In the U.S., most consumers take clean and available fresh water for granted, and water usually becomes front-page news only when there’s a crisis. And the past year has seen its share of water-related crises, whether it’s the effects of a prolonged drought in the U.S. Southwest or floods that covered more than one third of Pakistan last year.
But seeing water problems as only environmental disasters does not capture the deeply interconnected nature of water in our society. To mark the release of the book “The Conversation on Water,” a collection of previously published articles on water, The Conversation hosted a webinar with experts with a range of expertise and different perspectives on water issues and potential solutions.
The edited text and video clips below convey one or two of the key points each speaker made. The full webinar is available on YouTube.
Rosalyn LaPier, Professor of History, University of Illinois
Native American tribes in the United States think of particular waterways – whether it’s a river, a lake, or an underground aquifer – as a part of the supernatural realm. Tribal communities make an effort to protect certain waterways because it is a sacred place to them, which benefits other people as well. The Taos Pueblo, for example, spent almost an entire century fighting for the Blue Lake in New Mexico because it was a sacred site. They wanted to protect not just the lake but also the watershed of the lake, which they succeeded in doing.
Today, tribes are using different approaches both within the federal legal system and tribal systems. One approach is to set aside water systems that they view as sacred and apply personhood status to them. This has been done in other parts of the world and is beginning to be done in the United States as well, mostly now only within tribal communities.
There are different ways that tribes are thinking more creatively, but it’s connected back to their own religious expression. The reason they’re doing this is not necessarily to protect water from environmental degradation – it often is because of religion and religious practice. We have to distinguish between how we use water in America versus how we revere water in America. Tribes are addressing how to work within the system, because the United States does not protect sacred sites, especially Native American sacred places such as rivers, lakes or other water systems.
Burke Griggs, Professor of Law, Washburn University
We’re pumping so much groundwater out of the planet right now that it has changed the way the Earth is rotating. It is a massive problem that is not very visible but is extremely worrisome. Agriculture uses anywhere between 80% and 95% of the water that exists in the West. Rivers are just the icing on the cake of groundwater supplies, winter snowpack and reservoir storage.
Farmers are not breaking the law. They have property rights to pump this water. The fundamental problem is, since the 1850s, and especially since the 1950s, we’ve granted more water rights to pump and to divert than the water systems can support. That’s a bureaucratic problem. It’s called overappropriation.
There’s also a problem in farm policy. Ever since the 1970s, when the agricultural secretary famously said, “Get big or get out” and win the cold war for agriculture, we’ve seen the size of farms increase and get bigger and bigger. In order to make money and keep property, farmers have to continually borrow to add acreage, either as owners or as tenants. That in turn encourages them to pump more water to meet their bank loans and their other financial commitments.
So if people are not breaking the law, farmers are not stealing water – and if these subsidy systems promote overproduction and overpumping – what can the U.S. do?
The first thing to do is reform the subsidy system. Instead of rewarding overproduction and making a fetish out of grain yields, we should focus on conservation. We should pay farmers to not irrigate in sensitive areas and during years they don’t need to.
The state law system is critical, because most water rights are state rights. Here, I think it makes sense to make water rights more flexible. Farmers will be willing to trade less water use over the long term for more flexible water use year to year. Most water rights have an annual limit, and if you allow more variability there, then I think that gets us a long way.
Water conservation can happen, but you’ve got to understand water reform within the context of property rights. Property is a very creative tool, and markets can be very creative tools.
Gabriel Filippelli, Chancellor’s Professor of Earth Sciences and Executive Director of the Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute
In 2014, Toledo, Ohio, suffered a massive harmful algal bloom, likely triggered by climate change and related runoff in that area. It occurred right over the only water intake line for the Toledo water system. That meant that they had to issue a rare warning – not only “do not drink the water,” but “do not boil the water,” because these harmful algal blooms produce a toxin that gets even worse if they’re boiled. It showed that a lot of our water systems are not particularly resilient because we built them for 1920 and not for today or tomorrow.
I and a lot of scholars are thinking through the challenges in water security in a lot of parts of the U.S. Around the Great Lakes in the Midwest there are these prolonged episodes of flooding and drought. Flooding causes the redistribution of harmful algal blooms and pathogens like E. coli in waterways, which are very harmful. Of course, drought also causes its own stress on water supplies.
Unfortunately, a lot of water infrastructure is not built based on our understanding of water today. These massive sewer stormwater upgrades in a lot of cities are only built to hold the capacity of rainfall today, while in the Midwest extreme precipitation events are coming in fast and furious.
The US$2 billion upgrade to Indianapolis’ water infrastructure was built for the extreme rainfall events that we had in the year 2000. Here we are in 2023, and we already have about 15% more extreme rainfall events, and we’ll have another 15% more by 2050.
So rather than only relying on gray infrastructure consisting of tubes, tunnels and pipes to protect and secure our water systems and our safety, we have to also think about the role that green infrastructure – nature-based solutions – can play in augmenting some of those solutions.
We also should not be building new infrastructure based on the capacity we have today but based on the capacity we will have in the year 2050 and beyond. A lot of these very large infrastructure projects will and should last until then.
Andrea Gerlak, Director at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and Professor in the School of Geography, Development, and Environment at the University of Arizona
I’ve studied cities around the world and in the U.S., and at the end of the day, there is no perfect city that is doing everything right. But there are little examples. Since the pandemic, we’ve seen South Africa make a large investment at the city scale around water access and sanitation. Singapore has been focusing on reusing a lot of their water supply. It’s been imperfect, but we’ve seen some pretty good developments made by Australia’s First Nations to achieve their appropriate water allocations through a legal process.
In the U.S., Tucson has won awards for its green infrastructure and, along with Los Angeles, views stormwater as a resource. Los Angeles recently announced that in the coming decade, the majority of their drinking water will come from capturing stormwater, treating it and using it for potable water supply.
Other cities have been good at recognizing equity concerns, like Philadelphia and Baltimore. Municipal ordinances have been changed to make water available to people who cannot afford to pay their water bills and whose homes would have historically been repossessed as a result.
There are shining moments here and there, but there’s not any perfect package or perfect city.
Andrea K. Gerlak has received funding from NOAA, the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research, Lloyd’s Register Foundation, and Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation.
Burke Griggs receives funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Department of Commerce, Commercial Law Development Program; U.S. Department of State, Fulbright Commission.
Gabriel Filippelli receives funding from the US National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Geological Survey, the Honda Foundation, the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, The American Chemical Society-Petroleum Research Fund, and DLA Piper.
Rosalyn R. LaPier does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.