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OPINION

We need a Water New Deal too

Like climate change, our water challenges are in equal part environmental, economic, and social equity issues in nature. Also like climate change, water will pose huge problems if it isn't addressed now.

Plaintiff Claudia Perkins-Milton shows off a message on her shirt as the Michigan Supreme Court hears arguments in March about whether the state should be liable for damaging residents water, infrastructure and health during the Flint Water Crisis.
Plaintiff Claudia Perkins-Milton shows off a message on her shirt as the Michigan Supreme Court hears arguments in March about whether the state should be liable for damaging residents water, infrastructure and health during the Flint Water Crisis.Todd McInturf/Associated Press

A silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic has been the breathing space given to the nation to think about and work on aspirational societal change. As a result, much attention is being given to how the United States might implement aspects of the Green New Deal, aimed at tackling climate change as aggressively as we can.

Yet virtually no discussion or planning is taking place on another critical imperative: water. Like climate change, water challenges are in equal part environmental, economic, and social equity issues in nature. And also like climate change, water will pose huge problems in the coming decades if forward-thinking, sustainable solutions are not developed now.

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Water is a complex and challenging issue. Global statistics are stark: hundreds of millions of people still lack daily access to clean, safe water (2 million people here in the United States — a shocking number); eight years in a row now, the World Economic Forum has listed water crises among the top-five global risks in terms of significant adverse economic impacts.

Here in the United States, water problems are coming on strong. The New York Times recently reported “the drought that has gripped the American Southwest since 2000 is as bad as or worse than droughts in the region over the past 1,200 years.” In the Mississippi River watershed, the repeated, gargantuan floods of the past 15 years have been described as “biblical,” imposing huge economic costs through crop, infrastructure, and commercial transportation losses.

The nation’s public water supply systems, once the shining example of how to provide citizens with water, are also faltering. Each report about a contaminated water supply system — they are invariably in our socio-economically distressed communities like Flint, Mich. or Newark, N.J. — undermines trust in our public water supply systems. Meanwhile, over the past 25 years, the US Environmental Protection Agency has chosen not to regulate a single new drinking water contaminant, such as perchlorate (which is harmful to the thyroid gland), although the science strongly suggests that it should.

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Massachusetts is better off than many states regarding its water resources, but we have our share of problems. Pollution in the Merrimack River is one; Cape Cod’s persistent water supply woes another. In a January editorial, The Globe called for state legislation requiring communities to notify the public when raw sewage spills into our rivers, lakes or coastal waters.

The real issue is why, 35 years after the Clean Water Act called for all of our waters to be “fishable and swimmable,” notification as to when we can’t swim in or recreate on them is necessary. Why do we still have significant water pollution in Massachusetts and throughout the country? Why do we have persistent — and arguably worsening — issues with our public water supply systems?

Despite progress made under federal and state water laws, our system for governing and managing water resources has deep-rooted problems, and receives benign neglect from our political leaders. It urgently has to be brought into the 21st century. A Water New Deal, undertaken in conjunction with the Green New Deal (and with Senator Warren’s Blue New Deal for oceans) would allow us to do so.

First and foremost, a Water New Deal should set forth a national water policy, articulating and advancing environmental, public health, economic, and social equity goals for our water resources — all under the overarching theme of water sustainability. We have never had such a policy.

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Exponentially increased federal funding for clean water infrastructure is also needed. Current funding is woeful and has been since the 1980s. We struggle to pay for our water projects, and as a result, put off undertaking many of them. Such funding would have paid for essential upgrades, and no raw sewage would be entering our waters if legislators prioritized clean water.

Other components of a Water New Deal include adopting more holistic approaches to water governance, such as managing water based on watershed boundaries rather than political boundaries; adopting progressive concepts such as “circular” water management, which involves seeing that water is used more than once during its lifecycle; and being honest about our abject failure at managing groundwater and diffuse pollution from farms, streets, lawns, and other sources, and doing something about it.

The link between climate change and its effect on water resources is clear. As the hydro-geologist James P. Bruce puts it, “if climate change is a shark, water is its teeth.” The need to arrive at fully integrated solutions to the climate change and water challenges ahead is upon us. Locked arm-in-arm, a Green New Deal and a Water New Deal could help us usher in a great, enlightened era of sustainability.

Jonathan Kaledin is former general counsel of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

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