Water Recommendations for the Next President

Peter H. Gleick, Pacific Institute

Dear Mr. President,

Congratulations on winning approval from the American people to serve as leader of the United States for the next four years. We know you have a lot on your plate. But among the issues that deserve prompt attention from you and senior members of your administration is that of freshwater.

Safe and adequate freshwater resources are central to the economy, foreign policy, and security of the United States. Four critical water challenges face the nation, including confusion over water policy, threats to our domestic and international security, failures at the international level to meet basic human and environmental water needs, and the growing risks to water systems from unavoidable climate change. These challenges will require unilateral, bilateral, or multilateral action; failure to address them will have diplomatic, economic, political, and public health consequences.

For your consideration, here are 16 key recommendations for addressing the nation’s 21st century freshwater challenges at the federal level.

Challenge 1: Develop a 21st Century National Water Policy

  1. Constitute a new national, bipartisan Water Commission for the 21st Century to evaluate and recommend changes to national water policy.
  2. Work with Congress to update and strengthen the nation’s two most important water laws: The national Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. These laws must be updated to ensure the integrity of the nation’s water resources, protect the public against new contaminants, help meet the needs of rural and vulnerable communities, and permit the use of new technologies.
  3. Reorganize and streamline the diverse and uncoordinated federal water responsibilities and expand the collection of water-use and water-quality data.
  4. Reinvigorate and expand investment in our drinking water and wastewater treatment system through bonds, tax incentives, and direct support for small communities.
  5. Work with Congress to pass legislation to expand incentives to improve the productivity of our water use and reduce wasteful use of water, through the Farm Bill, trade laws, plumbing codes, and tax code revisions.
  6. Establish a process for setting and enforcing environmental flows for all major river systems.

Challenge 2: Spotlight National Security Issues Related to Water

  1. Explicitly monitor and track water-related threats to security and U.S. interests.
  2. Conduct a series of integrated workshops within the War College system, the State Department, CIA, Homeland Security, and other agencies on critical water security challenges, including the vulnerability of U.S. water systems to terrorism and regional threats.
  3. Reduce the risks of international water-related conflicts by expanding appropriate diplomatic resources within the State Department.
  4. Reduce the risks of domestic water-related terrorism by working with local and regional water agencies to identify and reduce vulnerabilities.

Challenge 3: Expand the Role of the U.S. in Addressing Global Water Problems

  1. Refocus U.S. international aid spending priorities toward meeting basic water needs for both humans and natural ecosystems in conjunction with efforts of international non-governmental organizations and the private sector.
  2. Increase efforts to monitor water quality and water-related diseases so that outbreaks both here and abroad, such as the recent cholera epidemic in Haiti, can be quickly identified and addressed.
  3. Expand the scientific, educational, and financial leadership of the U.S. in addressing unmet needs for water for all.

Challenge 4: Integrate Climate Change Risks into All Federal Water Planning and Activity

  1. Expand efforts to assess the growing impacts of unavoidable climate change on U.S. water resources.
  2. Improve the smart management of both energy and water resources at the federal level: We can reduce the amount of water needed to produce the nation’s energy, and we can reduce the amount of energy needed to produce, deliver, and treat our water.
  3. Integrate strategies for adapting to unavoidable climate change into all federal water decisions, planning, and management, including new construction and the operation of existing water systems and reservoirs.

We must not let the nation’s superb water resources deteriorate, and we must work to improve the management and protection of our water systems. Much can and must be done at the local level, but there are vital federal responsibilities as well and you, your administration, and Congress must work together to ensure that these responsibilities are met effectively, efficiently, and quickly.

Dr. Peter H. Gleick