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The Texas nexus: What the absence of a US water strategy looks like

Public policies can be accelerated by challenging the status quo, bringing in outsiders and having a bias for action.

Frozen water hydrant in Austin, Texas

The United States doesn’t have a national water strategy. It has no shortage of local, state, regional and federal regulations but ultimately no federal strategy.

The country is a ship without a rudder.

The U.S. federal system of government leaves it vulnerable to issues such as inadequate funding of infrastructure, fragmented authorities that govern this infrastructure and internal competition for water resources. To be clear, I am not proposing America change its system of government; rather that we acknowledge that this ad hoc governance and investment in water resources, and recognize that the infrastructure is broken. This also leaves the country vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and the potential for competing interests of state and local governments.

The American Society of Civil Engineers' recent scorecard on U.S. infrastructure is telling. The organization gives U.S. infrastructure a C-minus, with drinking water a C-minus and wastewater a D-plus. Specifically, the U.S. drinking water infrastructure system consists of over 2 million miles of underground pipes that deliver safe, reliable water to millions of people. The system is aging and underfunded with a "water main break every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water lost each day in the U.S., enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools," according to the scorecard.

While recent changes in Washington, D.C., indicate greater attention and investment in infrastructure, including water and wastewater utilities, the country has a long way to go in addressing critical infrastructure needs.

One just has to look at recent events in Texas to appreciate the fragility of the country’s energy and water infrastructure. The impact of extreme weather events in mid-February knocked out gas, power and water services across as many as 13 southern states. Texas was hit the hardest with power outages impacting over 5 million people and leaving 14.4 million people without access to drinking water. In Texas, during the storm event and the days following, about 1,100 public water supply systems reported weather-related disruptions, according to The Atlantic.

The nexus of climate change coupled with the current state of U.S. water and power infrastructure took a dramatic toll.

The need for change is urgent

So, what has to change? I am inclined to say everything but will focus on an urgent need to view water as a national strategic resource. In September, the Pacific Institute published the piece, "Water Recommendations to the Next President." Briefly, the four problems identified in the report are:

  1. Lack of access to safe, affordable drinking water and sanitation
  2. Climate change impacts on water resources
  3. Water resource problems that threaten U.S. national and international security
  4. The lack of a U.S. National Water Strategy, which undermines the reliability and quality of water supply, wastewater services and, ultimately, public health, ecosystems and the economy

The report includes a set of recommendations that President Joe Biden could take to address the country's greatest water challenges along with a push to take fast action toward getting us to what they refer to as "a water-equitable and resilient future."

The urgency of establishing a U.S. national water strategy can’t be overstated. Water more or less powers the economy, and our ability to ensure access to water for society, ecosystems and businesses is failing. One action that the above-referenced report recommends is the creation of the National Water Commission for the 21st Century to "evaluate and recommend specific federal actions to improve national water policy."

While I agree with this recommendation, I also believe the U.S. must mobilize entrepreneurs and investors to develop and scale solutions independently. Innovative technologies and solutions in the form of new business models and funding can trigger changes in public policies, and the nation needs to apply much greater speed to addressing its wicked water challenges.

A couple of examples: The programs of 101010 and X-Genesis identify wicked problems including climate and water, and support entrepreneurs in launching startups to solve these problems. One such venture from a 101010 program is spout, launched in response to the widespread presence of lead in tap water in Flint, Michigan.

Innovative technologies and solutions and, in turn, public policies can be accelerated by challenging the status quo, bringing outsiders into the water sector and having a bias for action.

This is what we need to commit to on World Water Day 2021.

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