America’s Water Supply Is Going Down the Drain

America’s Water Supply Is Going Down the Drain

US NEWS & WORLD REPORT 07/02/14
By Michael Shank and U.S. Congressman Matt Cartwright

Last month’s news that Americans will need to pay more for water comes at an interesting time, just as summer season commences and community pools populate. A survey last month of 368 water utility companies in America suggests that two-thirds of the utilities have insufficient funds to cover their costs and will likely increase fees to make up for the shortfall. This news makes clear that for too long we’ve taken water for granted, assuming there would always be an abundant and cheap supply. That’s not the case anymore.

Water is not an unlimited resource. Reports of damaging droughts are increasingly grabbing our headlines, and traditional sources of freshwater are showing signs of stress. Recent droughts in America have been the most expansive in decades. At the peak of the 2012 drought, for example, 81 percent of the continental United States was abnormally dry. In addition to these severe weather patterns, nearly one in 10 watersheds is stressed.

This is a serious problem. Water is one of our most important resources. Not only is it essential for human livelihood, it plays a crucial role in almost every aspect of our country’s economy, whether it’s farming, industry, recreation, ecology or electric generation.

The origins of our stressed water supply are due not only to a changing climate, but also because of our increased demand for water. The U.S. currently uses about 148 trillion gallons of fresh water every year and our population continues to grow, with 40 state water managers expecting water shortages to occur in their states over the next 10 years.

Since water is an essential, irreplaceable component in all aspects of society, it is crucial that we find ways to prepare for an increasingly scarce water supply. Many states and federal agencies are already preparing plans to deal with this future. States are assessing current water reserves, developing drought preparedness plans and taking conservation actions. And federal agencies have executed many of the same actions, in addition to supporting state water management efforts. But more is needed.

To be clear, the primary responsibility for managing freshwater resources lies with the states. The decisions they make should be guided by the best possible information, but are often complicated by too many inputs and a lack of coordination. It is no surprise, then, that a recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that increased collaboration between federal, state and local water authorities would strengthen state water management activities. We should take heed.

In response to these needs, the GAO report, and to ensure that we are serving as the best possible stewards of our water resources, Rep. Cartwright recently introduced the Peak Water Resolution in the House of Representatives.

The possibility that we are approaching the point of peak water, which is the point at which freshwater is being consumed faster than it is being replenished, is real and demands quick action. Once we have a solid understanding of water availability, sustainability and security at both national and local levels, federal, state and local authorities can better coordinate their activities and make as thorough plans as possible. This bill gets us closer to that goal.

The Peak Water Resolution calls for prioritizing the National Water Availability and Use Assessment program, provisioned in the Secure Water Act, with the sense of urgency that characterized our mission to put a man on the moon. In order to facilitate collaboration between federal and state authorities, we must collect and provide the most current information on water availability and use as possible. And we must do so as soon as possible. We cannot overstate the urgency of this task.

Ensuring that our children have access to the same abundance of natural resources that our country has enjoyed throughout its history is our responsibility. Conserving water and preparing for a future with scarce water resources are areas in which it is critical for Congress to show leadership. This is why the House of Representatives must now reaffirm its interest in understanding the growing constraints on the availability, quality and use of our water resources. And the time to do so is now, before another devastating drought descends on America.

Matt Cartwright represents Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District. He serves on the Oversight and Government Reform and Natural Resources committees. Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.