WASHINGTON, DC—The United States presently faces water challenges from growing population needs and a changing climate, according to a series of stakeholder forums hosted by Resources for the Future (RFF) and attended by water experts across the country. Their assessments appear in a new report posted today by RFF called "Facing the Nation’s Water Challenges: Results from Resources for the Future’s Roundtable Series." The report is set to be presented today at the WaterNow Annual Summit in Austin, TX, by Dr. Ann Bartuska, RFF Vice President for Land, Water, and Nature.
The report’s authors are Dr. Bartuska, RFF consultant Ellen Gilinsky, and RFF Fellow Dr. Casey Wichman.
Said Dr. Bartuska: “Water is a scarce, often compromised resource on which all life relies. It seems surprising, then, that we have yet to appreciate its value. The impacts extend to our economy, our household conservation choices, our health, our recreational opportunities, and increased risks from devastating floods.”
While priorities varied regionally, national themes and priorities emerged. Among the key points raised by participants at roundtables across the country:
- Americans expect clean and reliable surface water and groundwater to be available for the provision of safe drinking water. Their health, their children’s health, their food production, and their recreational opportunities all depend on water.
- The quality of fresh water available in America is becoming increasingly problematic. In addition to concerns over clean water for human consumption, there are quality challenges due to increasing demands and contamination issues in producing food, energy, and industrial products.
- Municipalities and water management agencies struggle with the challenge of drinking water, sewer, and wastewater management obligations in the context of regional and national needs. The fragmentation in water governance raises important questions of scale and discussion of the benefits of consolidation and has led to the “one water” concept.
- The management of water resources has become increasingly complex due to the impact of drought, floods, and other effects of a changing climate. Climate-driven shocks represent a clear and increasing risk to both water quantity and quality.
- Nutrient pollution in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus in surface and groundwater present a growing threat to public health and local economies, contribute to harmful algal blooms, contaminate drinking water sources, and impose costly impacts on recreation, tourism, and fisheries.
- Other emerging threats to ecosystems and human health include pharmaceuticals, additives in personal care products, and engineered nanoparticles.
- Affordability and access to safe drinking water is a pressing equity issue that raises important concerns over racial and socioeconomic justice, as seen in Flint, Michigan; Appalachia; and Native American reservations. Policymakers need economic and policy tools to provide reliable clean water to all citizens while ensuring that utilities can cover their costs.
- Water and sewer infrastructure will require more than one trillion dollars in investments over the next two decades to maintain current levels of service. Most costs will be passed on to ratepayers, so it is imperative to understand the distributional consequences of water and develop policies that alleviate financial burdens on low-income families across the United States.
The discussions were held throughout the fall of 2018 in Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Houston, and the District of Columbia. They were attended by water professionals in industry; utilities; philanthropy; academia; and local, state, and federal government.
Further engagement took place at the One Water Summit in Minneapolis in July 2018 and in consultations concurrent with the roundtables. In the coming months, RFF experts will be developing research and policy engagement on water resources, building on the key findings of these roundtables and reports.
Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.
Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.