The incoming president of the United States faces severe challenges across all aspects of our economic, social, political, and environmental landscape. Among these are a set of problems associated with the critical area of freshwater—problems that affect urban and rural communities, natural ecosystems, and even major economic and national security priorities. In a letter to the next president prepared by the Pacific Institute, four key water-related challenges and priorities were identified, and recommendations for tackling them were proposed.
Protecting water has long been a top priority for the American people, independent of political persuasion. In Gallup’s regular poll of environmental issues, water pollution and the safety of drinking water are routinely the top two issues of concern among Americans. As the new administration strives to recover from a devastating pandemic and economic downturn, it will have an opportunity to rebuild our public water system, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, support our agricultural communities, strengthen our diplomatic standing and national security, and improve health and quality of life.
While the nation’s water challenges are myriad and complex, we’ve identified four broad areas of immediate concern: ensuring comprehensive access to safe, affordable drinking water and sanitation; preparing for the now-unavoidable consequences of climate change for our water resources; confronting the national security threat of water-related conflicts; and developing and implementing a National Water Strategy.
Let’s look at each of them in more detail.
Tens of millions of Americans do not have access to safe, affordable drinking water and sanitation
Unbeknownst to most Americans, millions of people in the country do not have access to flush toilets, showers, sanitation systems, or safe drinking water. Major US cities have deteriorating water infrastructure and old pipes contaminated with lead. Residents in rural areas often depend on unreliable, untested, or unsafe wells. Over the past two decades, the cost of water and wastewater has risen at twice the rate of the Consumer Price Index. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the stark health and economic consequences of this failure.
The impact of this neglect is felt disproportionately by low-income communities and communities of color. Thousands were poisoned in Flint, Michigan by lead in drinking water. Farmworkers and others in California’s Central Valley receive water polluted with arsenic, nitrates, and agricultural pesticides. Children across the country cannot safely drink from school water fountains. A legacy of racial and economic discrimination in infrastructure investments has led to cycles of poverty and disparate health impacts in water just as it has for air quality, chemical exposure, and other environmental threats.
Although thousands of chemicals can be found in US waters, almost no new water-quality regulations are under review, and it has been two decades since the Environmental Protection Agency added new contaminants to the toxic chemicals covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Many proposed regulations have been delayed or ignored in recent years. The federal scientific, regulatory, and management institutions that keep America’s water safe have been neglected or undermined. Public data on natural resources—including water—have been withdrawn, hidden, or destroyed. Federal institutions that study, report, regulate, enforce, or invest in water have been gutted. Protective regulations, enforcement, scientific oversight, and funding have been cut.
There are several key recommendations for dealing with this problem. To begin with, the Biden administration should shift federal water funding to state and community investments in modern water infrastructure, including both a low-income home assistance program and a rural water improvement program. It should also support programs that require the complete removal of all lead pipes. We need new standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act to protect drinking water quality from contaminants and under the Clean Water Act to protect watersheds from pollution, inappropriate use, and poor land use policies.
Of course, enforcing those standards is key. But so is restoring and expanding public access to science- and water-related data at all federal agencies. And while the new Administration is at it, they should shift federal water funding from large physical infrastructure projects to projects that restore and protect natural systems; improve water efficiency for urban and agricultural users to reduce the cost of water and wastewater service, as well as energy costs; and refocus and expand US international aid spending toward meeting basic water needs in partnership with international non-governmental organizations and the private sector.
Which brings us to our second problem.
Climate changes are already affecting US water resources, and the consequences for communities, health, and the environment will worsen
The science is unambiguous, as shown in the long series of US National Climate Assessments, reports from the US National Academies of Science, and other national and international scientific reviews. Rising temperatures affect both water supply and demand. Rapidly melting snow and ice mean floods in spring, droughts in summer, and new threats to hydropower production. Rising sea levels threaten coastal communities, groundwater, and wetlands. Hurricanes, floods, and droughts—already the nation’s most destructive natural disasters—are getting worse. By failing to address climate change, we threaten our economy, security, health, and the environment.
So, what can we do about it? A few key recommendations include supporting the ongoing US National Climate Assessments, as required by law. These reports provide the best scientific assessment of the risks of climate change. The Biden administration could also require all federal agencies to integrate climate resilience and risk mitigation into water programs, including infrastructure investments, disaster planning, insurance programs, agricultural and industrial commitments, and military and national security assessments. Funding and scientific advice is needed for states, counties, cities, and tribal communities to establish key partnerships, develop climate change risk-reduction and resilience programs, and enhance protection from disasters.
It’s also long past time to revise and modernize the federal National Flood Insurance Program to increase protections from changing flood risks and discourage development or redevelopment in vulnerable areas. The new administration should also develop federal water- and energy-efficiency programs and greenhouse-gas emissions reductions strategies that reduce the energy cost of providing, treating, delivering, using, and cleaning water, and boosting soil carbon—and President-elect Biden, immediately upon his inauguration, should reaffirm US commitments to the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization.
Which brings us to the next problem.
Water resource problems pose threats to US national and international security and will continue to be a source of intra- and inter-state conflict
In 2012, the US Intelligence Community released an assessment of national security threats associated with water resources. Among their conclusions: “During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives.” These conclusions have unfortunately been borne out with water-based conflicts affecting US global interests in countries around the world.
The 2014 US Quadrennial Defense Review also identified resource issues as threat multipliers that pose significant challenges for the U.S. and the world at large. The May 2017 statement of the Director of US National Intelligence to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence noted, “[h]eightened tensions over shared water resources are likely in some regions.”
Beginning immediately, the National War College system, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and other defense and intelligence agencies should conduct a series of integrated assessments to identify and analyze water-related threats to vital US interests, including the vulnerability of US water systems to terrorism and cyber-attacks.
As we improve our understanding of the nature of the threats, US foreign policy should place greater emphasis on reducing the risks of water-related conflicts around the world. A variety of approaches to reduce water-related tensions should be implemented, including international agreements and treaties, technology-based solutions, conflict-resolution institutions, and innovative water management. These approaches hold great promise for reducing water-related conflicts but have not yet been adequately adopted.
Here in the United States, Federal agencies and Congress should assist local water agencies to identify security threats to water systems and put in place improved physical barriers, real-time chemical and biological monitoring and treatment, cyber-security strategies, and integrated responses
And that takes us to our final problem.
The United States has no National Water Strategy, reducing the ability to understand water problems and define and implement solutions
More than 20 federal agencies have overlapping and conflicting responsibilities for water management. As a result, current US water programs are incomplete, haphazard, and inconsistent. Basic water data are not collected or analyzed. Fundamental science remains undone. Regulations are inconsistent and outdated. Financial investments are haphazard and insufficient. Our freshwater resources are used inefficiently and ineffectively. Continuing to neglect these water problems will impoverish and sicken this and future generations, destroy irreplaceable aquatic ecosystems, and threaten our economy and food supply.
There are at several ways to address these problems. For starters, the president should immediately create a new National Water Commission for the 21st Century to evaluate and recommend specific federal actions to improve national water policy. We have had no national water commission since 1973. Such a commission would reorganize and streamline the diverse and uncoordinated federal water responsibilities and laws.
And such a commission should not be idle, but expected to produce recommendations within 12 months that include executive branch actions, congressional actions, and legal and judicial actions. The National Water Commission should address the entire range of national water challenges, be non-partisan, 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.
The need to address water problems in the United States is great, but so are the opportunities. The new administration must move forward rapidly to make progress on this vital challenge.
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