The Top Five Water Resources Issues for All Americans in 2013

RTAblog_2012_1226_FaucetThere’s a new political climate at the federal and state levels of government. With the presidential election decided, we have some direction regarding policy and budget so state governments will plan accordingly. Water is one of the issues that we watch closely so we’ve compiled some notes about what to expect in 2013.

1. Navigable Waters
Under United States law, bodies of water are distinguished by their use. The federal government regulates “navigable waters” used for business or commerce. It can determine who uses the waters, when we use them and how we use them – this includes the right to dredge channels and build dams. The clear definition and limitation of “navigable waters” is critical because it sets the limits of what the US government, often through its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can regulate.

For years, the US EPA has been working to expand the definition of “navigable waters” in what many perceive as an unnecessary power grab. If the definition is expanded, it could include ponds, drainage ditches and other structures. This would invite federal government regulation into state and municipal government issues AND invite additional federal regulation of water on private lands. [You can Google “EPA navigable waters” to find much more information – included proposed legislation to specifically limit federal regulation.]

2. Pollution
Social media is making it much easier for citizens and interest groups to spread their message about local and regional issues. This is helping advocacy groups like the Georgia Water Coalition (GWC) share advice and form a united front to address issues like water pollution.

The GWC’s Dirty Dozen is an annual list of Georgia’s top twelve water pollution sources. Sharing it through social media allows the GWC to encourage citizens to contact their legislators to request an appropriate response. This is significantly more effective than trying to match the lobbying budget of a large company that pollutes. This grassroots effort also puts constituents in touch with their legislators.

3. Drought
Americans are slowly coming to understand that drought is the normal condition and abundance of water is unusual. For generations, we’ve not made water a priority – many US cities combined their sewers and storm water structures to save money. We’ve got to do a better job trapping rain water so we can use it for drinking water, irrigation and other applications before it’s releases into the watershed.

The infrastructure that cities use to supply water and collect storm water are huge and hugely expensive. Sanitary sewers and storm water systems typically rely on gravity so they can’t just be located anywhere there’s land available. A lack of planning and our failure to think regionally may result in cities using eminent domain to take strategic properties needed for water treatment facilities.

4. Water Storage|Reservoirs
Storing water in reservoirs or tanks also requires strategic locations. Reservoirs are typically located along an existing body of water (a river or stream). There are only so many places along a stream or river where water can be impounded to make a reservoir. As our cities expand, the prized lots along bodies of water are among the first to be developed. There’s constant pressure on states and the Army Corps of Engineers to reduce stream and lake buffers that prevent development within a certain distance of regulated waters.

The result is more and more water systems building reservoirs from which water is pumped through a pipe system into a water system. This is more costly to build, operate and maintain than older, gravity-flow systems. Reservoirs also lose a lot of water through evaporation so they require more input than their expected output. Long-term planning and better (decentralized) storage solutions will allow us to realize much better efficiency and water delivered at a lower cost.

5. Smart Water Grid
There’s been lots of discussion about the “smart grid” – an electrical grid that uses better information to provide more efficient and more reliable service. Most of us get electricity from centralized power generation – the power company has a central power plant that distributes power through a system of transmission lines. Our water systems are almost identical because we get our water from a central treatment plant that distributes water through a system of supply lines.

We’re always astonished, if not depressed, by the amount of water lost through leaks in our water supply systems. As we travel to trade conferences, we’re now seeing more companies offering monitoring of in-home water use so we can realize better performance through improved behaviors and increased efficiency. The systems often report real-time use through smart phone or tablet apps that allow you to analyze the information to see what you could improve. They also help identify leaks in our homes. We won’t be surprised to see incentives and then some mandatory requirements for these systems.

In Conclusion
This is the second in our three-part policy series we’re sharing at the end of the year to forecast what we’re expecting in 2013. We began with notes on the fiscal cliff and we’re working on what we’re affectionately calling “the mother of all transportation blog posts” to share with you tomorrow. As always, please leave a comment to let us know your thoughts. Thanks!

Image by tripleigrek used under creative commons license.

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