Water troubles and community-level solutions

Last week, President Obama enacted an Executive Order on Climate Preparedness. The order establishes a subnational task force network to advise the administration on how the federal government can assist communities in becoming more equipped to cope with an increasingly hostile climate.

This is an important first step.  Today, the U.S. faces extreme water challenges as a result of climate change that promise only to worsen into the foreseeable future. Chronic water shortages have frustrated the West, and led to expensive inter-state legal squabbles over water allocations. Storm surges and inclement weather have destroyed the East’s infrastructure and claimed lives. Industrial and agricultural pollution threatens to incapacitate the fishing and shrimp farming industry in the South. Drought has left small towns to rely on trucked-in water for survival in the Southwest and has claimed $17.3 billion in crop losses in the Midwest and Great Plains in 2012.

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The recently enacted Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 is a long-overdue reauthorization of funds for important water infrastructure. However, the co-sponsors Reps. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Nick Rahall (D-W.V.) missed the boat when they failed to include financial provisions for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority (WIFIA), unlike its companion bill in the Senate. 

This is a missed opportunity. WIFIA offers a departure from the business-as-usual, large-scale project investment by providing funding for smaller, subnational projects that reduce consumption and increase supply through water distribution network renewal and development of new water technology.  Sole reliance on large infrastructure to withstand the challenges of a future characterized by less water and increased climatic hazards will not work.

Our climatic challenges often boil down to two dichotomous challenges: too much water or too little. If we are to construct strong, resilient communities, this task force must consider policies and investments beyond traditional, large-scale infrastructure development.

If we are serious about community-based preparedness, we must be willing to invest in small-scale, community level solutions. This will require a new perspective on how we do business and the foundations of our economy. If we are smart and holistic about this investment we can simultaneously reinvigorate our economy.

First, we need smart, innovative investment schemes for our water infrastructure. Political leaders and pundits alike have loudly bemoaned America’s five-place demotion from the world’s leading competitive economy in the World Economic Forum Report. Some have suggested that a reinvestment in our water infrastructure is key to reclaiming our title and I agree. However, business-as-usual investment and exclusive reliance on large-scale projects will not bring home the prize.

The economies we are competing with are Germany, Finland, and Singapore—countries that invested in new and sustainable water technology early and responded to the stark challenges facing their water supplies, especially climate change. In Singapore, currently recognized as the second most competitive economy in the world, strong government investment in education and R&D for water supply and demand management solutions has led to unmatched economic gain. This strategy is responsible for its current position as one of the world’s leading experts in reclaimed water, resulting in massive expansion into new global markets.

This is what we must do in the U.S. We need to rehabilitate our economy, an economy founded on innovation and one that takes advantage of one of our biggest assets, our highly-educated and creative youth. Why are we content and distracted by the notion of competing over old territory with countries that can offer cheap goods and services at the expense of their labor force and well-being of their people? Let’s be leaders again. 

The good news is we boast the most educated youth in our history. This generation can rehabilitate our crippled manufacturing and industry sectors by refurbishing plants to develop and produce the equipment and parts necessary to rebuild our clean and green infrastructure that can sustain a future of less water.

Second, political willingness and leadership is needed to invest in water technology necessary to cope with a future of constrained resources. Bills such as Reps. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and George Miller’s (D-Calif.) Water Advanced Technologies for Efficient Resource Use Act and the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Bob Portman (R-Ohio), are vital in ensuring the federal government takes a leadership role in demand management and efficiency improvements.  WIFIA and similar investment programs can put the underemployed youth back to work through smart investment in green infrastructure, water, and climate adaptation.

We can grow sustainably and responsibly.  We can create a new economy based on innovation and equitable principles we can be proud of, but first, we need politicians to commit to these principles. Water is the lifeblood of our economy and it can remain to be, if we commit to a diversified investment strategy that looks to the federal government for oversight, equity, and coordination.

Edelen, M.Sc., is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.