By Heather Cooley, Peter Gleick, and Jason Morrison
With so much going on in the world right now, why should water be a priority for the Biden administration?
The fact is that water challenges in the U.S. are severe and worsening. As the COVID-19 pandemic revealed, poor water infrastructure and the failure to provide universal access to safe water and sanitation threaten public health. Water shortages, poor management, and antiquated water systems threaten the nation’s food supply, ecosystems, and economy. Conflicts over water around the globe threaten our national security. Worsening climate changes are increasing these risks, and the failure to act now will only make solving these issues harder.
With this urgency in mind, we released a set of water recommendations for the next U.S. presidential administration, Water Recommendations to the Next President. These recommendation, which were shared with both presidential campaigns, outlined the nation’s water challenges and called for swift and meaningful action to carry the U.S. into a more equitable and climate-resilient water future.
In November, we hosted a webinar on our recommendations, taking audience questions on topics ranging from the nation’s outdated infrastructure to the threat to national security from rising international conflict over water. Read on for our answers to some of these questions:
1. What strategies do you recommend to help small and disadvantaged communities improve their capacity to provide safe drinking water, water sanitation services, and adequate water supplies?
There are several things the Biden Administration can and should do. These include:
- expanding the State Revolving Loan program at the Environmental Protection Agency with a priority focus on providing support for disadvantaged communities;
- providing financial support for regionalization and consolidation of small, failing systems;
- providing emergency funding to support communities that have shut-off moratoriums and a permanent program to address affordability, like the federal energy programs that are available;
- providing workforce development and training programs for women and people of color for water-related green jobs; and
- expanding data collection, looking specifically at issues around water affordability.
2. Do human rights have a place in your recommendations?
The simple answer is yes. Access to water and sanitation is a human right. However, until more states adopt a formal human right to water with legal teeth, it is more of a moral/ethical tool than a legal one. In the meantime, there are many things the Biden Administration can do to provide universal access to water and sanitation.
3. The era of big vision water ideas in California took place decades ago: State Water Project, LA Aqueduct, Colorado River Aqueduct. Population growth and climate change have overtaken the ability of these big idea resources to meet the need to be resilient going forward. Will efficiency and conservation be sufficient to meet the needs? Or do we need to inaugurate a new era of big ideas – wastewater recycling and desalination?
No single strategy will address all our water supply needs. Our previous work (such as the “Untapped Potential” analysis) shows that a mix of improvements in water-use efficiency, wastewater reuse, and stormwater capture can address expected water needs in California for years to come. Desalination is another option, although these other options provide greater benefits with fewer social, economic, and environmental impacts.
4. How do we effectively create a national strategy given the “blue” and “red” divisions we’ve seen with the response to the coronavirus (e.g., mask mandates)? Can we overcome the partisanship we’re experiencing at the more local state levels?
Water polls among the most important environmental issue, and unlike issues like climate change, there is a much narrower partisan divide around water, especially water quality. Many of our water challenges – whether it be pollution, inadequate infrastructure, or affordability – are most severe in rural communities. So, water could be an easier issue to tackle than some other areas and, importantly, an opportunity to bring people together.
5. In the context of a potential “National Plan” for water, what are your views on trying to implement watershed/river basin-oriented water quality and quantity management (instead of the highly fragmented management of water issues that is also divorced from a watershed reality)?
Water management is highly fragmented, and basin-level commissions can help to address this issue. However, the National Water Plan should focus on what the federal government can/should do. It should address the entire range of national water challenges, be nonpartisan, and consist of scientists, legal and policy experts, and non-governmental and community representatives who can speak to the on-the-ground realities facing American communities.
6. Mark Arax has pointed out (The Dreamt Land, I believe) that drip irrigation has allowed some Central Valley growers to grow crops on even more marginal lands. Any comments?
Smart and effective drip irrigation must be combined with land and water use policies that permit “saved” water to be reallocated and used for purposes other than just applying it to more marginal lands. If farmers just reuse saved water, total water productivity goes up, but opportunities may be lost for restoring natural ecosystems or providing water to other users.
7. What are your perspectives on investing in climate-resilient water infrastructure, including broader uses of recycled water or desalination?
The impacts of climate change on water systems are intensifying, and immediate effort is needed to enhance the resilience of these systems. This will involve new investments in infrastructure, as well as changes in the operation and management of water systems.
Greater uptake of recycled water – along with water-use efficiency improvements – can help to enhance water resilience. These strategies can, for example, reduce supply-demand imbalances, providing additional capacity within the system to allow for more variable and uncertain water supplies. They can also reduce pressure on traditional water sources and diversify the water supply portfolio, thereby providing flexibility when these sources of water are constrained due to drought, ongoing water scarcity, or other water supply disruption.
Desalination – especially seawater desalination – can also play a role. However, due to its high cost, energy intensity, and impacts on the marine environment, it should be a last resort option and carefully compared with alternatives.
8. Should we rethink our water infrastructure financing strategies that increasingly rely on loans needing repayment, and local fees/taxes that are challenging for low-income communities to support? Should we move more toward a system of grant financing from the federal level for both centralized and decentralized infrastructure?
Large federal investments in water, as have occurred in the past, have reduced the cost of providing water and sanitation service. While this has helped make water more affordable (at least in the near-term), it has also promoted waste and inefficiency. A better strategy would be to continue to rely largely on local fees and loan financing for most systems and to prioritize grant funding to disadvantaged communities that couldn’t afford to make the investment needed to ensure safe, reliable water and sanitation.
9. What about the U.S. role in addressing water challenges in other nations (e.g., through foreign aid)?
The administration should prioritize international aid on water for the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 goals, including a focus on health (including COVID-19). USAID and the U.S. State Department have long had programs, supported by Congress, that encourage aid for water-related development investments, but these programs are underfunded and the beneficiaries are often not those communities most in need. A refocusing of these efforts would be important.
10. What do you see as the role of the private sector in pursuing your recommendations – e.g., to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 and the human right to water, expand access to water services, enhance water efficiency, etc.? And would having the private sector involved be an angle for achieving bipartisan support, or an obstacle?
The private sector can play an important role in helping to address water challenges, such as improving human access to water and sanitation, reducing water pollution and use, and restoring ecosystems. Leading business are making investments to improve water security and watershed health in ways that go well beyond minimum legal requirements. We have been working with the private sector to this end for more than a decade in our role as the Co-Secretariat of the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate. Private sector action can take many forms – including improvements in operational efficiencies and reuse at their facilities and across their value chain and investments to upper watersheds – and could also include supporting policies that advance water resilience and sustainability. For most, if not all, of the companies with leading water sustainability practices, water is not a partisan or ideological issue; there’s a clear business case for action.