World Water Day — an agenda of radical change for America’s waters
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On March 22, the world will celebrate World Water Day. How will this Administration recognize the day?

This year’s theme of wastewater will be marked by tours of wastewater treatment plants, speeches, film screenings, art shows and races, among other events. However worthy, this focus and these activities are unlikely to spur the profound changes that are necessary to address growing water challenges.

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The president campaigned on an agenda of radical change to make America great again. Here are some key elements of an agenda of radical change for America’s waters.

 

Recognize Water as a Common Good: The Romans took great pride in urban fountains and a far-flung system of aqueducts, recognizing that water management was fundamental to civilization. Water flows through practically every human activity including domestic use, irrigation, energy production, recreation, esthetic enjoyment, transportation, mining, trade and more.

All of these activities leave an imprint upon water that can diminish its usefulness to others. While we have a complex system of public and private water rights, along with those rights come obligations to protect the resource. It is far cheaper to prevent pollution in water bodies than to clean them up once polluted. Championing the cause of water as a common good can unify the nation and leave a positive legacy. 

Invest in infrastructure: The American Society of Civil Engineers recently released their 2017 report card, grading America’s infrastructure overall at a D+. In the U.S. today, almost 15,000 wastewater treatment plants protect public health and the environment by reducing toxins in our drinking water supplies.

But there are thousands of stormwater overflows every year releasing pollutants into our water supplies that can undermine public health. Separating wastewater and stormwater, enlarging existing and building additional systems are needed to serve the more than 50 million new users expected to be demanding service over the next two decades. The federal government can play a role in funding new wastewater infrastructure but also in promoting new technologies that turn waste into energy, and promote reuse of wastewater and stormwater.

Maintain clean drinking water: As Americans, we generally enjoy clean, pollutant-free water flowing from our taps. But there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks every year in the U.S., wasting valuable drinking water supplies.

An estimated $1 trillion is needed to maintain and expand drinking water service over the next 25 years, according to the American Water Works Association. In addition to these infrastructure needs, there are growing concerns with new pollutants in drinking water supplies. A 2016 Harvard University study found unsafe levels of polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) — industrial chemicals used in commercial products ranging from food wrappers to clothing - in the drinking water of 33 states, affecting some 6 million Americans.

These chemicals have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, high cholesterol, obesity, and other health problems. The U.S EPA must continue to monitor chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and study and regulate new chemicals associated with negative health implications.

Embrace fairness: Efficiency and effectiveness are primary goals of water system managers, but a radical agenda for water elevates equity to equal status. Perceived inequities can mar great water accomplishment, just as the ‘theft’ of Owens Valley water tainted the reputation of Los Angeles’ city fathers, as depicted in the 1974 film Chinatown.

From the high-profile water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to reports of lead contamination in Newark city public schools to the acid mine spill that polluted Colorado’s Animas River harming nearby Indian communities, inequities in water plague management. Poorer, more rural communities often pay more for less secure water supplies. Just as the Romans dismissed as uncivilized places with no visible water works, fountains, and water institutions, America will not be recognized as great so long as inequities in water persist.

To be sure, some of the challenges related to infrastructure for drinking water and wastewater demand considerable financial investment. The private sector is a valuable partner to bring these needed resources as well as technical expertise and new technologies to the table. But the business community alone cannot solve these problems. In some communities and for some problems, there is simply not enough of an expected financial return.

America’s water challenges demand leadership. The White House needs to maintain smart federal regulatory power but also serve as a vehicle for collaboration between and across cities, rural communities, and states. It is time for a national dialogue on water that acknowledges our growing infrastructure and drinking water needs but also embraces fairness and a philosophy of water as a common good.

So, we ask again: How will this Administration celebrate World Water Day? Will it embrace an agenda of radical change for America’s waters? 

Andrea K. Gerlak is an Associate Professor in the School of Geography and Development and Associate Research Professor at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona. She is a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project. Helen Ingram is Professor Emerita in Planning, Policy, and Design and Political Science, and former Drew, Chace and Erin Warmington Chair in the Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine and a Research Fellow at the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona.


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