From The Editor | January 25, 2016

Inside The White House Roundtable On Water Innovation

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

In mid-December, the White House put the issues facing the nation’s water industry in high relief as it hosted a “Roundtable on Water Innovation.”

It was a chance to gather public leaders and industry insiders and begin the conversation around how the country can move forward intelligently and overcome the constraints that climate change has put on its water supply.

“The fact is that right now, this country is facing some major issues around water,” said Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of The Water Council and attendee of the invite-only event. “While the government has paid a lot of attention to energy, short-changed has been water. It is really vital, from a human life interest to an economic interest and security interest.”

The roundtable came on the heels of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, where 196 countries agreed to reduce emissions and contributions to greenhouse gas. Shortly after the conference, the White House announced a “Public-Private Innovation Strategy to Build a Sustainable Water Future” and the assembly of the roundtable.

The spirit of the event reflected this public-private focus as did its guest list, with between 50 and 80 attendees representing federal agencies, academia, industry, and utilities present. The group was addressed by the director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, John P. Holdren.

Holdren discussed the ways that climate change will impact water availability and defended the need for federal intervention, saying that “the stakeholders and the authorities who are on the frontline of dealing with existing and emerging stresses on the water system don’t always have the information they need, they don’t always have the tools they need to deal with water challenges and that’s one of the reasons that there’s an important role for the U.S. federal government to play in supporting those decision makers.”

Following Holdren was a brief speech by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, in which she announced the formation of the Natural Resource Investment Center.

“Our goal is to provide resources and information to many partners involved in water resources across the country and to bring private sector, non-profits, academic institutions, states, and other stakeholders to the table,” she said, explaining that collaboration would be achieved through increased water exchanges, improved water infrastructure, and mitigation banking.

The speeches were followed by a panel discussion and group sessions.

Whatever tangible improvements are derived from the call for private sector innovation and promised investment of federal dollars, perhaps the most valuable immediate outcome has been an acknowledgment of water issues on this level.

“For me, after 10 years of discussing America’s decaying and aging infrastructure at dozens of conferences, it was gratifying to have President Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Secretary of the Interior discussing these issues,” said attendee Vincent Caprio, founder and executive director of the Water Innovations Alliance Foundation. “The Executive Branch of the United States government and the Department of the Interior are fully aware of the challenges facing water utilities in the 21st century. The water utilities are happy that this serious issue has been brought to the forefront.”

While the roundtable was a chance for industry insiders to gather and be assured that the executive branch has a plan of action, the next step is shaping up to be a much larger and more public one.

On March 22, officially the United Nations’ World Water Day, public and private stakeholders will again be invited to the White House to gauge how the public-private strategy is playing out in a “Summit on Water.” With more advanced notice, more press coverage is expected. The White House is calling for submissions of specific and measurable steps that organizations can take to address water issues, to be shared and hashed out during the meeting. It’s possible that the President himself will participate.

“The roundtable was a great way to kick off the larger event, which is the White House Summit on Water in March,” said Amhaus. “One of the things that I said during the roundtable was that we and the White House have to think about water issues not just as something to talk about at the summit, but to really make this an ongoing discussion through the entire year and for multiple years.”