America’s Drinking Water Future

Mar 23, 2021 at 8:00am

Michelle Horton, Water in the West, Stanford

In 2020 wildfires ravaged more than 10 million acres of land across California, Oregon and Washington, making it the largest fire season in modern history. Across the country, hurricanes over Atlantic waters yielded a record-breaking number of storms.

While two very different kinds of natural disasters, scientists say they were spurred by a common catalyst – climate change – and that both also threaten drinking water supplies. As the nation already wrestles with water shortages, contamination and aging infrastructure, experts warn more frequent supercharged climate-induced events will exacerbate the pressing issue of safe drinking water.

It’s no surprise then that the Biden-Harris administration has identified safe drinking water as one of the nation’s top priorities. Below, Stanford water experts Rosemary Knight, Newsha Ajami and Felicia Marcus discuss safeguarding drinking water from climate-driven disasters; emphasizing a modern approach to infrastructure investments; and focusing on watershed and water source protection. Knight is a professor of geophysics in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth); Ajami is director of urban water policy with Stanford’s Water in the West program; and Marcus is the William C. Landreth Visiting Fellow at Water in the West.

Whether it’s floods, fires, storms, droughts or sea level rise, climate impacts have a direct influence on water supplies. What types of climate mitigation policies should the Biden team enact to protect drinking water?

Marcus: Grants and low-cost financing for community preparedness, especially for underserved communities, to adapt and plan for climate impacts would make a tremendous difference. The federal government should be doing leading-edge research, technology development and dispersion for lower-cost sensor and treatment systems for drinking water. Finally, the administration can explicitly make drinking water its highest priority for research and development, funding, and updating regulations based upon science.

Ajami: Water has to be the central part of both climate mitigation and adaptation discussions. Today we are facing many challenges that are the consequence of our approach to securing water and energy resources over the 20th century, building infrastructure networks under the assumption of abundance and overlooking inherent environmental interlinks. Source protection, demand management and public engagement strategies should be at the center of any climate policy.

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