Drinking Water Policy Recommendations for the Biden Administration
Water management is highly regulated and for good reason. When the appropriate guard rails and laws are not in place, citizens get unchecked pollution in their drinking water or overconsumption of limited resources in water-scarce regions. National mandates provide a strong structure for protecting water resources, but legal oversight and implementation of standards are fragmented, making it complicated to manage. The federal Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act influence state government’s crafting of their Water Quality Standard but the local (or sometimes regional) municipal utility managers are tasked with keeping water systems in compliance, oftentimes with decreasing budgets and aging assets.
The result is a compliance-driven mindset that has inhibited utility managers to freely implement new technologies and management practices to improve service and reduce costs. Furthermore, compliance-driven laws are only as useful as their corresponding enforcement mechanisms, which are notoriously missing in areas with underserved and vulnerable populations. As the Biden-Harris administration’s priorities start to take shape, their climate agenda can incorporate resilience efforts that promote sustainability within our water management system. To do so, we need to rethink how we manage water at the local level, and state/national actors need to empower local authorities with wider jurisdictions, increased focus on prevention of water quality degradation, and incentives to innovate without sacrificing accountability.
Within the last few years, a diverse set of experts teamed with the US Water Alliance to craft a comprehensive policy framework entitled “One Water for America”. The framework envisions an “integrated, inclusive, and sustainable” management of our water resources and outlines “Seven Big Ideas” that local, regional, state, and national policymakers can adopt to modernize the U.S. water system. Varuna’s worldview and business model directly impacts five of the seven ideas and we’ll walk through five of those challenges and how we propose to be a part of the future of water.
#1: Advance regional collaboration on water management
In most parts of the United States, utilities are managed at the municipal level even though watersheds and drainage basins cross county lines. As a result, one utility’s decisions can affect the water source of a downstream town. Classic examples include consumers overusing water in a scarce area or industrial factories erroneously depositing contaminants that leach into groundwater aquifers. The municipal-management model also complicates coordination efforts during disaster and drought responses and prevents managers from taking advantage of economies-of-scale investment to replace aging infrastructure.
Communities can lean into watershed-level management practices by pooling resources and information freely amongst surrounding municipalities. This has the advantage of keeping neighboring areas accountable on promises to not overdraw, and alerting them when issues arrive that could affect communal water sources. A more drastic, but potentially cost-efficient, move would involve eliminating small and cash-flow negative utility systems altogether and consolidating into a larger regional system. This consolidation does not have to be physical as technology enables operational consolidation. State and national policymakers can provide special incentive programs to support consolidation efforts and earmark funds to projects that demonstrate watershed-level benefits.
Varuna’s sensor systems can enable data-sharing between municipal systems and ensure that utility managers are acting upon the same information. More importantly, providing data in real time will speed up information transfer and allow managers to react quickly, which is crucial during disaster response. For example, identifying sudden spikes in turbidity can help predict flooding, while measuring chlorine, temperature, or pH changes can identify degrading changes in water quality.
#2 Agriculture-utility partnerships
According to the USDA, agricultural entities consume about 80% of water in the U.S. and as much as 90% in water-scarce western states. Agriculture also negatively impacts water quality when fertilizer runoff introduces excess nitrogen into waterbodies, creating hypoxic conditions and algal blooms. Regulating water quality in agriculture is a challenge because National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits do not regulate non-point sources, including farms. It’s also very difficult to trade water rights in the west to redistribute water to needy areas during droughts.
Policymakers can support collaborative efforts between watershed stakeholders by creating new funding models and funding sources that incentivize open-dialogue. They can reduce regulatory red-tape measures that prevent utilities from engaging with land managers outside their jurisdiction but reside in the same watershed. A more complicated, but perhaps sustainable, solution would be to set up a nutrient-trading program within a watershed, as demonstrated in Chesapeake Bay, where farmers, cities, and other sources can swap pollution reduction credits.
Data management and real-time sensors can support any efforts to establish a nutrient trading system and can help agriculture boost productivity. Water quality affects agriculture output and produce quality, and farmers can deploy Varuna’s pH sensors to identify acidity changes that would hurt crop yields. Establishing a network of sensors within a geographic region will help pinpoint runoff sources that affect pH, which in turn can be remediated and used in pollution reduction trading schemes.
#3 Blend public and private expertise and investment #4 Redefine affordability, #5 Accelerate technology adoption to build efficiency and improve water service
The three themes above fundamentally point to the affordability challenge and getting the public and private investment necessary to improve the service of providing clean water. As populations grow in dense urban areas, water assets are constantly pushed to their capacity. Upgrading drinking water and wastewater systems is expensive, and managers must spend much of their limited budgets dealing with short-term challenges. Water sales make up the bulk of a utility’s operating budget, and while raising rates would increase revenues, the action would make water even less affordable (currently the lowest 20% of earners pay almost one-fifth of their monthly household income on water.)
No single technological solution or private sector investment will be a panacea to all water management challenges, but exploiting public-private partnerships empowers companies to innovate on existing practices and technologies. Progress in data measurement and analytics will help managers identify their most pressing needs, uncover best management practices, and create baseline trends to experiment with potential improvements. A better step would be to publicly share real-time data of key water quality metrics to replace the quarterly reports that are sent to constituents, which can be easily manipulated from actions such as flushing chlorine. Data transparency will hold utility managers and public officials accountable and prevent major water issues from affecting vulnerable communities.
Altering management practices and deploying new technologies introduces risk to the system, and communities need assurance that change will not bring about negative public health effects or spikes in their water bills. Continuous monitoring and data collection on key water quality metrics can be used to set up quick alert systems to notify managers when something goes awry, allowing for timely interventions. Varuna’s sensors are an affordable way to evaluate real-time water quality metrics and give space for innovation while maintaining minimum public health standards.