How We Can Save Our Country's Water


With a new presidential administration and a new Congress taking office in January, advocates from all perspectives are looking at opportunities to translate a mandate for "change" into specific national policy reforms. Watch your step as the avalanche of recommendations begins to cascade toward Washington, D.C., around the end of the year -- actions to take in the first 100 days, the first year, and so on.

Among the proposals already in the hopper is a congressional bill that would create a new national water commission or, more precisely, the "21st Century Water Commission." Introduced by Rep. John Linder (R-GA), H.B. 135 moved out of House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's Subcommittee on Water and Environment in May, and has the support of Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who introduced companion legislation in that chamber.

Linder's bill would establish a nine-person commission with a $9 million budget and a three-year deadline to assess the nation's water availability and demands, with a focus on the pressure points of the country in which fast-growing populations are encountering drought and other supply constraints. The legislation explicitly would not create new national water policy, but would provide data, financial incentives, and strategies for stronger and farther-looking state policies.

Comparing the initiative to the interstate highway system of the last century, Rep. Linder proclaimed this bill a first step toward "a roadmap that states can use to form their water policy." The national glove box is already crammed full of road maps for our waterways. As Steve Malloch of the National Wildlife Federation remarked at a water policy meeting in New Mexico in May, "We're long on good policy; we're short on good politics."

What we need is movement on key state and federal policy reforms to combat the most important factors affecting our nation's water resources -- rapid growth in dry regions and global warming. Since the last National Water Commission completed its work, culminating in a well-researched and prescient report published in 1973, "Water Policies for the Future," subsequent gatherings of experts -- many focused on the arid West -- have produced library shelves full of reports and white papers reaching remarkably consistent conclusions.

For a summary of these policy recommendations and an analysis of the most promising areas for reform today, see the Western Progress report, "A New Western Water Agenda."

Many of the most urgently needed reforms in water policy will take place in state legislatures or at the local (county, municipality) level. But federal policies can encourage improvements through a combination of incentives and regulation. At a hearing last November, for example, water experts such as the Pacific Institute's Peter Gleick and National Wildlife Federation's David Conrad testified in favor of convening a new national water commission to address a wider array of concerns than is currently captured in mandates of H.B. 135.

Responding to these suggestions, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) offered an amendment to H.B. 135 that would increase the size and budget for the commission, and (most importantly) charge it with analysis of the effects of climate change on our water resources. In a May 12 blog for the American Water Resources Association, Michael "Aquadoc" Campana, praised these amendments as improvements to the commission proposed by H.B. 135. The director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State University and master of the informative and entertaining Waterwired web site, Campana called the bill a "long overdue start" at achieving a national water strategy.

These are all important issues that deserve attention. But the question remains. Do we need a new commission to revisit these questions? Or do we need to look more seriously at how we might mobilize the political will to implement the remarkably consistent menu of ideas that has already emerged from such gatherings of water experts over the past several decades?

At a Natural Resources Law Center conference in Boulder, CO last month, Lewis & Clark Law Professor Jan Neuman reviewed this body of work and concluded that the arsenal of ideas for water policy reform is virtually complete. Rather than pour money and time into a new federal commission, she suggested -- with tongue only partly in cheek -- that Congress should re-issue the 1973 National Water Commission report with a new chapter on climate change -- and then focus its energies on implementation rather than further study.

As a contributing writer to the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission's report (and a participant in a few other smaller initiatives along these lines), I can attest that these processes are cumbersome, political, and cumulative. I find Neuman's arguments compelling and provocative. While a new national water commission could undoubtedly shed new light on old water problems -- particularly the effects of climate change on limited water resources -- progressives must step up early and remain engaged throughout the process to make sure this investment pays off in positive policy reform rather than more shelf art.

Whatever the outcome of this November's election, it is clear that voters are interested in real change and practical solutions. Let's start with some movement on water policy -- not more talk, but long-overdue reforms to move us toward a national goal of sustainability.

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