03/22/2013 01:33 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2013

America's Water: The World's Water

We live in a bountiful land that extends from sea to shining sea. We are home to the world's largest freshwater reserve, the Great Lakes. The waterfalls and serene lakes from Yellowstone to Niagara to Yosemite to Havasu inspire us as to the wonders of nature. Our inland waterways from the mighty Mississippi to the sinuous Colorado have been the backbone of a nation's exploration, freight and development. Our unseen groundwater reserves, much larger in volume than the fresh water in rivers and lakes, have nurtured our cities and our fields, providing the resource that makes us the most productive agricultural nation on the planet. We live an enviable lifestyle. For most of us, inexpensive, safe drinking water flows from the tap and we use it luxuriously for drinking, bathing, maintaining beautiful yards, golf courses, swimming pools and water theme parks. This access to nature's largess is in clear contrast to the global water crisis that many talk about -- the billion people in diverse countries who lack access to safe drinking water. But so is our wealth.

Today, America's water is at a crossroads. The last decade has been marked by a series of widespread droughts in the West, Southwest, and Southeast that stressed water systems and led to interstate conflict. The large aquifers in the Midwest, in Central California and in Florida are depleting. Recent floods have also stressed our infrastructure, response and recovery systems. These events bring into question our resilience to climate variability. Surely, it is better than in the 12th and the 13th century when the industrious and proud Anasazi vanished following major droughts. But, today we have a larger population with much higher consumption rates, and much of the world depends on our agricultural production that is fueled in part by vanishing aquifers. We have an ever-growing hunger for energy. The availability of water constrains where we can put thermal power plants and the amount of water that can be used for unearthing energy (e.g., hydrofracking), leaving renewable energy development at the forefront.

Regulatory efforts at controlling water pollution from industry and other "point" sources have been by and large successful and have contributed to a dramatic improvement in river and groundwater quality in many places. But, non-point source pollution from farms and cities is largely unabated. Nearly 2.5 million people in Central California are affected by high nitrate concentrations in the groundwater they drink. Nearly 2/3rd of the people who responded to a Value of Water Survey indicated that they had to boil their water at least once in the last year due to a disruption in supply.

Over the last decade, water rates have risen at a rate much faster than inflation, partly because they were too low given past government subsidies, and in part to cover capital expenses associated with renewal or expansion of water and wastewater infrastructure. In many places, the rate increases have stimulated lower consumption. This translated into revenues lower than those before the rate increase, leading to many utilities unable to cover operating costs. The ASCE estimates that nearly $1.5 trillion needs to be invested in the next 20 years to renew aging water and wastewater infrastructure, dams and levees. Federal investment in water declined significantly since the 1980s, and the infrastructure has aged since to the point that major renewal may be needed. The financial burden for providing water services has shifted increasingly to local communities. The ability of these communities to raise funds for capital improvements is under question.

The challenges related to climate-induced risks, to energy and agricultural productivity, to pollution and the quality of water supplied, and to the financing and governance of water systems that we face are universal. Every nation, every community in the world, is increasingly facing these challenges. The challenge is extreme in places like India where the highly variable climate, the pressures of the population and the stasis of the bureaucracy combine to create a living disaster. The same is true in places like Haiti where all aspects of development need attention. Solutions for the world are likely to be easier if places where there is technical and intellectual capacity, which if not constrained by an immediate challenge can innovate systems and principles that lead us to appropriate, sustainable solutions in all our environments so that the world is a healthy place for 9 billion people living in harmony with nature. It is a time for leadership in and from America.

Over time, much of the world adapted the U.S. paradigms for scientific and economic water management and development that were formalized and articulated through public and educational institutions over the last century. Principles of public benefit cost analysis for water systems were articulated. The application of these principles was stimulated by Federal government investment in water research, water storage, distribution and treatment infrastructure projects, and in the monitoring and regulation of water quantity and quality. The idea of the human right to water was made explicit by the U.S. government only recently, but was effectively practiced through its policies and investments. The legacy of these investments includes the vast civil engineering projects that brought us dams, canals, levees, sewers, drinking water and waste water treatment, the Clean Water Act that led to the assurance of water quality, and the Superfund program aimed at hazardous waste sites that severely contaminated water sources. Similar programs have emerged worldwide.

Are we prepared today to innovate technical solutions and resource management principles that set the tone for a water architecture for the 21st century? As we renew our urban water infrastructure, can we rethink the design so storm and wastewaters are not a disposal problem, but a renewable water resource? Can we anticipate and stimulate the water conservation strategies that emerge as rates increase and design systems that lead to high quality and reliable supply within budgets that also eases the pressure on our urban ecosystems? Can we develop a financing model for these innovations that balances the ability of a community to pay with the need for federal assistance for the public good created, and at the same time stimulates economic and regional development? Can we rethink the location, design and composition of water and energy systems to take advantage of apparent synergies in the operation of renewable sources? Agriculture is the largest consumer of water and the main source of non-point pollution. It is clear that here lie many win-win opportunities to reduce expense on water and agro-chemicals, while improving human and ecological health and energy consumption. How can we develop and promote these solutions? Can we use monitoring and forecast systems to better manage demand and supply to reduce climate related risks? We are in a world that lives on water. It is time we took our role in developing and managing it as seriously as the challenge du jour.