By Scott Berry, US Water Alliance
We are at a unique moment for water. COVID-19 has upended life across America, disrupting business as usual in every sector and, in many ways, exposing or reinforcing structural challenges and social inequities.
But with a new president and Congress in place, we at the US Water Alliance believe there is a unique opportunity in how we respond and recover from COVID-19 as a nation. We can take this moment of deep disruption and turn it into a source of lasting transformation in how we view, value, and manage our nation’s water systems and watersheds.
The Biden Administration and Congressional leaders are focused on four priorities: COVID-19 relief, economic recovery, climate change, and racial justice. Thankfully, water is a critical pathway to progress for all four of these priorities, with potentially transformational opportunities.
Handwashing and increased cleaning protocols were deemed critical public health tools in fighting the spread of COVID. They are only possible with safe and affordable access to water, which more than 2 million people in the US do not have.
Investment in water infrastructure has a profound impact on economic growth, as we have documented previously.
More frequent and intense storms, flooding, sea level rise, and droughts are all climate change impacts felt as water stress.
And there is great inequity in who experiences that stress. Often Black and brown communities are situated where they feel water stress first and worst.
So, water policy IS climate policy, and justice policy, and health policy, and economic policy.
There will be a lot of conversations in Washington about what we can do differently and how we can use this moment to build back better, rather than putting the same systems back into place. With the American Rescue Plan passed, the Biden administration and Congress are focused on what comes next.
The Biden Administration is pushing a $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan that includes $111 billion in water infrastructure investment. This is a tremendous opportunity to invest in climate-resilient water infrastructure as a part of larger watershed goals and plans.
This focus on climate-resilient infrastructure creates a lot of opportunities for watershed management. With new infusions of capital at the municipal level to support efforts to improve water quality and quantity, we can use this moment to think about infrastructure in a broader sense.
We often talk about One Water at the US Water Alliance – a more inclusive, holistic view of managing water that values every drop of water in all its various stages. We can use this historic moment to really get at managing water as a holistic system.
With extra capital to work on traditional water management infrastructure, there could also be more willingness to tackle larger water quality challenges with non-traditional solutions, such as urban-agricultural partnerships and water quality planning. With the climate investments in this package, there could be a new focus on whole-watershed solutions, which will reinforce the important role the agricultural community plays in water management.
As a driver of change and receiver of benefits, collaboration with the agricultural community will be essential to achieve an equitable water future for all. And I am especially hopeful that the Biden Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water will make sure agriculture and conservation have seats at the table of federal water policy.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get serious about building climate resilience and making progress toward water security. Just as climate change is making every water problem worse, the pandemic has made every crack and fissure in the water sector worse. COVID exposed the deep flaws in the nation’s water systems.
But there is also renewed hope. The pandemic has forced a spotlight on issues like water access and affordability, and that has led to new and increased attention by policymakers.
Between the COVID relief packages and a potentially big infrastructure package, policy ideas and dollar amounts are being considered now that would have been called totally unrealistic just a year ago. For the first time in decades, we have the public and political will to think big and make truly historic changes to our water systems.
Now Congress and the Administration are focused on more than how an infrastructure package could mean more jobs. The conversation has moved beyond the concept of “shovel-ready” infrastructure to HOW we invest for the future and what kinds of systems we want to be building.
This bigger vision for more resilient water systems could set us up for social, economic, health, and environmental benefits for generations to come.
About Scott Berry
Scott Berry is the director of policy and government affairs at the US Water Alliance, a national nonprofit organization advancing policies and programs that build a sustainable water future for all. He leads the Alliance’s engagement on policy issues, heading up their Washington DC office. Previously, he was director of the Utility Infrastructure Division, Environment, and Trade at the Associated General Contractors of America. There, he spent nine years as their head lobbyist on water infrastructure and water policy issues, and was the member services lead for water, sewer, power, telecommunications, and underground construction. He has served in the leadership of the Water Infrastructure Network, the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Coalition, the Common Ground Alliance, and the Waters Advocacy Coalition. He has a BA in political science and geography from the University of Mary Washington.
Header image by Center for Neighborhood Technology on Flickr
This post was written for The Confluence, a quarterly newsletter for watershed leaders in the Mississippi Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB). Do you lead watershed work somewhere in the MARB? Subscribe here>>