For years, water issues have revolved around the resource being too scarce, too abundant or too polluted. 2022 may be the year when we finally start talking about water extreme events being too frequent as well. From droughts to floods to cities with boil water notice, the intervals between events continue to shrink as climate change advances.
2022 may also prove to be a year of change for water. Significant legal and policy shifts are underway that should be on everyone’s watchlist.
While the Build Back Better bill continues to rise and fall in congressional negotiations, the codification of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021 means we should start seeing some critical investments in water infrastructure flow to cities and states. Money has already started to flow: $7.4 billion has been allocated to replace lead pipes, an arguably urgent need. About $55 billion total has been budgeted for clean water infrastructure, but that is still just a drop in the bucket for what is needed. Altogether, the infrastructure law authorizes funding for about 100 projects, but that goes beyond water to include things such as upgrades at ports, airports and roads as well as improving broadband infrastructure and cleaning up polluted sites.
Resilience is a cornerstone of the infrastructure bill. That means energy and water systems will receive an inflow of capital for improvements. Careful consideration is warranted, however, to ensure the funds address past inequities as well future scenario planning. For example, using outdated climate models to determine investments could set aside more flexible and innovative approaches to resilience planning. Traditional water infrastructure typically relies on structures such as dikes and dams, but climate change demands not only using the past as a reliable indicator of the future. The frequency of precipitation fluctuations puts pressure on systems, so building with flexibility and community needs at the forefront also require using the latest climate modeling.
While the infrastructure bill budgets around $240 billion for environmental justice projects, including water, many advocates feel it not only falls short but misdirects some of the spending towards flashier projects over systemic change. In 2022, expect to see intense scrutiny on how those dollars are spent in underserved communities.
Waters of the United States (WOTUS), the primary federal law that defines a waterway under federal jurisdiction, is a topic much loved by water wonks, but often fails to make headlines for the average American. It is, however, a critical component of water regulation in the U.S. On that point, 2022 could see the definition of what constitutes a federally regulated waterway change, with significant implications.
During the Trump Administration, the WOTUS definition was significantly watered down. The Biden White House reinstated the more protective 2015 definition but has also undertaken a hearing process to institute an even more far-reaching definition, with an emphasis on input from diverse communities. Traditionally, opposition to expanding regulation comes in large part from agricultural and energy stakeholders. Water regulation is a complicated process everywhere in the country, but areas where water runs low and tensions high, like Texas and California, how waterways are defined is a critical factor in water allocation and rights. The new definition, originally slated to be released in February 2022, now looks to be delayed further into the year.
The two major international events around water both have 2022 themes of making water issues more visible. The United Nations’ World Water Day in March announced the theme “Groundwater: “Making the Invisible, Visible” and the Stockholm International Water Institute’s World Water Week in August will focus on “Seeing the Unseen: the Value of Water”.
Both themes are prophetic. In a world where we rely on turning on the tap and expect clean water to flow out, the past few years have seen those expectations drowned out by reality. Communities face severe water issues surrounding its quality, and extreme weather can mean no water at all. Traditionally, the average American expects to turn on the tap and run clean water; but in addition, cheap water has created problems for the system. Many water utilities struggle to make the necessary upgrades and fluctuating temperatures and flows put pressure on the pipes, leading to damage. Water is an essential good, but there remains a disconnect between its value and its price.
As water issues around the quantity and quality of this resource become more personal to more people, pressure will mount on how we regulate, distribute and manage water resources. 2022 could see the elevation of these conversations as more money flows into communities. Water can be too much, too little, too polluted and too frequent, but all of those add up to more visibility, and hopefully, better solutions.
Image credit: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash
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.