Is water the next oil? How will water issues affect the future health and security of the United States? During today's OnPoint, Lynn Broaddus, director of the environment program at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, discusses a new report that calls on the United States to make major changes to its water policy.
Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Lynn Broaddus, director of the environment program at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread. Lynn, thanks for coming on the show.
Lynn Broaddus: Thanks for having me.
Monica Trauzzi: Lynn, the Johnson Foundation is part of a new coalition calling for major changes to how we use and consume water here in the U.S. It's an issue that's slowly gaining steam. What are the biggest issues with how water is being used today and where are you most concerned?
Lynn Broaddus: Well, the process that we've used to bring this call to action around freshwater is one that has incorporated stakeholders from a number of different perspectives. There have been a number of other entities that have addressed some of the water challenges, but what's unique about this particular perspective, it builds on these other endeavors. But ours is a diverse group of stakeholders from agriculture, industry, government, private, NGO, health care professionals, all coming together because of their concern over what they see as the writing on the wall for our water problems.
Monica Trauzzi: How close are we to a national crisis? I mean how serious of an issue is this?
Lynn Broaddus: The writing is on the wall. We've framed it as a looming crisis. Certainly, we have seen actual crises place to place in the United States, whether it be drought in the Atlanta area that brought them down to like a 30 day supply of water at one point, whether it's drawdowns in water tables that have municipalities with high radium concentrations in their water supply, whether it's power plants that are dependent on water, but the water table has dropped so much that they have to actually shut down the power plant. These are the types of spot crises that we see. We're worried that if something isn't done collectively to solve these in unison rather than sort of individually, that our nation will have a water crisis. And we want to get ahead of that crisis.
Monica Trauzzi: So, it sounds like there's a broad range of issues here, from pollution to climate change to population issues. So then what are your recommendations of how to address them? I mean these sound like very different problems.
Lynn Broaddus: Yeah, our recommendations sort of cross the gamut of things. Even more fundamental than the actual recommendations is the way we come about them. It's really important, we find, that we bring together this diverse group, otherwise these are groups that sometimes are pitted against each other and especially when it gets to the crisis point. It's easy for urban users of water to be pitted against agricultural and rural users of water or those who care about environment and rural fisheries and that sort of thing. We need to get ahead of it before it gets to that kind of a point.
Monica Trauzzi: For the average American it's difficult to wrap their mind around the idea of maybe not having water when they turn the faucet on. How do you re-educate Americans about water use?
Lynn Broaddus: Well, that's a good question and one that I don't know that we have all the answers to. Unfortunately, crisis is one way to get attention. Another way to get attention is frequently the way that you price water use. Right now, in a lot of our areas, we actually have water priced so that it's less expensive as you use more, so it sends the wrong signal. It gives people - it doesn't feel like you're using that much when you fill your swimming pool or when you have an irrigation system for your lawn. And some municipalities around the country have found ways to reverse that pricing structure so that the initial portion is very inexpensive, the amount that you need just to live on, and it's those extravagant uses that become more expensive. So pricing signals are certainly one way to educate people and get their attention.
Monica Trauzzi: So, it means people will be paying more from a policy standpoint, then how you sell something like that? What are the chances that something like that would pass legislatively?
Lynn Broaddus: Well, it doesn't need, that sort of thing doesn't need legislative changes. Those sorts of changes happen usually at the state level with the public utilities commission and then at the individual municipal level. And, of course, I think one of the best ways to sell it is by finding these positive examples where it's worked and then allowed additional growth in those communities and had a very positive economic effect on those communities.
Monica Trauzzi: I know this report has been passed along to CEQ and the administration. What are you hoping they're going to do?
Lynn Broaddus: Well, we're meeting with CEQ. We're meeting with representatives of the administration. Of course, many of them have been involved in the conversations leading up to this call to action, so they won't be entirely surprised by it. But we're asking that they work in partnership with us as we, this is not going to get solved tomorrow. This is a multiyear endeavor and we want to work collectively with them. One of the key recommendations in the report is a request for a national commission on water, to really step back and look at water holistically. Whether that commission comes from the administration, from Congress, from a private entity, we don't have specific recommendations on that, but we want the administration to be walking down that path with us together.
Monica Trauzzi: Is water going to be the next oil? Are we going to see wars waged over it? I mean how much of a strategic commodity is water going to be and is it now?
Lynn Broaddus: I think it's fair to say, certainly we hear a lot of people say that water is the next oil. I think it's fair to say that we want to avoid the kind of crisis that is implied with that. And we also want to avoid the commodification of water. Water is similar to oil in that we need it. It's a natural resource. But different than oil, it's also part of our natural resources, our landscapes, our fisheries. Our ecosystems depend on it. It's important for moving our goods and services around this country and around the world. It's important to our quality of life and that makes it very different than oil and it really needs to be treated very differently than oil.
Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it there. Thank you for coming on the show.
Lynn Broaddus: Thank you very much.
Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.
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