Climate change, aging infrastructure, and dated governance and management structures have combined to undermine the safety and sustainability of the U.S. water systems. In order to restore these critical systems, the U.S. must develop a strategy that includes ensuring safe and clean water across the nation, upgrading water infrastructure, and improving the governance and management of water resources. Fellows, Scott Fosler, Anthony Griffin, Gerry Galloway, John Kirlin, and Mark Pisano, discuss past, current, and potential efforts to combat these challenges.
The interim goals of the 1972 Clean Water Act were to achieve “fishable and swimmable” waters by 1983 and eliminate all discharges of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985. The 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act’s goal was to ensure the quality of the drinking water used by the public. Those acts addressed clean water. Having water that is fishable, swimmable, and drinkable requires knowing what is in the water and taking steps to eliminate any pollution.
In our country, states have primacy in dealing with water. The federal government essentially issues standards and lets the states run the show. Nearly a decade ago, EPA admitted that many of the states were not doing a good job and that the federal government therefore did not have accurate measures of how clean and safe our water was.
This continues. States do not want federal intervention, and Congress is reluctant to demand the states report to the federal government. We get what we require. Some states perform effectively; others do not. We have been wrestling with non-point source pollution from agriculture and livestock for over 40 years and have come to conclusions on how to substantially reduce it but are just not ready to act -too politically and economically sensitive. The public wants to know and understand how water cleanliness is being determined and should demand that it meets the standards that exist to ensure its safety.
States, local governments and authorities have a great deal of authority and discretion, but to ensure safe and clean water across the nation requires overriding policies and regulations that set the foundation for clean water equity nationally. For this reason, leadership at the federal level is critical.
There are minimum standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for drinking water quality, and there are minimum standards to protect sources of drinking water. Are the standards current and uniformly applied? For example, the salt content in many water sources is rising, but there are no enforceable standards or strategies to deal with this emerging problem. This may become acute, as there are no existing remedies for the removal of salt from drinking water short of building desalination facilities normally associated with converting sea water to drinking water.
There needs to be uniform and fair processes for the allocation of water when demand exceeds existing sources. The Southwest is a case in point with the competition between agricultural uses and traditional residential and business expansion, not to mention the Native American reservations without developed water service for members. Since the Southwest covers states, municipalities, authorities, and Native American lands—not to mention the legal issues associated with property and water rights—the federal government is the only entity that can promote policy that can equitably apportion a critical, scarce resource. This begs the question whether the federal government is organized to tackle these issues anywhere except through the court system. Perhaps we need a U.S. Department of Infrastructure.
Finally, the federal government needs to provide financial resources to help implement improvements in the provision of safe drinking water for all. Once upon a time the federal government leveraged significant improvements in the national infrastructure, whether it was the building of the interstate highway system or the vital upgrades in sewerage treatment. Given the current state of our national infrastructure it is past due to reinvest in making our water systems safe and available for all. The federal government has the wherewithal to level the demand on federal dollars such that municipalities and authorities that do not have an adequate economic base are able to make the necessary improvements to their water systems. Additionally, States should consider promoting consolidation of small water utilities to promote a broader rate base while introducing economy of scale efficiencies. Small water systems generally are more challenged in meeting current and new operating standards and can be more susceptible to interruptions in service.
During the 1960s, the U.S. had a goal to reach the moon before 1970. Why not have a goal to ensure all Americans have access to safe, clean drinking water by 2030? Water is life!
In 2011, the OECD reported, “[t]here is enough water on Earth for all, even in areas where temporary shortages may exist. Managing water for all is not only a question of resources availability and money, but equally a matter of good governance.”
That, however, is sometimes difficult to see this when news reports abound about communities losing access to water or potentially losing access to water. In reality, when we peel back the onion, it is clear that careful planning and coordination within basins and regions can lead to effective management of water and adequate supplies. When municipalities were asked to reduce their water demand during the recent California droughts and wildfire seasons, they were able to make substantial reductions.
We have water shortages when we consider shortages to represent demand versus availability, not need versus availability. Obviously, it is sometimes difficult to determine that need, and deciding who makes those decisions is not a simple task. In 1973, the National Water Commission (our last real look at our national water challenges) indicated that we were operating with out-of-date water laws that needed to be revised. Decades later, no one has rushed to the front to address this issue, but we need to.
This is a big issue—in some parts of the country, in both urban and rural areas, environmental justice issues plague water supply, treatment and storm and flood water management. Recent studies of the flood challenges by the University of Maryland-College Park and Texas A&M, the National Academies, and the Association of State Floodplain Managers documented the gross disparity between the availability of flood mitigation in poor communities and the mitigation support available to the wealthier areas in flood prone communities.
In most cases, public organizations at the state and the federal levels do not have oversight or control over these inequities; as a result, they are given little attention. A survey conducted as part of the Maryland-Texas A&M study indicates that elected officials do not view these issues as major concerns. That is not good.
At a certain level, all it takes is money. Obviously, that is not the only problem, but it is at the heart of dealing with our water infrastructure challenges. Today we turn on the tap and water flows; the river rises and passes by without flooding us; our waterways continue to move millions of tons of essential cargo. Only occasionally do people get sick from water they drink (Flint should be an alarm bell), and only a few (little) dams fail out of greater than 80,000 nationally.
What this means is that we put our worries about water aside until something really bad happens—then we move out with vigor to handle a single problem instead of the whole. In the last decade, for example, we identified that we had thousands of miles of levees and hundreds of dams that were in unsatisfactory condition. Many municipal water supply, treatment and stormwater systems were degraded, and minimal funds were available to deal with the aging.
The recent flooding of downtown Houston resulted from water system infrastructure failures. This was just a repeat of similar failures in the communities across the country. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with this issue, simply passing on the bill to those that will follow us. Congress must come up with an approach that shares this challenge and its fiscal burden with the states and localities in an effective manner.
Upgrading water infrastructure requires long term planning from both an engineering and fiscal perspective. The magnitude of improving a significant capital investment dictates the requirements of planning and financing the improvements. Water itself is essentially free; it is the cost of withdrawal, treatment, storage, and transmission that accounts for its cost. Practically all water systems serving multiple residences and businesses were built in stages, growing according to demand.
Fortunately, most of the infrastructure associated with water works last for a long time, with water lines often operating for more than seventy years. Eventually, though, wear and weather will cause failure. The infrastructure’s longevity has fooled many water systems into deferring required maintenance and replacement of infrastructure. This holds down rates and taxes, and many believe that their systems should be able to last a few more years. Recent requirements to upgrade storm and waste water sewer systems have put a strain on combined water and sewer rates.
The prudent path to upgrading water infrastructure is to have a detailed ten-year capital improvement plan driven by the maintenance history of the water system with projected life cycles for all the major components for withdrawal, treatment, storage and transmission of water to customers. Because pumps and treatment machinery are constantly in use, they have a shorter life cycle than passive storage and transmission lines. Just as an organization will maintain payroll to provide for a consistent labor presence, the mechanical components need to be regularly maintained and replaced. This requires constant attention and investment: since water pipes on average last for 50 to 75 years, there should be a schedule to replace at least 1.5 percent of all transmission piping every year forever, which allows the system’s piping to be entirely replaced within a 75 year period. The replacement process would start with the oldest and most vulnerable pipes according to breakage history. If appropriately planned, the improvements can be paid for with some borrowing and modest rate increases.
First, we need to get together and talk about these agreements. In 1981, the US Water Resources Council, and several river basin commissions organized under a 1965 Water Resources Planning Act, were zeroed out. These entities were instituted to facilitate federal coordination of water resources activities and to foster basin level planning. Since their demise, no one has been coordinating federal programs, and little engagement on these issues has occurred among states, regions, and the federal government.
Watershed management is a hot topic in federal agencies and at state level, but the talk never seems to produce significant results. (It should be noted that across the country many smaller watersheds are able to do excellent work, but as the size of the watershed grows, it becomes very difficult to carry out). There have been arguments in the Missouri Basin for over 30 years; Florida, Georgia and Alabama cannot agree on how to manage the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River basins; and the list goes on.
There needs to be recognition that, for the long-haul, we need a broad scale cooperative effort. Currently, this is more of a crisis in water management where no one is in charge.
Scott Fosler, a member of the Academy’s Standing Panel on Intergovernmental Systems, identified the challenges facing the governance and management of water, noting that “solution sets are easy to recommend and difficult to map out and implement.” Water in all its dimensions is truly an intergovernmental/cross-sectorial issue that is complex and difficult to formulate solutions. Key among the issues are organizational and fiscal, which NAPA can provide valuable input. They are bound and tied to other issues such as climate change, sustainability challenges, resiliency and emergencies. The solution sets are complex and difficult, resulting in piece meal recommendations that do not enable us to resolve this challenge. The IGM panel has developed a set of “tools for effective intergovernmental action” that can be employed to start testing and experimenting with solutions that could be helpful in dealing with this complexity. They do not lay out a road map, but rather provide a way to start thinking and acting on problems such as water.
The Standing Panel on Intergovernmental Systems has conducted a number of case studies testing these “tools” including water case studies, prepared by Rich Callahan and myself. Members of the Panel along with partners are now using these tools in preparing policy suggestions on organizational and financing approaches that could be used to address and bring solution sets to those participating in this sector. For example, how to approach dealing with the 40,000 municipal water companies and 10,000 small wastewater entities, that EPA has identified, that are underfunded and not able to deal with their operation and maintenance demands, including the refurbishing from old and antiquated systems that are impacted with lead and other contaminates. At a larger scale, how do river systems that are dealing with quantity and quality issues, or ground water systems that are facing clean up or management, fund and operate and address their goals. What is the organizational structure needed? How can partnerships be established? How might a financing program be structured that enables the current fiscal constraints facing all the levels of government, be overcome to move forward on a solution set? What can the levels of governments and sectors do to assist one another to craft solutions?
As this work is done, it will be provided as input to the deliberations on this Grand Challenge.
Water governance has three major challenges.
The first is complexity, by which I mean especially an array of important issues that entail high marginal costs of analysis, negotiation, and investment for small marginal gains in system improvement and outcomes (and, therefore, typically lack strong political support and consequently are all the more vexing). For example, the Academy’s 2017 report for the Environmental Protection Agency, Developing a New Framework for Community Affordability of Clean Water Services, identified a wide range of problems and possible solutions, few of which were clear cut. In fact, the report’s most conceptually simple finding was the need to fashion comprehensive and integrated approaches to water governance and management, easy to recommend and difficult to realistically map out and implement.
The complexity challenge involves multiple, overlapping, and competing: (1) uses of water (drinking water, water pollution, waste and storm water management, recreation, navigation, increasingly in extreme conditions such as draught and flooding); (2) regions, whose contours are determined by standing bodies of water (oceans, bays, estuaries, lakes), running water (rivers, streams, creeks), ground water (aquafers), moisture (in soil and air), ice, and associated watersheds; and (3) institutions, including public and private entities at the various political and geographical levels, from community to global.
The second factor is uncertainty. Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods held that one of the key features of modernity was the mastery of risk, in contrast to previous epochs struggling with the unknown, and related uncertainty. While massive improvements in computer capacity and data manipulation have continued to enhance the mastery of risk in numerous areas in the contemporary world, the emergence of multiple disruptive forces—often unseen and even unknowable—has created a new and unfamiliar environment for water governance. Climate change is Exhibit A. Perhaps this is, in the end, what will define “postmodern” governance, in Bernstein’s formulation.
And the third factor is politics. Even to the extent that there are sound and reasonably understandable solutions to the challenges that water issues pose for governance, the roiled politics of our era are bound to make them more complex and uncertain. Public administration has generally been shy about wading into questions of politics, a tendency that defined the field from its modern inception in the late 19th century. The turn to “public affairs, “public policy,” and “public management” in the mid-20th century widened the space for incorporating considerations of political realities into the study, design, and operation of public systems. And the further broadening to concerns of “governance” by the Academy fully accepted those political realities. Any serious effort to grapple with the foremost challenges to water governance today simply cannot avoid taking account of the inherently political nature of public governance systems, and the unprecedented and problematic forms contemporary politics has been taking.
After the Water Resources Council was no longer funded, the Western governors sent a letter to the president indicating that such a coordinating body was necessary but should include state participation to ensure that state views were included in the decisions being made. Various studies have drawn the same conclusions about water supply and treatment, flood management, and navigation. The need to bring everybody to the table and not have the decisions be federally driven is critical. The same challenge exists at the state and local level. Stovepipes do not create cooperative efforts or good management.
There are three broad imperatives: (1) get the geography right; (2) get the financing right; (3) anticipate nature and technology will be disruptive, so build capacity for resiliency
Within this framework, the federal government should loosen the silos of current policies and programs, empower the use and creation of spatially-defined cross-policy/program decision arenas and financing systems, and cleanup the economics of current financing systems, including close examination of subsidies (a starting point for analysis is the consequences of no subsidies for use of natural resources, “fossil” or “green”).
The starting point for water policy going forward is an understanding of how much water will available in the future and how reliable and usable will those quantities be, and the distribution of those quantities over the landscape of the country. This understanding applies to the US and equally to the world. At a basic science level, the total amount of water globally is not changing rapidly, if at all, but the distribution issues described above are changing rapidly. The underlying reason being the variability and changes in our climate, causing the basic science that was developed for streamflow management, water transport decision rules and reservoir operating decision rules to become unreliable and non-functional. The reason is that these forecasts are based on historical statistical information that is out of date. The result is that planning and operational decision-making in water has large variances in costs associated with decision making for quantity, quality and flood management. These conditions are affecting all the water bodies in the US: rivers, lakes, and estuaries.
Compounding these difficulties is the variability in weather, precipitation and the distribution of water over the landscape of America. Resulting in increasing intensity and the geographical distribution of rainfall and runoff. New phenomenon is appearing called atmospheric rivers, caused by these intense events and they have greater impacts in parts of the country, altering the hydrologic cycles in regions of the country. The Chesapeake Bay case study of the IGM panel describes the effects these impacts are having on that significant water body effecting seven states. While we have an increasing amount of data, particularly space collected data, which has significantly improved our data base, we have less scientific understanding of these impacts, and the knowledge we do have has larger variability and utility.
The same variability is present in our understanding in sea-level fluctuations associated with storm events, both wind and rainfall as well as ice flow melting. Change in sea-level and storm surges are upending our capacity to operate historical storm water systems. In some instances, storm water is actually flowing in the wrong directions as stationary storm systems are being overcome with rising sea and ocean waters. The City of Cambridge Massachusetts and the cities surrounding the San Francisco Bay are good case studies.
The Academy’s Standing Panel on Intergovernmental Systems and the Price School of Policy at USC is working with researchers at Caltech/MIT/ JPL/Naval Research Lab who are in the second year of a three- five-year effort of developing a new approach to modelling and understanding climate change, increased weather predictability and sea level behavior. The effort is using the massive new data bases collected from satellites and analyzing contemporary data to understand change. This new approach can reduce the risk factor associated with decision making in water, weather and climate and sea level changes. How this information can be used in public agency decision-making is the focus of our efforts.
We have an extremely talented pool of scientific talent in this country, especially in the water sphere, and considerable data exist. This pool could assist in assuring timely and wise decision making. In some cases, decision-makers are unaware what data are needed or their availability. In other cases, they are content to move along as they have in the past with the data that are given to them. Our decision-makers, largely public officials, need to take the time to understand what information they need (consult local academics) and demand that it be produced in the process of making decisions that have significant impacts for decades to come.
I spent my entire career working on water-related issues. Dealing with water in an effective way requires an integrative approach. It is important to move beyond narrow programmatic responses that are not strategic and do not help craft problem solving strategies that we need for water. For example, the dramatic change in weather and atmospheric rivers has rendered useless the forecasting and flow information that we historically relied on for all our decision-making rules on water quantity and quality.
The work that is being done by the Caltech/MIT/ JPL/Naval Research Lab on climate change and increased weather variability is focusing on developing a new approach that can reduce the risk factor associated with this issue. Sustainability strategies that provide integrated approaches will be necessary if we are to be successful in water problem solving.
Scott Fosler. Former Mayor of Chevy Chase and Senior Lecturer, Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland. Former Visiting Professor and Roger C. Lipitz Senior Fellow, Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland. Former President, National Academy of Public Administration; Vice President and Director of Government Studies, Committee for Economic Development; Member and President, Montgomery County (Maryland) Council; President, Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments; Senior Fellow, Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies; Assistant to Executive Director, National Commission on Productivity; Senior Staff, Institute of Public Administration.
Anthony Griffin. Practitioner in Residence, Center for State and Local Leadership, Department of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University; At-large Board Member, Fairfax County Water Authority. Former County Executive, Fairfax County, Virginia; Acting County Executive and Deputy County Executive, Fairfax County, Virginia; City Manager, Falls Church, Virginia; Acting County Manager and Deputy County Manager, Arlington County, Virginia; 2nd Lieutenant-Captain, Artillery and Infantry, U.S. Marine Corps.
Gerry Galloway. Glenn L. Martin Institute Professor of Engineering, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Affiliate Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, College Park; Visiting Scholar, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources; consultant. Retired Brigadier General, U.S. Army. Former positions include Dean of the Academic Board, United States Military Academy, Dean of the Faculty, Industrial College of the Armed Forces; Executive Director, Interagency Floodplain Management Review, Executive Office of the President; Member, Mississippi River Commission; Secretary U.S. Section, U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission.
John Kirlin. Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Founding Director, Public Policy Programs, McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific; Consultant. Former Executive Director, Delta Vision, State of California; Executive Director, Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, State of California; Director, Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis; Professor of Public Affairs and Senior Scholar, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University; Former Emery E. Olson Chair in Public-Private Entrepreneurship, School of Public Administration, University of Southern California, Sacramento; Interim Dean and Associate Dean, School of Public Administration, and Co-Director, Sacramento Public Affairs Center, University of Southern California.
Mark Pisano. Professor of Practice of Public Administration, University of Southern California; Senior Fellow and Board President, Southwest Megaregion Alliance; Co-Chairman, Federal System Panel and Infrastructure Task Force, National Academy of Public Administration; Co-Chairman, Infrastructure Working Group of California Forward; and Co-Director, America 2050. Former Executive Director, Southern California Association of Governments; Chief Executive Officer, Southern California Hazardous Waste Management Authority; Chief Executive Officer, Regional Institute of Southern California; Director, Water Quality Planning Division, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Vice President and General Manager, Frank Pisano and Associates.
 For additional detail, see these reports: