increasing demands for water, particularly in agriculture, industry and power production.
One of the best ways to promote sustainability is to make consumers aware of the true cost of water. What we pay to the water company each month only reflects the price to bring clean water to our taps and does not reflect the value of the resource in each of its various uses. Water management, resource expansion, environmental protection, and infrastructure maintenance is expensive, and much of the cost is redistributed through state and federal taxes and local and regional bond measures. Transparency about the real cost of water should be a fundamental principle, irrespective of the source of funds that underwrite the supply.
The good news is that the United States has experience with integrating national water policy. The Water Resources Planning Act of 1965 created the Water Resources Council, empowered to assess the adequacy of the nation’s water supplies, to establish principles and standards for federal participants in water projects, and to review agricultural, urban, energy, industrial, recreational and fish and wildlife water needs. The Act also established a grant program to assist state development of comprehensive water and land use plans. This law was passed in an era before we understood the full environmental impact of our water resource management actions, and therefore needs to be strengthened to be effective. Nevertheless, the law creating the Council was never repealed.
It is now time that we re-empower and revise the Act to coordinate the nation’s efforts toward sustainable water resources development.
This revision could benefit by incorporating the much stronger policy framework for international water policy objectives embodied in the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act, signed into law in late 2005, which establishes access to safe water and sanitation as a major U.S. foreign policy objective. Merging our domestic and international water policy framework, and placing its operation directly under the umbrella of the White House, would unite and organize our national and international efforts and help solve both domestic and international water problems.
When it comes to drinking water, our nation and the planet are clearly at a crossroads. Ensuring each member of our nation and the world community access to clean water is a humanitarian mission that will assure a safer world and avoid environmental calamity. Population growth, increased demands and changes in our hydrological systems caused by climate change make addressing the water crisis an imperative. The United States can assume global leadership by setting a viable example in solving our own drinking water and sanitation issues, finding a viable way to coordinate our national water policy, and coupling our domestic efforts with our international policy.