Why I Am Optimistic About Water

July 20, 2020

I recently received an email from a retired hydrologist, asking my thoughts about the future of water management. Here’s his note and my reply.

“I read your newly-published Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters in 2002 and used it in a seminar that I had long offered. The following year, having tired of fighting the political forces that intervened in our attempts to implement good scientific principles, I retired.

All these years I have basically remained silent, watching what seems to be little heed given your warnings. I am wondering – is there better news, that perhaps is escaping me – or it is the same status quo? You are too busy to give my response an attention; but I wonder, is there an epilogue, a good overstatement that you can recommend that covers where any western reform efforts may stand?”

Dear Retired Hydrologist:

How kind of you to write. You were with me early on and I am very grateful.

I have not despaired and there is good news to report. To be sure, greed and stupidity often control the day, but people of good will and sound judgment have made considerable inroads and reforms.

I see progress in protecting rivers and taking down dams, in using water markets to move farmers away from flood irrigation, in reforming our energy mix to favor natural gas and renewables over coal, in incentivizing conservation with higher prices and rebate programs, in engineers and inventors creating LED bulbs and digital agriculture, in expanding reuse programs, and in educating people about the finite quality and immense value of our water resources.

At the same time, climate change bedevils many well-intentioned programs and follies, such as cloud seeding, continue to bemuse me. Other follies, such as grandiose proposals to desalinate the ocean’s water and transport it hundreds of miles, show the infinite capacity of the human mind to ignore reality. A stubborn faith that we can solve our water problems by tapping distant oases still prevails in some quarters.

Despite progress, important challenges remain. What most concerns me in 2020 is the increasing inability of many Americans to pay even modest water bills. A growing number of residents, from South Texas to the Navajo Nation to the Central Valley, lack access to running water that is safe to drink. I also fear that recent dam failures in California (Oroville) and Michigan (Edenville and Sanford) foretell the beginning of a long and deadly story. These concerns stem from two systemic problems: growing income inequality and failing to maintain our water and wastewater infrastructure. Until very recently, the United States could boast of a water system that provided virtually universal access to water. That remarkable achievement is slipping through our fingers like grains of sand at a beach.

The deterioration of our water infrastructure did not begin with the current inhabitant of the White House, and it will take a determined effort to fix it. The terrible crisis of COVID-19 affords an opportunity to make a national commitment to provide universal access to drinking water and to fund the rehabilitation of our infrastructure, from municipal water delivery and treatment networks to agricultural irrigation systems to the dams that store water.

To achieve these ambitious goals will require moral courage and the political will to forge bipartisan consensus. This will not happen before November, but I am optimistic for the future. Public opinion polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support programs to provide clean and affordable water, to safeguard our dams and protect our rivers and lakes. At some point elected officials will take notice.

Very truly yours,