In an era of accelerated climate change, many natural systems and processes are changing rapidly and unpredictably, and things we thought to be true about the natural world are proving otherwise. For example, the idea that water is a renewable and unlimited resource for humanity is currently being challenged in the context of major droughts that pose a threat to large cities and countries across the globe. This has been highlighted in the news media recently with the situation that the city of Cape Town in South Africa is facing—they are due to run out of water in about three months. We are told often that as a result of climate change, natural disasters are predicted to become more extreme—storms will be stronger, droughts will be longer. However, it is important to realize that even typical seasonal patterns of rain and dryness will become increasingly erratic and unpredictable. Changing wet seasons and increasing uncertainty in water cycling makes it more necessary now than ever for state and national governments to make plans to change the ways in which water is managed. However, making changes to the current water management systems likely requires that policies first be put in place to allow for the implementation of new systems.
Traditionally, water rights and management in the U.S. have been designated to different governmental and non-governmental agencies—as a result, water management systems even at regional and local levels are disjointed and practices in managing water may be different between agencies. One proposal for a more sustainable approach to water management calls for the integration of drinking water, waste water, and storm water systems, which are currently managed separately by different agencies. The proposal, called “One Water”—is a more holistic approach to incorporating all of a community’s water sources and managing them as a single resource. “One Water” has a few core ideals, one being that all water sources are integrated and managed together. This means that there would not be separate agencies managing drinking water supplies, storm water, and wastewater. Another ideal of “One Water” is that as water cycles through an urban system it is collected and/or transported through green infrastructure. This promotes water filtration and purification and reduces erosion, thereby improving water quality. An approach like this is important because it treats water as the finite resource that it is likely to become and thinks about ways that we can use water efficiently while still improving its quality.
A “One Water” type of approach would face barriers in implementation because institutional structures in the U.S. were not made to support the integration and collaboration of systems. As mentioned previously, drinking, waste, and storm water are managed within separate systems which are reinforced from the federal to the local level of the government. Centralized infrastructure is prioritized by state and federal governments—this can be seen by the ways that water infrastructure is financed. At the local level, the lack of common interests and values among water management agencies hinder collaboration and integration. In order for integrated urban water management, as an approach such as “One Water” is called, to be adopted successfully reforms must occur at all levels of government. Federal and state laws governing how water be treated and managed will need to be made to allow for the kind of integrated management that One Water requires. At the city level, policy and city planning will need to be proactive in incorporating green infrastructure, and various stakeholders will need to be unified in working to improve urban watersheds. The benefits to be gained are social, environmental, and economic. Increased resiliency and reliability of water sources, sustainable community development, and opportunity for economic growth are some of the benefits that would come from integrating water management (Cardone, Rachel and Carol Howe, 2018). If we continue to treat and manage water in the way that we currently do, we will soon be unable to supply our populations with a vital necessity for life—work must be done to renew water as a resource.
Cardone, Rachel and Carol Howe. Advancing One Water in Texas. The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, 2018.