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Seven Ideas for Fixing Water in the United States

The U.S. Water Alliance heard from 500 people in the water sector about the nation’s water challenges and solutions and distilled conversations down to seven key ideas, says Radhika Fox, the organization’s chief executive.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The U.S. Water Alliance has compiled the top ideas from around the country on how to address water challenges.Christina Spicuzza/Flickr

The United States is facing a number of water issues: drought, wildfires, pollution and inequitable distribution. In fact, when it comes to water policy, the U.S. Water Alliance says that the nation is at a “crossroads” of short-term crises – like deadly storms and acute pollution problems – and long-term trends such as climate change and crumbling infrastructure.

To come up with ideas on how to address nationwide water issues, the Alliance launched a new campaign, called the One Water for America Listening Sessions.

At 15 sessions across the country, the U.S. Water Alliance met with large groups of people from across the water sector to hear what water issues they were facing, and what ideas that might have for solutions. The alliance heard from 500 people – from mayors to utility managers to farmers – says Radhika Fox, the organization’s chief executive officer. And they distilled the information down to seven main ideas:

  1. Advance regional collaboration on water management.
  2. Accelerate agriculture-utility partnerships to improve water quality.
  3. Sustain adequate funding for water infrastructure.
  4. Blend public and private expertise and investment to address water infrastructure needs.
  5. Redefine affordability in the 21st century.
  6. Reduce lead risks and embrace the mission of protecting public health.
  7. Accelerate technology adoption to build efficiency and improve water service.

None of these issues are new or original to the U.S. Water Alliance, says Fox, but they are important to continue to talk about. The Alliance will be releasing reports and hosting webinars on each idea throughout the year. Water Deeply spoke with Fox about what she learned from these sessions and which water issues are most important in the West.

Water Deeply: When you call these “One Water for America Listening Sessions,” what do you mean by the term “One Water”?

Radhika Fox: The One Water approach really came out of the belief that if we have a mindset that all water has value – whether it’s drinking water or wastewater or the foundation drainage in buildings – and if we manage that resource in a way that’s integrated … we get to better outcomes.

We have a whole regulatory regime for drinking water. We have a whole regulatory regime around how we manage wastewater. We have yet another one around storm water. By looking at water in that very siloed way, we, I think, miss the boat on some things that can really be transformative.

For example, historically, we thought: “Wastewater, it’s a waste, right? We have to treat it, we have to then return it back to the environment.” But actually, many utilities around the country are realizing that wastewater is a treasure that can be mined for all kinds of things. For example, in D.C. and many other communities around the country, they’re able to generate energy from the wastewater treatment process, and that offsets the pressure on the energy grid.

When we take this One Water approach, we don’t, for example, see wastewater as a waste, but we see it as a treasure that can yield all these other benefits for our communities.

Water Deeply: How did you boil down talking with 500 different people into just seven ideas?

Fox: Well, I will say that it was a grooming process of taking what were probably hundreds of hours of conversations with people from all walks of life, and to try to crystallize that into lessons from a nation.

I would say the seven big ideas, they’re not new ideas that folks in the world of water management haven’t heard of, but they are the fundamentals, right? They are those things that, if every community were to do, if the federal government was to focus on, if every governor said, “These are my seven priorities for how I’m going to manage water in my state,” we would have a total transformation in this country when it comes to water.

Water Deeply: Were there any ideas among them that really stood out?

Fox: Yeah. I think one of the big ideas that came up at every single listening session was the importance of regional collaboration to secure our water future. There was a real recognition and understanding that different stakeholders impact the watershed; what happens in San Francisco as far as the choices we make with water management impacts L.A. What a farmer is doing on his field impacts the quality of the source water that is someone else’s drinking water.

Another huge topic was this issue of how are we going to pay for the needed investments in our water infrastructure, and how do we do that while making sure that rates are affordable, especially for lower-income people. We had a whole other idea dedicated to the affordability question because, for so many communities, investment and affordability are two sides of the same coin, and we can’t really solve one without attending to the other.

Water Deeply: Were there themes or ideas that were unique in the West?

Fox: One big theme that I would say that we heard quite a bit in the Western states was the role of technology. In the West, we have a mindset already that we have to value every drop – even if we have a heavy rain year, that’s an anomaly. We have to operate from the mindset of scarcity. There was a lot of discussion both around how one of the challenges we face in the water industry is that we tend to be more risk-averse than other sectors of the economy.

Of course, in some ways it’s understandable, because [they’re] responsible for providing drinking water 24/7. But that risk-averse nature of the industry has also meant that we haven’t been as quick to embrace technological innovation and the power that that can bring in terms of finding new solutions to water management.

Water Deeply: Who do you hope will be listening to these upcoming webinars on these big ideas, and what do you hope comes of it?

Fox: If you look at the state level, we’ve got 36 governors who are up for reelection this year, so we hope that some of the ideas really infuse the debate in statehouses around the country.

I think that with the listening sessions, what we learned from being in conversations with 500 people around the country is so much of this work is happening because of partnership. It is because in the Cedar River Watershed in Iowa farmers have decided to work with water managers that they are seeing incredible water quality gains. That in places like Detroit, people who’ve never been involved in water are getting involved, and making affordability a fundamental issue to the quality of life. I think we really are talking to everybody, and we hope that all your readers really see an actionable idea in these seven big ideas that they can implement themselves.

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