On World Water Day, White House Holds Water Summit

Today is World Water Day, and President Obama is using it to highlight his "moonshot for water," which he began last year.

"We need to up our game on water. That’s the message we have today," Obama says. "We crushed it on solar, and we’re going to do the same on water."

Through research, grants, and incentives for private sector investment, solar is mainstream in the US and now he’s applying that formula for water.

At a White House Water Summit today, $5 billion has been pledged by 150 companies, nonprofits and the federal government to "enhance the sustainability of water in the US" over the coming 10 years.

Water Summit

While the recent focus has been on infrastructure and lead problems in Flint, Michigan and beyond, our water woes go way beyond that thanks to climate change. We’ve got both intensifying drought and floods to deal with.

We need to:

  • Fix infrastructure and use better materials so that water leaks don’t siphon off 16% of our water supply.
  • Manage water sources much better, which alone would cut consumption by a third – through making appliances more efficient, for example.
  • Accelerate research and massively deploy water technologies such as recycled water and renewable energy-powered desalinisation.

For too many years, federal spending on infrastructure has fallen, leaving it in ever greater disrepair. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our drinking water infrastructure a "D+ Grade."

The problem goes beyond old pipes, however. In industrial Flint, for example, car manufacturers dumped toxic effluent into the river for decades, causing the water to be undrinkable: oils, lubricating fluids battery and paint waste, on and on.

Summit Announcements

At today’s Summit, the private sector, for example, stepped up with $1.5 billion to finance decentralized, scalable water management solutions, and $500 million to develop water reclamation and reuse systems.

  • A new interagency National Drought Resilience Partnership will coordinate efforts on drought-resilience, response, and recovery. About 13% of the US is in drought at the moment, affecting 39 million people, and conditions are expected to intensify.
  • The Center for Natural Resources Investment is a new division in the Department of the Interior. It will promote private investment in water infrastructure and facilitate locally led water exchange agreements in the western US.
  • After spending over $270 million last year on drought-related measures, the federal government will distribute about $55 million in grants for projects that increase the efficiency of water use, increase energy efficiency and renewable energy (which vastly reduce water use compared to coal and gas), and make sure ecosystems get water.

It’s not that progress hasn’t been made. Manufacturing has become more efficient, using less energy and water, and overall, water consumption in the US is down 13% since 2005 while our population has grown, says the US Geological Survey.

Much of the challenge, is merely getting efficient technologies adopted. Less than 10% of farms use technologies that sense moisture in plants and soil or that schedule irrigation based on the weather.

Read the long list of actions the White House is facilitating in "Commitments to Action on Building a Sustainable Water Future and Water Resource Challenges and Opportunities for Water Technology Innovation.

The Plan for Flint?

In Michigan, Governor Snyder released a 75-point plan to deal with the crisis in Flint, but it sounds like it does everything except address the immediate problem.

Incredibly, the plan leaves the most important action item out: replace all lead service lines in Flint!

Instead, Snyder wants legislation that creates stronger water standards than EPA’s and better sharing of data between state and federal environmental agencies, for example. Oh, and he would continue the "pilot" underway to replace 30 water lines. An intermediate goal is to prioritize the next set of homes where lines would be replaced.

Flint’s priority is for the state legislature to release $165 million, on top of the $67 million approved (but not yet disbursed) so they can simply replace their lead service lines. The full price tag is an estimated $1.5 billion.

Congress has been arguing about money for Flint and is expected to approve $250 million for Flint and other water systems in need, way less than the $600 million requested, with $200 million specifically for Flint.

Meanwhile, while Snyder is "so concerned" about water standards, Michigan is leading 20 states in asking the Supreme Court to block EPA regulations that reduce toxic air emissions from power plants, such as mercury, arsenic and lead. The rules are in effect while EPA complies with a Supreme Court order to further calculate the costs.

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