Democracy in Action: The importance of water

Here’s my dilemma: I’ve got infrastructure on my mind, water infrastructure to be specific. There are things I want to say to my elected officials, especially those in Washington DC, about the needs, the urgency, the strategic importance of repairing and upgrading our water systems. However, with daily panics coming out of our  national capitol raising even more fundamental questions about the health of our democracy, this doesn’t seem like the best time to catch anyone’s attention on infrastructure.

None-the-less, Water Week 2017, when the country’s major water associations descend on Washington to deliver focused messages regarding water infrastructure needs, is only a month away.  Here are a few of the things that will be on my mind when I make my rounds:

  1. Water means business. Literally.  If we want our economy to run, we need water systems we can count on well into the future, and under a wide variety of scenarios.  A quick reminder of life in New York City after Sandy hit in October of 2012 should hammer that point home.  Oroville Dam, this month’s infrastructure nightmare, illustrates that the challenges aren’t just in cities.
  2. Invest in clean energy, both at water utilities and elsewhere. What does energy have to do with water? Everything, actually, but I’ll keep it brief. Climate change is experienced through changes in water, especially changes in precipitation patterns, which in turn have tremendous impact on our water infrastructure and service needs. The more we can wean from non-renewable fuels, the more secure our water services and systems become.
  3. Invest in new technologies. Not every infrastructure expenditure is equal, and those who want support to rebuild or replicate infrastructure in the same way we were building ten or even thirty years ago need to step aside and let American ingenuity shine. Every week we’re learning of new ways to do more with less, to recover phosphorus, energy, and more from what was previously considered waste, and to allow nature to work for us.
  4. Invest in flexible infrastructure.  We don’t know exactly what the future holds, especially when it comes to use patterns and how new technologies will modify the way we handle and treat water. Too often communities build facilities based on projections that never come to pass, and ratepayers are left saddled by the debt. By turning to smaller, modular systems, not necessarily consolidated in one place, we give communities flexibility.
  5. Prepare for climate change. Water infrastructure is vulnerable, but it doesn’t have to be.  Local communities, even Palm Beach, FL which is home to at least one well-known climate skeptic, are scrambling to catch up.
  6. Bring agriculture into the conversation. Agriculture is the largest consumer of water, and in most places is the largest source of water pollution. Advanced technologies that have been developed to treat urban waste can be applied to on-farm waste, generating clean water and renewable energy. Similarly, agriculture needs sustainable sources of essential fertilizers that can be generated from urban resources recovery facilities. Let’s use federal leverage to bring these sectors together in a way that benefits communities across the country.
  7. Invest in science. It’s a small but very strategic portion of the federal budget, but the investments in applied research like ReNUWIt and WE&RF are critical to our ability to develop new solutions to the challenges ahead.
  8. Support EPA staff, including travel. It may be popular in some circles to bash federal agencies, but their staff are a critical component of our nation’s water infrastructure. Sending staff experts to conferences, and sometimes even supporting the conferences themselves, is an efficient way for them to be able to deliver messages or receive input from large constituencies all at once. And it’s orders of magnitude less expensive than trying to organize similar stakeholder meetings on their own.

Hopefully by March 21st, when Water Week’s participants take their voices to Capitol Hill, someone will be ready to listen. Water can’t wait!

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