By Gina McCarthy, U.S. EPA
Our nation needs to talk more about the future of water, which I believe is one of the top public health and economic challenges now facing our country. This is a moment of opportunity – to drive smart, equitable, resilient investments to modernize our aging water infrastructure; to invent and build the water technologies of the future; and to protect our precious water resources. To seize this opportunity, we need urgent and sustained action at all levels of government and from all sectors of the economy.
It is time to move away from the narrow 20th century view of water: as a place to dump waste; as something to just treat and send downstream in pipes; as only an expense for cities and a planning burden for communities.
We need to accelerate the move to a 21st century view – where we see water as a finite and valuable asset, as a major economic driver, as essential to urban revitalization, as a centerpiece for innovative technology, and as a key focus of our efforts to build resilience.
This shift presents tremendous opportunities – to revitalize communities, to grow businesses and jobs, to improve public health. But to achieve it, we must make water a top national priority – and we need to be bold and revolutionary.
We need to drive innovation across all dimensions of the water sector: in technology, finance, management, and regulation.
We all see how science, technology, and innovation are opening new frontiers, fueling the economy, and changing our world. We must incubate this change in the water sector as well because both the challenges and the opportunities are vast.
For example, consider that the nation’s wastewater facilities discharge approximately 9.5 trillion gallons of wastewater per year. Utilities are increasingly turning to technologies and approaches that foster greater reuse of water and recovery of resources that were previously discarded as waste.
Look at Orange County, California, where they are generating over 100 million gallons per day of recycled water. Instead of just discharging that water into the Pacific Ocean, that ultrapure water is used to replenish groundwater in Anaheim, injected in wells in Fountain Valley to ward off saltwater intrusion, and as an indirect source of tap water to 2.5 million people in the county.
Another example is the opportunities for energy efficiency and renewable generation, key areas for our planet’s long-term sustainability. The water facilities nationwide account for as much as 4 percent of national electricity consumption, costing about $4 billion a year. Now we see utilities producing energy instead – while slashing costs and carbon emissions at the same time.
Look at Gresham, Oregon, where the wastewater plant has become a net zero facility – using biogas generators and solar panels to produce more energy than it needs. Not only is that saving city taxpayers half a million dollars per year, but last year the city also earned $250,000 from fees local restaurants are paying to drop off fats, oils and grease.
There are similar opportunities to use technology for improving water monitoring, for constructing green infrastructure, for building resilience to climate change, for treating drinking water, and for recovering nutrients before they enter waterways.
These opportunities to harness innovative technology aren’t just good for public health and the environment – they can be enormous economic drivers.
In 2015, the global market for environmental technologies goods and services was more than $1 trillion. The United States environmental technologies industry exported $51.2 billion in goods and services. This same industry supports an estimated 1.6 million jobs here in the U.S.
So the soundbite that protecting the environment is bad for the economy is just patently false. It’s actually the opposite.
As our nation heads into a time of transition, we need to remember that water is a nonpartisan issue. We all depend on clean and reliable water – our families, our communities, our businesses, our society.
So, it should come as no surprise that in a Gallup poll last spring, people were asked about their environmental concerns – pollution of drinking water and pollution of rivers and lakes were the top two concerns… people care about water.
To confront the challenges we face and seize this moment of opportunity, we have to work together – all levels of government, all sectors of the economy, every community. Right now, water is an all-hands-on-deck issue.
P.S.: I’m confident that our country can succeed. Look how far we come. EPA has released an interactive storymap that highlights some of the most significant progress made since 2009. I encourage you to explore the storymap to see where EPA worked near you and to read about some of the biggest steps taken toward clean and reliable water for the American people.
Image credit: "Sweet Symmetry" Todd Petrie © 2012 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/