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Thoughts from Our Fellows: Create Modern Water Systems for Safe and Sustainable Use

March 26, 2021

March 26, 2021

Welcome to Thoughts from Our Fellows, a collection of recent activity regarding the Academy's Grand Challenge of each Month. In March, the Academy focused on Creating Modern Water Systems for Safe and Sustainable Use. Below you will find:

  • The recommendations from our Election 2020 project regarding the first year of the new administration,
  • Recommendations from our fellows for the next four years of the Biden Administration,
  • Management Matters podcasts related to this grand challenge, and
  • The top 5 clicked articles on this grand challenge from our Management Matters online newsletter.
 
											 The Grand Coulee Dam in Washington
Source: The National Park Service
Election 2020

In November of 2020, the Academy published Enhancing Water Delivery and Waste Water Systems in the United States as a part of its Election 2020 Project. The paper's Working Group recommended the following actions:

  • Collaborate with other levels of government to make short- and long-term decisions for water delivery and waste water systems and to take advantage of the experience that other levels of government bring.
  • Connect issues of water quality and water supply to national infrastructure challenges, mainly the aging water systems.
  • Incorporate water in social equity goals and set goals for community and demographic access to clean sanitation and drinking water, establish an intergovernmental strategy, and track the nation’s progress.
  • Strengthen the water supply and water treatment workforce through an overall water workforce initiative for current and future needs.

Thoughts from Our Fellows

In addition to our Election 2020 papers, which focused on recommended actions for the first year of a new administration, the Academy also asked its Fellows for advice for the first four years of the Biden Administration.

Doug Criscitello: A clear need exists to increase investment in the nation’s water infrastructure and to identify new ways to pay for such investments to ensure safe and sustainable water systems. With traditional sources of public sector funding strained (e.g., growing municipal debt loads, already-committed general revenues), the U.S. government is in a position to help state and local governments meet their current and future capital needs by turning to the use of innovative finance tools including credit programs, infrastructure banks, public-private partnerships (P3s), and tax credits.

Government credit programs have been used increasingly in recent years to stretch public investment dollars. The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loan program, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) holds great promise for helping the nation modernize its water systems. In addition, other financing innovations beyond government credit programs should also be explored. Infrastructure banks exist in a number of states, with revenues used to capitalize such banks coming from a variety of sources including appropriations, borrowing, and dedicated revenue streams. P3s continue to take hold in the U.S. as a way to leverage both public and private resources to meet infrastructure needs. Tax credits issued to investors are another way to stimulate private investment in public infrastructure.

The new Administration should take steps to advance an understanding of innovations in an increasingly sophisticated financial marketplace, increase funding for such purposes, and ensure effective management and delivery of such financing.

Felicia Marcus: The Biden Administration has a golden opportunity to transform the nation's water systems, including natural systems, to address current unmet needs and to prepare to face the increasing challenges that climate change will bring. To pick just a few opportunities:

  1. Do a blitz on the basics--invest in modern drinking water systems, especially for disadvantaged communities. Continue and deepen investment on tribal lands, in appropriate consultation with tribes, which the Administration has made a priority in many important ways. Deliver on that. Make good on the promise of the Human Right to Water recognized internationally and in California. Do this domestically, and do it internationally. This is the moment to meet SDG 6 as a leader in the international arena as well as taking care of business at home.
  2. Invest in rebuilding and reimagining aging water infrastructure to meet multiple needs vs. rebuilding in silos of flood control, water supply, wastewater treatment, and stormwater management. Encourage green infrastructure that can reduce pollution, enhance groundwater recharge, and make our cities more livable. Direct federal agencies to work in tandem with their state partners to elevate nature based solutions to build climate resilience and sequester carbon while enhancing biodiversity, water supplies, and accelerating ecosystem restoration across rural and urban landscapes.
  3. Use the convening power of the federal government to bring people together across water disciplines, and across watersheds. Prioritize projects that cross silos of practice and geography and elevate and illuminate such examples across the country. Incentivize projects that help take a regional perspective to get more "pop per drop" in a watershed and prioritize projects that provide multiple benefits.
  4. Invest in research and dissemination of new technologies such as sensors for leak detection and water quality, innovative treatment systems, and in big data to help all water agencies become more cost effective, and effective. Advance broadband accessibility in small and rural communities to enable use of advanced technologies.
  5. Continue to elevate water as essential infrastructure along with energy and transportation--so far this Administration, this President, is the first to even mention water along with the other two, and to mention it first.

Stan Meiburg: "Challenges" is the right word because we face many of them. Water is necessary for all life. As humans we rely on water for so many functions: we drink it, grow our food with it, and use it for sanitation and health, manufacturing, power generation, and transportation. Our greatest need is to recognize that water is a system, one which is struggling under the weight of our demands on it.

Specific initiatives could include:

  • Restructuring the State Revolving Loan Funds to provide greater low-cost assistance to underserved communities, and promote even greater collaboration between EPA and USDA assistance programs
  • Expanding protection of wetlands and estuarine systems that provide essential ecological services and resiliency in the face of extreme weather events
  • Implementing effective nutrient water quality criteria
  • Working with state and local governments to promote efficient drinking water and wastewater services, promoting sound governance and using equitable full-cost pricing.
  • Making risk choices grounded in the best available science concerning emerging water contaminants

Barry Rabe: It will be important for the Biden Administration to study carefully recent failures in water policy, notably the ongoing Flint water crisis and also related local cases in the nation which tend to cluster in either industrialized urban or remote rural areas. At the same time, there is growing evidence that a number of American communities have devised creative strategies to develop long-term plans for funding and implementing essential upgrades of drinking water to address lead and related contaminant concerns. These are not very well known or intensively studied and yet may offer models and insights that could lead to a more robust federal, state and local partnership in water governance moving forward. Examples of such cases include Lansing, Michigan and Madison, Wisconsin.

Randy Lyon: The scale of water supply issues makes them a national public administration challenge. However, they are not primarily a federal issue, and it is therefore worthwhile to identify the federal role in a strategic manner. The following are areas where federal action can lead and promote constructive actions by states, localities, water districts, and private parties.

  • Support science-based regulatory actions by the US EPA. EPA plays a critical role in protecting drinking water and water quality more generally. Administrator Regan’s recent actions to review standards on PFAS chemicals – a group of man-made non-degrading bioaccumulating chemicals with demonstrated health impacts that contaminate surface and ground waters – is an important signal that EPA will be an engaged protector of public health and environmental quality.
  • Develop an effective strategy on nonpoint source pollution. EPA notes that nonpoint source pollution “is the leading remaining cause of water quality problems.” Similarly, the Center for American Progress observes that “The United States will never achieve its goal of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of its waters without implementing a comprehensive, aggressive program to reduce nonpoint source water pollution and polluted urban runoff.” This will require consideration of agriculture, green infrastructure, land use, and storm sewer policies. While many of these actions will be at the local and property-owner level, constructive federal engagement will be valuable, including through the implementation of agricultural and stormwater programs.
  • Promote best practices in planning and pricing by municipal water suppliers. The American Water Works Association reported that in 2020 less than one third of survey respondents indicated their municipal water supply entities had asset management plans fully in place, while about half were in the process of implementation. While this is an increase relative to such planning a few years earlier, it is consistent with the American Society of Civil Engineers’ observation that public water supply has experienced chronic underinvestment. About one sixth of treated water (about 6 billion gallons per day) is lost through leaking pipelines, and the investment backlog from deferred maintenance is large. There is currently no federal requirement for an asset management plan, even for recipients of Drinking Water State Revolving Fund monies. The federal government should require development and public posting of asset management plans by recipients of its funding for water systems. Similarly, state and local governments should require such actions to alert their residents to unfunded liabilities and provide a form of oversight to promote transparency and appropriate levels of investment.
  • Focus federal investments on areas of genuine need. Supply of drinking water is best managed by local systems that can develop appropriate pricing and investment plans. However, there are areas that due to poverty, systemic racism, and other factors face disproportionate costs. Given limited federal resources and the ability of most households to pay for their water without excessive financial burden, the federal government should, to the extent practical, channel its investments to situations where public health and community resources require outside assistance.
  • At the larger, watershed or river basin, level, the federal government should support pricing efforts that help allocate water to its highest valued uses. The government should also provide information on depletion of interstate aquifers, with the goal of promoting sustainable use. As in the case of water quality, this will require thoughtful engagement with agricultural interests, which dominate water use. According to the USDA, agriculture uses about 80 percent of water across the United States and over 90 percent is some Western States.

Related Podcasts

Grand Challenge: Create Modern Water Systems for Safe and Sustainable Use
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Governing Water Across Borders with Felicia Marcus

Fellow: Felicia Marcus

Season: 1 Episode:44 | March 08, 2021

Grand Challenge: Steward Natural Resources and Address Climate Change
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Addressing Climate Change in a Democracy with Dan Fiorino

Fellow: Daniel Fiorino

Season: 1 Episode:45 | March 24, 2021

Grand Challenge: Create Modern Water Systems for Safe and Sustainable Use Grand Challenge: Steward Natural Resources and Address Climate Change
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Out of This World AND Down to Earth Public Administration with Kathy Sullivan

Fellow: Kathryn Sullivan

Season: 1 Episode:47 | March 29, 2021

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