WASHINGTON – Maintaining water quality and efficiency shouldn't be purely a local problem,a panel of water experts told the House Science and Technology Committee Wednesday.
Five witnesses said federal agencies should cooperate on water research and policy initiatives to combat scarcity caused by drought and population growth.
“We can't continue to use the strategies of the past and hope to overcome these and other challenges,” said Nancy Stoner,co-director of advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council's water program.
Committee Chairman Bart Gordon,D-Tenn.,on Feb. 24 introduced a bill that witnesses said is a good start.
Gordon's bill,the National Water Research and Development Initiative Act,would create a committee to coordinate federal activities in water research,technology and education. The committee of representatives from federal agencies dealing with water would also draft research priorities.
Gordon said the legislation,which he first introduced during the last Congress,would lead to better infrastructure evaluation,improved water quality and increased conservation. A 2004 National Academies report indicated that a lack of interagency coordination meant inefficient use of research funds.
“Water is too valuable a resource for us to manage in a crisis-by-crisis fashion,” Gordon said. “This legislation will ensure that the 20 federal agencies … will coordinate their efforts to achieve the goal of managing our water resources.”
Witnesses suggested some tweaks,asking the committee to add nongovernmental experts to the federal task force and to provide funding for the group's efforts.
“When you have a community that is both strong in cultivating and developing new ideas and equally effective in achieving an end result,success will be a sure thing,” Christine Furstoss,general manager of technology for General Electric Water and Process Technologies,wrote in her official statement. “There is not a lack of ideas.”
The bad news,witnesses told representatives,is that while research and improved technology will help the United States use its water supply more efficiently,these initiatives aren't likely to lower the cost of water.
Rates include the cost of obtaining,treating and transporting water,said Henry Vaux,a former resource economics professor at the University of California,Berkeley. But those prices rarely reflect the actual value of water,which fluctuates based on scarcity.
“Water is now and has historically been underpriced,” Vaux said. “The reasonable expectation ought to be that costs will approach the true cost.”
Witnesses said increased attention to quality and efficient use of water would ease the impact of droughts and allow the United States to supply water to a growing population.
Much of the country has suffered from severe drought in recent years. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week declared a statewide drought emergency and asked cities to impose mandatory conservation requirements.
Peter Gleick,president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development,Environment and Security,said coordinating federal water policy also could ease political tensions among states because water is frequently a point of contention. North Carolina and South Carolina are locked in a two-year lawsuit over water from the Catawba River. In 2007,Georgia and other Southern states fought over access to water in Lake Lanier during a drought.
“Political boundaries don't always match watershed boundaries,” Gleick said. “Even in places we thought water was plentiful,we're realizing it no longer is.”