Public utilities association urges Congress to look at warming's impact on water supplies

How will water supplies in the United States be affected by climate change? How should the federal government be addressing water issues in a cap-and-trade bill? During today's OnPoint, Michael Arceneaux, deputy executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, makes the case for including water research and adaptation features in climate legislation. Arceneaux highlights several legislative proposals in the House and Senate that, he feels, adequately address water issues. He also discusses the public's perception of water scarcity issues and the need for public outreach.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Michael Arceneaux, deputy executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which is an organization representing the nation's largest publicly owned drinking water utilities. Michael, thanks for coming on the show.

Michael Arceneaux: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Michael, water supply and sanitation issues are quickly emerging as a big factor in the climate change discussion. And your organization is taking steps to educate Congress about this issue. What will climate change mean for drinking water utilities in terms of water supply over the next several decades? How serious is this issue in the U.S.?

Michael Arceneaux: In many parts of the country, especially the Southwest, Nevada and Southern California, Arizona, they'll face the brunt of the effects of climate change sooner than later. In fact, they're already suffering from prolonged drought. And then we may see rising sea level along the coasts and drier parts of the country where you may not have expected it, like the Southeast. Not even just Florida, but Georgia and parts of Alabama.

Monica Trauzzi: And so this means what if I'm the average American going to buy my Poland Spring water at the grocery store, taking a 20 minute shower, what does it mean?

Michael Arceneaux: Well, some people already get it, especially those who have been living through water shortages, warnings about conservation, using low-flow fixtures, they're aware of it; most of the country, not so aware of what they can do to conserve water. So the primary thing today is that consumers can serve water. You mentioned Poland Spring, that water comes from more water rich parts of the country, even other parts of the world. But we're concerned about riverboat levels, our stream flow, and underground aquifer sources that are slowly being depleted or overused.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, so what specific water research and adaptation features do you think should be included in a climate change bill that comes out of Congress?

Michael Arceneaux: The most important thing is that Congress, when they debate climate change, when they think about climate change, they should also think about these implications for water and often it's an afterthought in the debate. So we need Congress to recognize the implications and make significant investments in research, modeling of different of situations, precipitation patterns, water reuse patterns. You know, one of the issues is that there are national models out there, not so sophisticated as we need them and we need regional, local models for utilities to do planning into the future. Congress also should invest in adaptation and mitigation technologies. A lot of utilities are partnering with the Bureau of Reclamation, have already been investing in programs for desalination, water reuse and recycling and conservation. And we'd like some federal partnership on those issues to look at better technologies to make those processes more efficient and useful.

Monica Trauzzi: Is there a specific legislative proposal at this point that does cover the water issues that you're talking about?

Michael Arceneaux: There are a handful of pieces of legislation.

Monica Trauzzi: OK.

Michael Arceneaux: Senator Boxer introduced a manager's amendment to the Lieberman-Warner legislative package. Of course, it's stalled in the Senate, but her manager's amendment was a big improvement over the original legislation. She recognized the nexus between water and climate change and put some funding towards this in there. Unfortunately, the funding goes to the states. Other legislation, like Congressman Markey's and Senator Bingaman's legislation, they focus more resources at the local level where the adaptation has to take place. And we also value the national coordination into research that we don't think will happen if the research is coordinated at the state level. Senator Kerry has a proposal for a climate change service, national climate services, it's sort of like the National Weather Service that can help communities and regions plan ahead. And Senator Reid has a targeted research bill, targeted at water resource needs, effects from climate change and that research would be in partnership with water research foundations and institutes.

Monica Trauzzi: One of the things that your group pointed out in its letter to Congress is that you believe that biofuels production and carbon capture and sequestration projects may be impacting water resources. What's the link there?

Michael Arceneaux: Well, we're just now learning that the primary fuel component of biofuels is corn ethanol. Well, it takes a lot of water to produce corn and then to get it through the refining process. So that's one concern. We have more consumption than is necessary to produce ethanol. There are other plants that can do a more efficient job of it. As far as carbon sequestration, we're not sure of the impacts on groundwater. Naturally, you might think if you're going to put carbon emissions into the ground, intuitively, there must be some impact on groundwater. So, is there really and what are they? That's something that needs to be looked at very closely before policies are put into place to allow it.

Monica Trauzzi: The president and some members of Congress have suggested that water systems and some water utilities should be privatized. What's your take on that?

Michael Arceneaux: In terms of climate change, there would not be any difference. Private utilities have the same challenges as public utilities. So really, those are a wash in terms of the difference between those two types of utilities, public versus private.

Monica Trauzzi: Should water be part of the marketplace essentially?

Michael Arceneaux: Well, we try to avoid water being considered a commodity. It's really a service and so if people can think of it in terms of a service, water marketing is a difficult concept because utilities are self-contained. They aren't networked across the country like electricity is, so you can't really wheel water from one part of the country to another. So the concept of a market, it would be hard to pull off.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned several legislators that are taking water issues into account. How would you assess the amount of attention being paid overall to water issues in Washington?

Michael Arceneaux: There seems to be more of a focus in the last several months. Senator Boxer and Senator Bingaman really appreciate the implications on water resources. But it has been an afterthought and we'd like much more attention paid to it and we'd like to work with Congress to come up with ideas that can address this issue over the next several decades.

Monica Trauzzi: Okay, we're going to end it right there on that note. I thank you for coming on the show.

Michael Arceneaux: You're welcome.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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