Climate change, aging infrastructure, and dated governance and management structures have combined to undermine the safety and sustainability of America’s water systems. In recent years, many parts of the country have experienced drought, leading states to limit the amount of water that can be used for agricultural purposes. For example, New Mexico’s demand takes more than 80 percent of the largely arid state’s annual supply. Although that leaves 20 percent, such a narrow margin means that the state may not be able to withstand an extended drought or address an increase in demand from population or industry growth. Some localities throughout the country have experienced contaminated drinking water due to aging lead pipes. More generally, state and local governments face difficulties in distributing water efficiently to industry, agriculture, and the general public. Because the law is often unclear about which state has rights to specific water sources, water access disputes between the states have grown.
The nation has struggled to reach consensus on how to rebuild all types of our aging infrastructure, and these challenges are magnified in our highly localized and fragmented water systems. Through the early 20th Century, water was typically supplied through lead pipes; not until 1986 were lead-containing service lines for new plumbing systems banned nationwide. Many homes around the country, especially in older cities, continue to be served by the older lead pipes. This aging infrastructure, which requires high maintenance costs, is particularly vulnerable to shedding lead if localities start to use more corrosive water.
From a governance standpoint, many states have a multiplicity of small water districts overseen by boards with limited subject matter expertise and oversight gaps. Legal and cultural clashes over water rights have become widespread. Water is a critical issue of social equity and environmental justice, as we have seen in places like Flint, MI and Newark, NJ. In some communities, unsafe drinking water means that individuals have to pay for bottled water in addition to monthly payments to water districts, and this has a disproportionate impact on the economically disadvantaged. Similarly, issues of persistent flooding from stormwater and rising rivers often have disproportionate effects on historically marginalized communities such as Freeport, Illinois.
Public agencies and administrators have a key role to play in creating safe and sustainable regional water systems. All levels of government will need to collaborate, and states will need to address the pressing issues of climate change and create new water plans to ensure that every sector’s water requirements are considered and prioritized when supply is limited. Authorities and regulations that enable investment strategies that support infrastructure repair, modernization, and maintenance to ensure safe and healthy water supplies must be developed.
As part of the Grand Challenge to “Create Safe and Sustainable Regional Water Systems,” the Academy will work with stakeholders to determine how to:
This is an illustrative list of topics. As the Grand Challenges campaign kicks off and progresses, other issues can and will be addressed based on stakeholder feedback about critical needs and opportunities.