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Time for a 21st Century U.S. Water Policy

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[This post was written by both Dr. Peter H. Gleick and Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith, co-editors of the new book A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy just released by Oxford University Press.]

At first glance, threats to the nation's freshwater might seem less urgent and less important than many of the other economic and foreign policy challenges facing our politicians and policymakers. After all, clean and inexpensive water continues to flow from our taps. Yet front page stories on the devastating drought across America's Great Plains, increased prices for corn, grains, and other agricultural products, and growing conflicts between energy producers and local communities over water are evidence for why we can no longer take our water for granted. Safe and adequate freshwater resources are central to the health of our economy and communities, and to the foreign policy and security of the United States, but we are failing to manage our water for future generations. Unless we understand and tackle our water problems, we will be faced with rapidly growing economic, political, and public health consequences. Here are four of the most important national water challenges that the next administration will have to tackle -- these and other problems and solutions, are described in detail in this new book.

The nation's freshwater supply and quality are threatened by overuse, mismanagement, and contamination. As a whole, the United States is a relatively water-rich country. But our water is unevenly distributed and used, and despite 40 years of the Clean Water Act, it is increasingly contaminated by inadequately regulated and managed industrial and agricultural activities. Much of our water is used wastefully and ineffectively, in part because of the lack of coherent and integrated national water policy. While many water challenges are local, and must be addressed locally, national water policies are also needed to protect public and environmental health. Two dozen different federal agencies have some kind of responsibility for managing and protecting water, but they do not work together in an effective or coordinated manner. Our tap-water quality and the health of our rivers and lakes are not as well protected as they should be. Decisions about energy policy are made without considering the implications for water, leading to growing conflicts in rural communities over access to, and contamination of, local water supplies. Farmers get mixed signals about how to use water, leading to overdraft of groundwater and inefficient irrigation in many areas of the country.

Our national water challenges are part of a broader set of global water problems. Basic water services, including safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation, are still unavailable for between two and three billion people around the world. Surprisingly, however, some of those people are here in the United States. More rural communities are finding their local water supplies to be contaminated with industrial or agricultural pollutants like nitrates, perchlorate, hexavalent chromium, or other contaminants that are un- or inadequately regulated. The failure to provide basic water services to all has direct and indirect public health and economic ramifications for the U.S. We must ensure that all Americans have access to safe and affordable drinking water, and at the same time, we stand to gain substantial international goodwill if we use our technological and economic strengths to help provide clean water and sanitation globally. Many of the world's most active community and non-governmental water organizations are based in the United States and the nation as a whole can play a leading role in addressing these problems, by redirecting foreign aid budgets and in encouraging international aid organizations to refocus efforts toward meeting basic water needs.

Water-related problems also threaten our national security. In our globally integrated economy, water problems in other countries reverberate back home. Political insecurity and instability is growing in regions where access to freshwater is a problem, including especially in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, with growing concerns about tensions in the central Asian republics. Less predictable hot spots are also likely to appear and there are growing reports of violence and political disruption over water shortages in parts of Africa. Just this month the BBC reported that over 100 people have died in conflicts between farmers and cattle herders over land and water in Kenya. Because conflicts over water contribute to broader political tensions and conflicts, diplomatic efforts to reduce the risks of conflict must now include an environmental component. Furthermore, military preparedness should include an improved understanding and analysis of the threats associated with water.

To their credit, the U.S. intelligence and security communities are beginning to pay attention to water as a factor in threats to our national security, as noted in the most recent Intelligence Community Intelligence Community Assessment on global water resources from the Defense Intelligence Agency, but more attention should also be given to the best ways to reduce international risks of conflict over water scarcity and contamination and to protect our domestic water system from terrorism.

Climate change will have direct impacts on U.S. water resources. As this year's brutal drought, extreme summer temperatures, and violent weather have made clear, global climate changes are already occurring. Many of these impacts will intensify in coming years, and many of them will have direct implications for our water resources. Climate changes will alter rainfall patterns, increase water demands, raise the cost of food in our markets, increase the probability and consequences of both extreme droughts and floods, and even affect the generation of energy from thermal and hydroelectric power plants. The U.S. should put in place a national strategy to integrate climate change into water management and planning at all levels. Particular emphasis must be given to two simultaneous efforts: reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with our water systems, and help local communities adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change on water availability and quality. To their credit, more and more local water agencies are trying to do these things, but national guidance and support are needed.

There is some good news. The United States is endowed with abundant, high-quality freshwater and sophisticated water collection, treatment, and distribution systems. Our tap water system is one of the best in the world and should (and can) be even better. Our use of freshwater, while often inefficient, is improving. Water-use productivity in the United States has dramatically increased in recent decades. But far more can be done. If we value water, we will treat it as the critical resource that it is, and we will continue to work toward improvements in access, quality, and use. The nation needs a 21st century water policy that will restructure and streamline Federal water programs, integrate energy and water policies, invest in water systems for underserved communities, improve water-quality monitoring and treatment, modernize and enforce outdated national water quality laws (including the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act), and modify or eliminate subsidy programs that lead to unsustainable water use. A first step should be acknowledgement by our elected officials of their awareness of the problems and their willingness to work toward effective solutions.

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