PSTX Seal

Water

Will Rogers, a great cowboy, once said that even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you're standing still. For the next few minutes I’d like to spend a little time talking about water and perhaps suggesting some ways that we can keep from getting run over.

But first, a few brief comments about water. The earth is covered in water—97 percent of all water on earth is in the oceans. It's a blue planet when seen from space. But if 97 percent of the water on the planet is salty, that leaves only 3 percent that's fresh. Of that 3 percent, 2 percent is locked up in the polar ice caps, which means that of all the water on earth, only 1 percent is available to us. Now, even with that 1 percent, there's plenty of water on the planet for all the people and all their needs.

The problem is that, in many cases, the water and the people are not in the same place. A second problem is that we do things to the water through our day-to-day activities that pollute it; by polluting it, we lessen the amount available to us.

Let's pick up on some of the themes that we heard earlier today and look at water perhaps in a slightly different way—and perhaps more constructively. Growing populations and changing values continue to place increasing demands on our water resources.

This results in water use management conflicts nationwide, but particularly here in the West, where the population is expected to increase by up to 30 percent over the next 25 years. Agricultural needs are often in direct conflict with urban needs as well as with water demand for endangered species and, as we just heard, for recreation and scenic enjoyment.

These are quantity issues. As for quality, we know that most water quality standards are set at the federal level. But most land use decisions that affect water quality are made at the local level.

So what's the result? I would suggest that the result is a mixed bag of successes and failures across the nation with regard to water quality and water quantity. On the plus side, the greatest change clearly came with the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, which had the goal of making all waters fishable and swimmable.

Before the passage of the Clean Water Act, the majority of water pollution was from factories and emissions. We call this point source pollution because it came out of a point—a pipe. Pollution got so bad that in 1969 that the Cuyahoga River, which flows right through downtown Cleveland, actually caught on fire from all the toxic waste and burned for several days.

Since that time we've imposed thousands of regulations affecting emissions from point source discharge, and we've made great strides cleaning up point sources of pollution, virtually eliminating it. In fact, the successes of these regulations led a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to say that, well, all of our waters may not be fishable and swimmable, but at least they are no longer flammable!

So why is it that more than a third of our waters don't yet meet the goals of the Clean Water Act? The answer is directly related to land use. Our day-to-day activities have a direct impact on water quality. The decisions that we make each day with the property we own, the activities that we undertake, affect our water for years to come.

Here are a few examples. Last year Americans improperly dumped 365 million gallons of used motor oil. That's more than 27 times the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. One gallon of motor oil pollutes up to 750,000 gallons of water.

More than 70 million pounds of pesticides are put on lawns and golf courses each year. There are more than 22 million septic systems operating in the United States, discharging about 1 trillion gallons of wastewater annually to soils and groundwater—which is a particularly sobering fact when you realize that 50 percent of all drinking water in the United States is groundwater.

While each of our actions may not seem like much, clearly the cumulative impact is significant. These kinds of dispersed, diffuse sources of pollution, because they don't originate from a single point, are called nonpoint source pollution.

As Jessica mentioned earlier, nonpoint sources of pollution have received some attention in the last decade. It's a very thorny issue because we're talking about individual behaviors. We're talking about people's backyards, parking lots, and streets, and you simply cannot regulate those areas.[

I suggest that the solutions for nonpoint pollution lie in several areas: education, voluntary initiatives, and economic incentives. But we have water quantity challenges as well. Consider these examples. Overpumping of ground water for agriculture, the single largest user of water in the United States, has caused the land in California's San Joaquin Valley to subside by more than 30 feet in some places, leaving telephone poles suspended in midair, held up only by the high-tension wires. Furthermore, Houston has the dubious distinction of being named the fastest-sinking city in America due to overpumping of groundwater.

Coastal Louisiana, because of climate change, as we heard earlier, and because of channelization of rivers and wetlands, is losing 30 square miles of land each year. The Colorado River, as Andy mentioned, which was once one of the mightiest rivers of the West, has been so diminished by overwithdrawals that it no longer reaches the Gulf of California.

These examples are emblematic of our management--or rather mismanagement--of water. I think essentially you can categorize our management challenges into three broad areas: geopolitics, economics, and education.

From a geopolitical or governance perspective, there's no question about it—we're a mess. There are more than 16 different congressional committees at the federal level and at least four departments in the executive branch that have some jurisdiction over water. States have primacy regarding intrastate issues, and on top of that, land use decisions that have a direct and substantial impact on water are primarily made at the local level.

Topping it all off, however, is the fact that we continue to manage water according to political boundaries rather than natural boundaries. Rivers, lakes, and groundwaters don't care what state they're in. They don't respect political boundaries.

We need to shift from managing water by political boundaries to natural boundaries—what we call watersheds. We need to move to a watershed-based framework if we're going to break through some of the complexity and inefficiency that is currently hard-wired into our system.

Austin offers a great example of how the community, by moving to a watershed approach, has been able to make progress in protecting the Edwards Aquifer. The key step was identifying about 15,000 acres, part of the green infrastructure of this community that is critical to the water recharge in the aquifer.

Another example is the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes six states and is home to more than 65 million people. These states, in an unprecedented fashion, have now signed the Chesapeake Bay Compact, which sets numeric targets for land conservation, limits certain types of land use behavior, and allows for regulatory alignment across state boundaries.

From an economic perspective, much of our mismanagement of water can be traced to the fact that it takes 8 gallons to produce a tomato, 15,000 gallons to make a barrel of beer, 39,000 gallons to make a new car, and 300 million gallons of water to produce a single day's supply of newsprint.

We need to rethink the economics of water. Should we pay for water itself, not just the delivery system? Should we be growing rice in the desert? Should 16 million people live in Los Angles when the Los Angeles Basin receives only enough annual rainfall each year to support 100,000?

With shortages and drought, we are beginning to see changes. We are paying more for water in some areas. As a result, water allocations are changing and water markets are emerging. But these changes can be controversial.

For example, right here in Texas, a project would allow a landowner to pump over 200,000 acre feet of groundwater a year—that's enough water for one million people—even if it makes surrounding wells go dry. The local water district, because of Texas water law, cannot stop the project; yet it calculates that this project will reduce the water in a four-county area by 50 percent over the next 100 years. Hearing that reminds me of something Yogi Berra, the great American philosopher, once said, “We were lost but making great time.”

Changes in water allocation and the development of water markets present some conservation opportunities, and this is important, for as water is transferred from one place to another or one use to another, there are opportunities to capture water for conservation purposes.

When the L.A. Basin was first being developed early in the 20th century, the power brokers in the water wars had a saying: Water flows uphill toward money. Our challenge is to figure out how to put conservation at the top of that hill.

Education is the third area that we need to focus on. If you ask average Americans where their water comes from, they’ll tell you, from the tap. In fact, most people don't know where their water comes from, and they have no idea that their daily actions have a direct impact on the quality and quantity of their water resources.

In a recent survey of the Chesapeake Bay area, 61 percent of the people believed strongly that more needed to be done to protect the bay; yet only 10 percent believed they were part of the problem. We must remedy this problem.

First, people need to learn their watershed address. They need to find out what is going on in their watershed. Second, they need to participate in local decision making regarding water and land use. For example, efforts are under way to develop watershed-sensitive design standards for new developments. There are many examples of local governments that have refused to issue development permits until the developer could prove that the necessary water resources were available before the development started.

Third, people must recognize that they need to protect the land that provides their water, as they are doing here in Austin. But this requires a new level of sophistication regarding the integration of land use and water quality.

It requires new tools and language, new behaviors, new relationships. These are things we do not yet have. We need training, education, and leadership development programs for environmental professionals in public, private, and nonprofit organizations to come together to learn these new skills.his is beginning to happen. There are now more than 800 watershed organizations around the country, and like land trusts, they are one of the fastest-growing segments of our movement. They're locally based and locally driven and can be enormously effective.Watershed organizations, by definition, are regional and interdisciplinary in nature, so they're ideal vehicles for balancing economic and environmental concerns.

To close, I'd like to quote an old friend who is now the dean of the School of Public Administration at Syracuse University. He said that the role of the public administrator is to make a “mesh” of things.

I suggest that in the future we'll need to look to watershed management to make a mesh of things. We need to link upstream with downstream, surface water with groundwater, and land use with water quality. How can we start?

As I said earlier, we need to learn about water through training and education. We need to shift to a watershed framework for management. We need to price water appropriately. We need to establish water markets to move water to more efficient uses.

Finally, we need to identify and protect the green infrastructure essential for our water resources. Only by refocusing in this way, I believe, will we be able to manage our water resources for future generations, successfully integrating the issues we've heard about today concerning land, land use, and water conservation.