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  Geotimes -September 2007 - Political Comment

Water: Our Most Valuable Commodity Gains Congressional Attention
Linda Rowan

Hurricane Katrina, a potential “watershed” moment for changing water policy, has come and gone, leaving us with an ineffective status quo. Right now, creating an effective water policy is a secondary or tertiary priority on Capitol Hill. But that doesn’t mean policymakers aren’t aware of the need to develop a national water policy based on watersheds, rather than on individual water projects.

Policymakers do realize that water is a critical commodity that crosses political boundaries and requires national coordination. Yet Congress continues to try to reauthorize legislation that offers a more piecemeal approach to water policy and that has been criticized for containing too many special interest projects. Just before the August recess, the House passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which contains more than 900 Army Corps of Engineers flood and environmental restoration projects. Although Hurricane Katrina did not alter the approach to water policy, it did increase the cost of water projects, as the new WRDA bill contains such items as closing the Mississippi River Gulf Coast Outlet to prevent future flooding of New Orleans and funds to restore the ecosystem in coastal Louisiana (see Geotimes, August 2007).

The Senate is likely to approve WRDA early this month, when they return from the August recess. At a cost of $21 billion, President Bush has threatened to veto the bill, calling it too expensive, but several senators and representatives have indicated that they will work to get the two-thirds votes needed to override any presidential veto, because Congress has been trying to pass a new WRDA bill since 2000.

Established in 1974, the WRDA authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out projects for navigation, flood control, shoreline protection, hydropower, dam safety, water supply, recreation, environmental restoration and disaster recovery. The bill was re-authorized in 1999 with $6.1 billion and again in 2000 with $5 billion. In 2006, the 109th Congress came close to passing a $13 billion WRDA. The measure failed when the House and Senate were unable to reach a compromise: The House version of the bill allocated for 700 projects and the Senate version for 200 projects. Some suggest the legislation also failed because a last-minute amendment would have required independent review of controversial and expensive Corps projects and periodic revisions of planning guidelines through the National Academy of Sciences and a reinstated Water Resources Council.

This year, that wasn’t such an issue. The new WRDA bill passed by the House sets up a Water Resources Planning Coordinating Committee to ensure that all water projects meet national needs and requires an independent review of any project that costs more than $45 million. Such review and planning along with a national assessment of water policy would represent a major step forward in building an effective water strategy for the future.

Policymakers need to base the merits of WRDA projects on the social and environmental impact of a watershed, not on the political alignment of an individual district or community. The feasibility of a project should be studied beforehand in the context of the whole watershed and a cost-benefit evaluation performed after completion to determine its effectiveness. In addition, mapping, monitoring, scientific investigations and analysis will need to continue at a steady and stable pace to understand our changing water supplies and demands.

In addition to the WRDA, some lawmakers have called for a national assessment of water policy: The Twenty-First Century Water Commission Act, first introduced in 2003, was re-introduced on Jan. 4, 2007, the first day of the 110th Congress. The measure recommends a commission to develop a national comprehensive water strategy for the next 50 years.

The last national assessment of water policy was completed more than 30 years ago. As the nation’s water supply comes under increasing stress by increased demand and strain on its natural quality and availability, new assessment is critical. The natural environment continues to change, leading to more areas affected by drought, and expanded development has led to pollution and coastal inundation where once-protective wetlands have disappeared.

Growing human populations in arid and coastal regions add to the natural stress by increasing water demand, increasing erosion of coastal systems and increasing stress on adjacent water sources, such as already over-tapped rivers and groundwater tables. The built environment is aging, with decrepit municipal and industrial water supply systems, old wastewater systems that discharge wastewater directly into natural waterways and old ports and waterways on the edge of their handling capacities. Finally, there is a greater demand for water by the agricultural and industrial sectors, and as noted by John Wesley Powell almost a century ago, the economic value of these sectors lies not in the land, but in the water.

As the number of projects and the cost of reauthorizing the WRDA grows, it is critical to conduct a national assessment of current and future water needs and plan a more cost-effective approach. The Water Resources Coordinating Committee and the independent review in WRDA are good first steps, but something like a Twenty-First Century Water Commission may be needed soon.

Rowan is director of the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program. E-mail:

"Restoring the River," Geotimes, August 2007 
"When Levees Fail," Geotimes, August 2006 

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