Managing the nation’s vital yet increasingly fragile supply of high-quality water might be easier with more collaboration across jurisdictions, according to Jonathan R. Pawlow, counsel for the water resources and environment subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Pawlow was the Distinguished Lecturer for the eighth Ellison Chair in International Floriculture Distinguished Lecture Series at Texas A&M University.
"We need to eliminate the current adversarial approach to dealing with our nation's water quantity and quality issues," he said. "We need to establish a more holistic, integrated, sustainable planning and management approach."
But whereas the U.S. has long considered water resources to be infinite, Pawlow said, issues are emerging to cause concern. Part of those issues pertain to the supply and demand for good-quality water, and part stems from questions of who has control, be it federal versus state or public versus private.
On the supply side, Pawlow noted, water covers more than two-thirds of the Earth, but 98 percent of it is salty or brackish.
"Only about three-tenths percent of the fresh water on Earth is potentially available for human consumption," he said.
However, the U.S. has more than 1,400 billion gallons of usable water daily, about 80 percent of which is from streams and lakes, while 20 percent comes from groundwater, he said.
"That should be plenty, given that the total U.S. needs only about 400 billion gallons a day, but the water supply is not uniform around the nation," he noted. "The East is water-rich; the West is water-scarce."
Since 1990, recycled water use increased by 36 percent and is still rising, plus conservation, increased efficiency and productivity, and new technology have helped partially offset the increasing demand for water.
But water needs are expected to increase, especially in areas with the least capacity to handle more, he said.
"As we enter the 21st century, we have tremendous competition between different water users for the same water," Pawlow said.
Because of this, he added, conflicts and disputes over water are cropping up nationwide — even in the traditionally water-rich East.
"Fights about water are in great part about economic development and sustainability," he said.
Pawlow called for more research to find new technology and approaches for water supply and use. And, he said, better planning is needed to assure water quality and supply for the future.
The agriculture and horticulture sectors, he said, likely will be faced with helping maintain water quality by controlling or reducing nutrients in the environment and controlling runoff water from irrigation. He added that increased enforcement or "activism" is expected regarding water and there may be discussion on "federalizing all waters/wet areas in the nation and regulating land use there."
Because of these pending issues, Pawlow said, a federal-state-local partnership might help people work together to find solutions while balancing the country’s "competing economic, population, environmental and other needs for water."