The Worth of Water

April 2, 2018

About the author: Benjamin H. Grumbles is director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and former assistant administrator for water, U.S. EPA. Grumbles can be reached at [email protected].


World Water Week (March 22 to 26) gave me the opportunity to chair a national dialogue in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the educational nonprofit Clean Water America Alliance on “What’s Water Worth?” Celebrity water guru Robert Glennon, author of “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It” joined me and 40 others for brainstorming on one of the most timely and important environmental debates for the future of our country and planet.

Ben Franklin said it best: “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” But everyone tends to forget its value outside of a crisis. In Arizona, we value our lifeblood in the Southwest but still have a lot of work to do to ensure companies and communities see and pay for the true value of water and its many economic, ecosystem and infrastructure support systems and services.

The Price Isn’t Right
We know “there is no free lunch,” but we do not know “there’s no free water.” Most of us are far more willing to pay for the full cost of cable TV than see our water and sewer rates rise.

Why? A lot of it is about attitude. We tend to view water essentially as a human right that falls from the sky for free. But there is nothing free about the collecting, treating, storing, distributing, controlling, treating, discharging, reclaiming and recycling steps that are part of the water services cycle. There is a cost to sustaining it, and there is a price to pay when subsidies distort the market, user rates short-change the infrastructure system and government policies neglect the liquid asset we all take for granted.

For years, I’ve joined my colleagues in the politically sensitive push for “full-cost pricing” without pushing locally elected officials over the cliff or citizens into rate shock. Nationally, over the next 20 years, in spite of continued or increasing investments in some areas, we see drinking water infrastructure needs climbing to $334 billion for treatment and distribution and wastewater/storm water needs climbing past $200 billion, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I hope that, locally and nationally, the funding debate will include the practical problem solver and not just the cynic.

Connecting Dots, Drops and Drips
To adequately capture the value and communicate the worth of water, one needs a broad collaboration of backgrounds and perspectives. The Clean Water America Alliance is attempting to do that. In our “What’s Water Worth?” dialogue, for example, one panel had representatives of agriculture, the environment, international trade and technology and local utilities. A key ingredient for success is to reach out to ensure energy, manufacturing, public health and national security/military organizations are strong voices in the dialogue for sustainable water policy.

In April, EPA convened more than 100 stakeholders and organizations to discuss “Coming Together for Clean Water.” It was a positive step in promoting three goals: healthy watersheds, nutrient management and sustainable communities.

Arizona is a leader in reclamation and reuse, but the state has much more to do. It faces a potential crisis down the road in the water supply arena, given the water quantity and quality threats to the Colorado River, continued mining of groundwater and difficulties of widespread desalination. Fortunately, though, Gov. Jan Brewer has called for a multiagency public-private blue-ribbon panel to increase water sustainability. The experts are developing recommendations by year’s end to increase water conservation, efficiency and reuse. A major focus is to gather wide-ranging views on how best to increase public understanding; improve permitting and regulation; plan, build and maintain necessary infrastructure; identify technologies and practices; and provide necessary funding.

Water is on course to becoming the next big national—and global—policy debate, much like energy was in the late 1990s and the last decade. International water and energy policy discussions and conflicts are gaining steam as well.

National Geographic’s special edition “Our Thirsty World,” released to coincide with World Water Week in March, includes great pictures and text, ugly facts and poor prospects to inspire and motivate change and improve stewardship. Two million or more children die each year due to waterborne illness. Cholera and other diseases continue to ravage populations that lack access to clean and safe water. The good news: There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for us to seize throughout the world where money, technology, passion and commitment can make a difference. Water’s worth it.

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