Regardless of the structure of a local economy or the number of inhabitants, there is always one constant resource essential to citizens and commerce: water. The security and quality of water supplies can define the well-being of a community’s population, dictating whether it thrives or withers.
As local an issue as water is, communities source water from surface and groundwater that drains and flows in interconnected watersheds. These systems can traverse vast areas and are impacted by myriad uses and sources of pollution. The consumer’s tap is only one stop on a much longer journey.
The interconnected nature of water resources to economic activity and public health demands proper policies and careful planning to preserve them. Protection of our water resources ultimately depends on effective governance at every level. Failure of government at any level can mean disaster for a community. More simply, the government has a responsibility to deliver clean, safe water to its citizenry. Local governments oversee water infrastructure that treats and delivers water to homes and businesses and can set rates. At the state level, government is responsible for administering federal and state water quality laws and can be involved in setting rates. At the federal level, government sets water quality standards, has jurisdiction over vast territories in the western U.S., and has control of key water resources such as the Colorado River. All levels of government have mechanisms to fund and support water infrastructure and its quality in various ways.
State governments and the federal government can establish policies that reduce stress on water systems and improve water quality. There are many challenges to delivering clean water and maintaining adequate supplies of water. Across the U.S. economic landscape, the power and agriculture sectors have significant impacts on supply and quality. These two industries withdraw and consume more water than any other economic sector. They are also responsible for significant point and non-point source pollution into waterways.
But these impacts can be greatly reduced. First, due to advances in solar, wind, energy storage, and energy efficient technologies, we are now capable of substantially decoupling the electric power sector from water—a strategy that harbors many benefits to public health and the economy. Likewise, there are tried-and-true practices that reduce the impact of agriculture on water availability and quality. Together these policies can reduce competition among commercial uses and between commercial and residential uses by increasing water availability. They can also vastly improve water quality.
The co-benefits do not stop there. Prioritizing less water-intensive renewables and energy efficiency measures can also reduce the environmental footprint of treating and conveying water. In other words, we have the means to decouple not only water from electric power but also to decouple water-intensive, polluting power generation from the treatment and delivery of water.
Similarly, the U.S. has the know-how and capability to shift to far less impactful agricultural practices that preserve both water quality and availability. The market for organic food is expanding, although still small in comparison to total production. And there are other means, such as crop rotation and cover crops coupled with a more targeted use of pesticides, that can greatly reduce water quality impacts. In the West, farmers can shift to less water-intensive crops and use more efficient irrigation methods.
The need to address water in a more holistic, systems approach should be apparent now. Our tap water, once considered plentiful and of high quality, is under threat from a lack of investment in infrastructure; poor planning in the water, energy and Ag sectors; increasingly erratic weather patterns; and overuse. We have witnessed the failure of government in the tragedies in Flint, Detroit, Charleston (WV), and elsewhere. The conflicts and failures continue: In Colorado, the gas industry is at odds with the agriculture industry, while in Texas, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to protect citizens from water contamination caused by unconventional oil and gas production.
Ultimately, we find that proper planning requires information and intentionality. On water, substantial gaps in federal and state data exist, and there has been no clear leadership. We have no national water policy. Nor are there any coordinated federal efforts to characterize our potable water resources or to shore up our ailing water infrastructure. Historically, our national energy policy has prioritized short-term growth over long-term security of water resources.
In this report, we argue that these trends must be reversed, and that there are many practical, economically viable approaches to doing so.