By Jon Freedman
Whichever side of the climate change debate you stand on, it’s impossible to deny that weather patterns worldwide are changing in unpredictable ways. Storms are escalating in strength and frequency. The retreat of mountain glaciers and snowcaps is creating a water gap in our reservoirs. Numerous regions, including the U.S. Pacific Coast, are battling record droughts – and floods. The impact varies geographically, but everywhere – especially in combination with other drivers of global change – it is bringing the world’s water crisis into focus.
But severe weather is only one part of the problem. Aging, and subsequently failing, infrastructure affecting access to clean water is prevalent across much of the country – a challenge that will only intensify due to growing and shifting populations.
For decades, water scarcity was fiercely debated; today, we recognize it as an unfortunate and permanent reality.. Rapid ecological and economic transformation has put water supply and quality at the forefront of public priorities across the U.S. and around the world. Global leaders are now paying attention and leaning in, including President Barack Obama and his administration.
Last month, the White House hosted its first Water Summit to “shine a spotlight on the importance of cross-cutting creative solutions to solving the water problems of today, as well as to highlight the innovative strategies that will catalyze change in how we use, conserve, protect, and think about water in the years to come.” I had the honor of attending the landmark event, aptly held on World Water Day, and was encouraged by what I heard. I’ve been even more inspired by the commitments the U.S. government and other associations and organizations have made since then – all in the spirit of advancing policy, technology and collaboration to build a more sustainable and secure water future.
Those are the keys and they bear repeating: policy, technology, collaboration. As President Barack Obama’s science and technology czar, John Holdren, commented, the challenges are great. They’re also solvable – but not by any one law, innovation or organization. Speaking at the Water Summit, Alice Hill, special assistant to President Obama and member of the National Security Council staff, said: “We really just aren’t prepared for the new normal that we already are experiencing: not enough water in some places and sometimes too much in others. We need to do more to conserve the water we have, and we need to invest in that water infrastructure that rests below our feet. We need to find new ways to work together to solve these problems.”
At the state level, government agencies are beginning to make recommendations on water reuse strategies. Progress is being fueled, in part, by The U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, which recently made available a new funding opportunity for water entities in the Western U.S. to conduct reclamation research (Title XVI Water Reclamation and Reuse Program). This cost-shared funding opportunity helps communities address water supply challenges by providing much-needed financial support for research to establish or expand water reuse markets, improve water reuse facilities, or upgrade new facilities with state-of-the-art technology.
Wastewater reuse and recycling is proving to be the driving force for addressing water scarcity. But government involvement is needed to promote and incentivize reuse. Financing, of course, is critical.
At the end of 2015, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel announced the government’s new water innovation strategy. Known informally as a “moonshot for water,” the strategy’s goals are two-fold: invest in breakthrough R&D to reduce the costs of new water supply technologies and improve water sustainability through existing technologies. By utilizing existing technologies to implement better water management practices, the U.S. has the potential to unlock water savings up to 33 percent.
As part of the new water innovation strategy, the U.S. Interior Department also launched a new Center for Natural Resources Investment. The new Center will focus on three objectives to improve the country’s water scarcity challenges: increase investments to support water supply resiliency in the western U.S., rehabilitate aging infrastructure and leverage private-public partnerships to bring more innovation to the water industry. These improvements will have a direct impact on the availability of funding and technology for public water systems.
Successfully securing our water future depends on our ability to work together. Private-public partnerships are paramount. One of the commitments announced during the Water Summit in March is the Water Funder Initiative’s (WFI) launch of Project Water Data, which is an effort to work with federal, state and local governments, as well as private- and social-sector partners to modernize data systems that support healthy communities, thriving agricultural systems and clean waterways. The project, supported and guided in part by the Bechtel Foundation among many other partners, will mobilize a coalition to highlight the tremendous value of and need for open, integrated water data that will inform optimal decision making.
The availability and analysis of data is a crucial component of every sector operating in the 21st century; the water sector is no exception. By unlocking better quality and quantity of data with regard to usage, flows, ground water and more, we’ll be better equipped to develop technology and initiate the policies that will improve the sustainability of not only our water systems, but of our environment.
More and more communities around the world are confronting acute water scarcity issues. I applaud the U.S. government – and all those who participated in the Water Summit and have since pledged their commitments – for making water the national priority it deserves, and needs, to be. Together, we can solve the water challenges we face today and secure our water future.
Image credit: Pixabay
Jon Freedman is the Global Partnerships & Government Affairs Leader for GE Power, Water & Process Technologies. Jon also co-leads GE’s Natural Gas Policy Working Group. Follow Jon on LinkedIn and GE Water on Twitter.