White House Water Summit Highlights Need for Innovation & Investment

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On March 22 – World Water Day – the White House hosted an important Water Summit focused on building a sustainable water future for the United States.  Themes of innovation, resiliency, and sustainability played an important role in the day’s events, but there was also significant attention on the water infrastructure challenges facing communities around the nation – especially when it comes to funding needed infrastructure investments and the disproportionate impact this can have on poorer households.  Speakers from around the country and from different water sectors participated in the event, and all echoed the need for a more coherent national water policy to better manage the nation’s water supplies and water quality.

In conjunction with the Summit, the White House announced the release of a Presidential Memorandum and a supporting Action Plan focused on improved national capabilities for long-term drought resilience in the United States.  Part of this effort will be accomplished through better coordination among federal agencies, but there will also be significant support from nongovernmental partners – as exemplified by commitments and announcements made as part of the Summit by over 150 external institutions to help advance water sustainability.

The White House is to be commended for convening such a diverse group of stakeholders to address water sustainability and resiliency challenges, and for shining such an important spotlight on water issues.  At the same time, it is unfortunate that it took until the last year of an eight-year term for this Administration to fully focus on water sustainability issues.  The drought in the West is not a new development, but something that has been building for years.  Even more concerning, the Administration’s most recent budget proposal to Congress calls for deep cuts in federal investment in water infrastructure – a particularly stunning and perplexing position given that the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan is front and center in the public’s eye.  More federal money for water innovation is all well and good, but it should not come at the expense of water infrastructure.

This point was made clear by a number of participants at the Summit, as there was significant discussion about the crumbling state of our nation’s water infrastructure.  Speaker after speaker noted that we must do a better job investing in our water infrastructure, especially in poorer communities, and many referenced the crisis in Flint as an example of what can happen when legacy infrastructure issues are not addressed.  Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) both specifically advocated the need for more federal investment in this area and gave full-throated defenses of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF), calling on Congress to significantly increase funding for these two programs.

Rep. Kildee, whose district includes Flint, also noted in a very eloquent manner that the current water scarcity and drought problems in the West and the decaying water infrastructure challenges facing communities like Flint in the Midwest and East are all part of the same root issue: how do we as a nation cover the full cost of providing safe and reliable water service – especially in poorer and low income communities – and what is the role of the federal government in helping to fund these services?  This is a question that NACWA is grappling with as well and will be discussing more in the coming weeks leading up to Water Week in April.

The strong support expressed at the Summit for the CWSRF and the DWSRF is welcome and timely, especially in the wake of the President’s proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 budget that includes an overall decrease to the SRFs and a particularly drastic cut to the CWSRF.  While NACWA is grateful for this week’s White House attention on water innovation and sustainability, it does not make up for the fact that this Administration has proposed one of the most significant CWSRF cuts in recent history.

We hope the Summit will serve as a rallying point for the Administration and others to push for even greater federal funding to support the country’s significant water infrastructure investment needs.  NACWA will be front and center in leading that charge, and we hope many others – including the President – will join us.

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