15 September 2010

Report: "Charting New Waters" by the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread

Working toward leadership in the quest for a coherent, forward-looking and farsighted national freshwater policy framework for the United States, the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread held a multi-sector Freshwater Summit in June 2010 at their headquarters in Wisconsin. The Summit included invited leaders representing business, non-governmental organizations, agriculture, academia, government, foundations and communities who were brought together to build on the findings of an earlier Freshwater Forum sponsored by the Foundation. The result, released this morning in Washington, D.C., by the participants of the Freshwater Forum is the report "Charting New Waters: A Call to Action to Address U.S. Freshwater Challenges."

A media advisory released earlier this month listed the details of the event in DC this morning, including a panel discussion moderated by PBS Newshour host Gwen Ifill. Scheduled panelists include: Chuck Clarke, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and President of the Cascade Water Alliance; John Ehrmann, Senior Partner at the Meridian Institute; Cecilia Estolano, Chief Strategist for State and Local Initiatives at Green for All; Peter Gleick, President and Co-Founder of the Pacific Institute; David Kohler, President and COO at the Kohler Company; and Patrick O’Toole, Board President at the Family Farm Alliance. The diversity of the discussion panelists is highly representative of that of the Summit participants working with the Johnson Foundation. The discussion in DC will accompany formal presentation of the Foundation report to President Obama's administration at a meeting of federal agencies convened by the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The preface to the Executive Summary of the report, which was made available to me ahead of the official release and embargoed until this morning, states explicitly and very well the myriad issues faced in the U.S. over freshwater resources and the near future:
"Together we are representatives from business, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), agriculture, academia, government, foundations and communities. We are united in our commitment to harness American ingenuity and develop innovative, integrated freshwater solutions that cut across traditional boundaries and counteract the inertia that has developed around freshwater management due to fragmented decision-making frameworks and institutional obstacles.

"Our growing population and changing environmental conditions are driving the nation toward inevitable and difficult freshwater management decisions. Many challenges will center on balancing municipal, rural and ecosystem supply needs. We must ensure the long-term viability of safe, affordable and efficient food production while also meeting municipal and industrial water needs. We need to reduce the water demands and impacts of energy generation while continuing to produce enough energy to sustain our economy. We must work to mitigate the causes of climate change and to adapt to its impacts on the hydrologic cycle which pose serious risks to freshwater supply and quality across large areas of the nation.

"In spite of the challenges we face, we see a promising future for U.S. freshwater resources – a future that is sustainable and resilient. Streamlined and effective regulation and enforcement, collaborative problem solving, innovative local and regional strategies, technological innovation, integrated policy and management solutions, and co-beneficial strategies and outcomes are the hallmarks of the new course we see for freshwater management and resources in the United States. We see a future in which leaders in all sectors have the courage and tools to chart a course that ensures access to clean freshwater for all Americans. In this future, our freshwater resources reinforce America’s preeminence as the land of opportunity, attracting new investment while providing an unparalleled quality of life. We urge other leaders to join us in advancing sustainable and resilient solutions to the freshwater challenges we face.

"The time to lead is now."
An information box in the Executive Summary calls out the salient motivation for this particular report: "We must act now because...
  • "Healthy and livable communities need clean and adequate freshwater;
  • "Reliable freshwater supplies are critical to U.S. economic security;
  • "Freshwater ecosystems have intrinsic value and are fundamental to our natural heritage and economic well-being; and
  • "Ecosystems can experience abrupt, nonlinear change."
True, and so very fundamental, every one of these. The Johnson Foundation and the authors of this report seem to have hit the central issues related to freshwater in the U.S. right on target. Let us hope that the federal agencies in attendance take the message delivered here, the reality of water issues that are present even in the richest country in the world, none too lightly. The authors span decades, even more than a century, of attention to natural freshwater availability and water infrastructure in our country in these four very simple points. The last item surprises me: it's so far ahead of the common knowledge and understanding, outside of climate science, that it's finally emerging in the professional literature for hydrology, though it's been around in evolution and biology for some time. This interdisciplinary approach to the social, political and societal issues embedded in freshwater in the U.S. brings the science of the problems, and our learned scientific approaches to the solutions, to the forefront of the discussion.

As outlined in the Executive Summary, "Charting New Waters" describes several recommendations to our national leaders. In brief, the eight keys proposed by the Johnson Foundation are:
  1. Improve coordination of management across scales and sectors;
  2. Enhance effectiveness of existing regulatory tools;
  3. Promote efficient, environmentally wise water management, use and delivery;
  4. Ensure decision making is based on sound science and data;
  5. Employ a long-range adaptive approach to planning and management;
  6. Account for the full cost of water, and invest in sustainable water infrastructure;
  7. Educate the public about challenges and solutions;
  8. Develop and validate methods for freshwater ecosystem services markets.
Note that the last item does not suggest the development of water markets per se, but instead the recognition that ecology provides much of what we humans attempt to impose on water in management, treatment and allocation activities. The ecological contribution can therefore be valued according to the cost of the comparable human activity, and anything with an explicit value may be traded, so markets will inevitably emerge in an unregulated economy. Up to this time, the ignorance of inherent value in water, both in place (as part of the natural ecology) and in human use, has been forced on society and its economy by various methods (e.g. the prior appropriation doctrine, enforced throughout much of the American West). However, economic markets that exploit the inherent value of water are a discussion for another post...

Education, multi-dimensional coordination, inter-agency and public-private (including government and NGO) cooperation, and improvements in the water sciences are prominent as themes that cut across all of these report recommendations. Taken together with the motivations listed above, these themes are the obvious platform on which the Johnson Foundation's contribution to the emerging discussion on national water policy are based. Details, even in the Executive Summary, on these recommendations are insightful and full of relevance, as up-to-date as information to policy-makers can get without predicting the future itself. Far too much second-guessing is based on dated studies and frustrated efforts at communicating science to decision-makers, leading to the problematic "wait-and-see" non-decision and the inevitable, though poorly-understood and too-frequently ignored, costs of non-action. This report provides seemingly little wiggle room for the president's administration to leave the discussion stalled, as I expect the descriptions and recommendations offered here will spur further work, and "calls to action," by both the Summit participants and related groups and individuals pushing for progress on water issues.

Though I wouldn't like to be picky, had I been invited as a participant I might have taken issue with some of the wording in the preface to the Executive Summary given above. It's plenty strong, I think, but the description of issues in the second paragraph is parsed just enough to suggest that problems in freshwater quality should be addressed as part of our response to climate change, and not necessarily as a problem in its own right as a result of poor business and community practices and simple regulatory insufficiency, both of which might be chalked up to bureaucratic inefficiency that result from (and contribute further to) the "fragmented decision-making frameworks and institutional obstacles." Municipal wastewater, industrial compounds, commercial byproducts, and agricultural runoff all contribute to the problem of freshwater quality, and none of these can claim climate change as an aggravating factor. Combined sewers in many cities persist, and discharge of raw pollutants to our waterways remains just as bad as before "climate change" became a buzzword; it's reporting that has stepped up, making us more aware of the issues and infractions, while regulation has lagged. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was hobbled severely and for years during the Bush administration, pushing farther and farther back much-needed funding and advancements in legislation, infrastructure renewal and improvement, regulatory oversight, and criminal enforcement to mitigate water pollution across the country. This report by the Johnson Foundation, developed almost entirely since President Obama was elected in 2008, calls to task the current administration and its responsibility for inherited issues. Though the administration changes, the bureaucracy carries on, and it is left to the "new" leaders where priorities lay, at least until the next election...

1 comment:

DGroenfeldt said...

The Johnson Foundation report opens up the issue of "intrinsic values" of water ecosystems, but doesn't develop this concept into any practical suggestions. To the contrary, the action points about payment for ecosystem services and applying sound science serve to reinforce the status quo of progressive water policies. When even the progressive voices preach a familiar message, we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for change! But I see hope in the fact that "intrinsic values" made it into the final report. Maybe a later report will pick up on the practical implications: water policies that respect natural systems as a first priority, and find creative approaches to meeting human needs as well as ecological functions. See my Sept 21 blogpost for more: http://blog.waterculture.org