As extreme weather conditions become the new normal—from floods in Baton Rouge and Venice to wildfires in California, we need to clean and save stormwater for future use while protecting communities from flooding and exposure to contaminated water. Changing how we manage stormwater has the potential to preserve access to water for future generations; prevent unnecessary illnesses, injuries, and damage to communities; and increase investments in green, climate-resilient infrastructure, with a focus on communities where these kinds of investments are most needed.
In New Zealand, persistent, concentrated advocacy and legal cases advanced by Māori people are inspiring biocentric policies; that is, those which recognize that people and nature, including living and non-living elements, are part of an interconnected whole. Along the way, tribal leaders and advocates are successfully making the case that nature; whole systems of rivers, lakes, forests, mountains, and more, deserves legal standing to ensure its protection. An early legislative “win” granted personhood status to the Te Urewera forest in 2014, which codified into law these moving lines:
“Te Urewera is ancient and enduring, a fortress of nature, alive with history; its scenery is abundant with mystery, adventure, and remote beauty … Te Urewera has an identity in and of itself, inspiring people to commit to its care.”
The Te Urewera Act of 2014 did more than redefine how a forest would be managed, it pushed forward the practical expression of a new policy paradigm.
Nearly a million people in California receive low quality drinking water from underperforming water systems, which are challenged by drought, overdrafting, and emerging contaminants. Root causes of poor water quality can include inadequate treatment technology, operational issues, and insufficient personnel and financial capacity.
By focusing on small water systems that do have multiple violations, there is opportunity for significant positive impact. Nearly 700,000 Californians are served by small public water systems with one or more water quality violations in the last five years.
Improving water quality is more than choosing a technical solution. Community alignment and support, and political willingness are critical elements that need to be combined with technical solutions to allow systems to thrive.
The water-energy nexus is not new. The concept that our water and energy systems are reliant on each other is sometimes paired with a third issue, like food security or public health. This can make it more relevant to our daily lives. Despite a basic understanding of resource interdependencies, city and utility leaders still allow planning and implementation processes to remain predominately separate. A common local scenario finds the water utility facing system upkeep alone, the energy utility not considering other utility issues or city goals as they operate, and city leaders generally focused on more visibly troublesome urban systems, like housing or transportation.
Today, over 2 million Americans are living without access to clean, running water. The newly released ‘Close The Water Gap’ report by DigDeep and the US Water Alliance pulls back the veil on America’s hidden water crisis.
This is the first-ever comprehensive look at indoor water access across the United States, and its findings are explosive: Race is the strongest predictor of vulnerability. In six states (plus Puerto Rico), progress is actually backsliding. More than 44 million Americans are served by water systems with recent violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
When thinking about conserving water, we should also be focusing on how more efficient water use correlates with energy savings. Studies show that when households participate in water savings programs, they also conserve energy and reduce strain on the power grid during peak demand periods while saving consumers money on their utility bills.
Water utilities can also dramatically increase their energy efficiency and reduce overall energy usage by adopting locally based solutions. For many municipal governments, drinking water and wastewater treatment plants are typically the largest energy consumers, often accounting for 30 to 40 percent of total energy consumed. Overall, drinking water and wastewater systems account for approximately two percent of energy use in the United States, adding over 45 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.
Things get complicated in a desert city where water use has a direct and tangible impact on quality of life. While Phoenix water is affordable for basic, indoor needs, it is purposefully not affordable for outdoor water use to drive conservation. That conservation signal has worked very well and the use of desert landscapes has exploded. Those landscapes are good for local flora and fauna, but do little for, and maybe even exacerbate, the unrelenting urban heat island that keeps summer temperatures above 100 degrees even at night. Wealthy families, oblivious to the cost, plant lawns that mitigate the urban heat and increase property values. Poorer families swelter. As we face a hotter and drier future, the tradeoffs between conservation and quality of life will come into greater focus, and environmental justice will be the center of that conversation.