American Water Solutions | Infrastructure Research
Boston Massachusetts Water Research Government
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FACING THE CHALLENGE


In this report, we explore the role of government in water allocation, quality, and infrastructure. We show that there are a variety of structural, societal, and political challenges to addressing U.S. water issues. The government’s influence and control (actual and potential) over water resources are undeniable and have been a reality in the United States for well over a century. We also surveyed the ubiquitous impact that the electric and agricultural sectors exact on water resources in terms of use and degradation of quality. Another area of increasing concern is water infrastructure—not only its generally crumbling state, but also its contribution to human exposure to toxins.

 

Findings lead the authors of this report to conclude that the U.S. is currently in a water crisis, brought on, in general, by overuse and increasing stresses, with the structure of our energy and agriculture sectors contributing heavily to the crisis. With respect to the electric generation sector, our historic reliance on thermoelectric generation tied to fossil and nuclear fuel cycles continues to stress water supplies both in availability and quality. With respect to the agricultural sector, high chemical usage and practices provide direct conduits for fertilizer and pesticide pollution to surface and groundwater.

 

The research used in the reports demonstrates an acknowledgment of significant energy and agricultural water impacts. It also demonstrates that we have the means to greatly ameliorate or eliminate current trends in terms of usage and pollution. But coordinated national action is slow in coming, more so in the agricultural sector than in the energy sector. There is also significant awareness of the need to upgrade and modernize our water infrastructure. Again, however, the retreat of federal government funding over the last 30 years and the recent recession make it increasingly difficult for communities to make capital investments without severely impacting water service affordability. Privatization of water utilities has not improved the situation, but instead made it worse with respect to cost and planning.

 

Our immediate challenges, as described in previous reports, include:
– Forging a rational nationally coordinated water allocation policy;
– Moving the energy and agriculture sectors to be less impactful on water;
– Updating our water infrastructure;
– Addressing water and energy affordability; and,
– Planning for adequate clean supplies of water (water system resilience) in response to overuse, population growth, and climate change (drought and severe storms).

 

We also face more structural challenges in terms of governance. For these we draw on Peter Shuck’s (Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale University) work “Why Governments Fail So Often: And How It Can be Done Better.”1224 We also reviewed various perspectives on federalism—the tension between states’ rights and federal jurisdiction.

 

The following more strategic challenges derived from Shuck’s analysis can be readily applied to the water challenges highlighted in this report. These include:
– Overcoming difficulty in forming consensus (as in prioritizing water as national policy);
– Overcoming difficulty in properly assigning risks of current policies/actions—referred to by Shuck as moral hazard;
– Overcoming difficulty in a sustained commitment to policies over the long term including funding;
– Overcoming difficulty in systematic, up-to-date information and properly assessing the implications of proposed policies;
– Overcoming tendency to address symptoms and not causes of our water challenges;
– Overcoming entrenched economic interests to foster change.

 

Despite these challenges embedded in our own system and history, there are opportunities to overcome them. The public maintains a strong concern for water quality and consensus is emerging in support of renewables. The recent market is shifting to renewables and energy efficiency and away from thermoelectric power. Farmers are moving steadily (although slowly) to practices that reduce the agricultural impact on water. Success stories in water infrastructure and regional coordination of water resources exist and can serve as models.

 

In this chapter, we explore these challenges. The ultimate question is: Once we are aware and adequately informed of the problems and probable, most effective means of addressing them, can we decisively act as a nation on a sustained basis to address them and continually assess and alter policy choices to achieve the best possible outcomes with respect to water supply, quality, conveyance, and service affordability?