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Kate Robertson headshot

The Democratic Debates Have Overlooked Water, Though It Absolutely Matters to the Economy

By Kate Robertson
Democratic Debates

Tonight, the 10 leading Democratic candidates take the stage for a debate, the third in the cycle. Each one of them has been busy over the past few months releasing their climate plans, and they all participated in the recent seven-hour long marathon climate town hall. There is a lot of overarching similarity between most of the plans (Andrew Yang, as in a many policy areas, is a bit of an outlier with his stances on geoengineering and nuclear energy), but only a few lay out details relating to water.

Here’s where Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Beto O'Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang stand:

  • All the candidates talk about water in the context of resilience, such as natural infrastructure (restoring wetlands, for example) and hardening infrastructure. Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar keep their plans there.
  • Castro (pictured above) lays out plans to strengthen the Clean Water Act, fully funding water programs, and combating pollution and runoff from industry and agriculture. His plan specifically calls for updated flood maps and improving flood protection standards. This was a huge issue post-Hurricane Harvey in his home state of Texas.
  • Harris states that clean water is a fundamental human right. She proposes improving water infrastructure, affordability, and clean water. Her plan includes a Water Justice Act to ensure sustainable water supplies.
  • O’Rourke’s plan includes research and development priorities and funding for water infrastructure.
  • Sanders lays out a plan to address crumbling infrastructure, including a green infrastructure jobs corps, and includes several plans for environmental justice initiatives related to water (every candidate has an environmental justice or affordability component to his or her plan, as well as a jobs plan).
  • Warren make no specific reference to water in her plan, other than to note that everyone deserves access to clean water.
  • Yang throws some climate science in, noting that the southwestern United States, in particular, will suffer more extreme droughts, and proposes the creation of a “Climate Change Adaptation Institute” that will continually monitor and propose solutions for urban planning, agriculture, and land use, especially during droughts. He also notes support of water recapture and talks about sustainable infrastructure.

It should be noted that the renewable energy or net-zero emissions plans that each candidate has will have a significant impact on water, as our traditional fossil fuel-based energy portfolio is incredibly water intensive.

So, why is water so important in this discussion? For one thing, 93 percent of climate change impacts will be felt in the water sector, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Droughts and floods have already become more of an issue for every sector of the country: cities, agriculture, industry. Cities that cannot manage their water will find fewer companies willing to locate there and bring employees. As demands on water sources increase, if businesses are not willing to reduce their demand, they may find themselves at the back of the queue in getting access. Smart water management is the key to sustainability in every sense of the word.

The real estate industry is one area that is already starting to feel the pinch. Put aside the issues with the real estate industry and sea level rise, some lakeside communities are already finding themselves high and dry. For example, as water infrastructure crumbles, a quasi-governmental river authority in Texas is draining lakes to ensure more damage is not caused when the dams fail.

Climate change is not a single issue, but many wrapped into one. Water is a key issue. Infrastructure, resiliency, water quality—these are all critical aspects related to water. It is imperative for the candidates to recognize that water flows through every aspect of our lives.

Plans should include intersectionality, not simply grouping things together. As a start, we need to give the water sector a role in renewable energy goals. We also need to increase technical support and funding for new business models for the water utility sector, which typically lags behind electric utilities when it comes to innovation. In the end, if water is not on the table for discussion, we may soon find it’s not available for drinking, either.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Kate Robertson headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Robertson