Water Vision 2001

By Blumenauer, Earl | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Water Vision 2001


Blumenauer, Earl, Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


A comprehensive regional approach to water policy offers the best hope for addressing our water needs in the new millennium.

While the 20th century taught us that many of our environ mental problems are interrelated and require integrated solutions, we still have much to learn and a long way to go. We have all too often failed to see that problems of water supply, water quality, and flood control, for example, are related to sprawl, traffic congestion, and air pollution. Consequently, we have failed to understand that these problems demand comprehensive, regional solutions--not piecemeal, local ones.

Consider, for instance, the case of metropolitan Atlanta, where rapid, unplanned growth has led to horrific traffic congestion, the nation s longest average commute, and some of the nation's worst air pollution. Efforts to ease congestion through more road building, however, have led only to more traffic and more air pollution. The air pollution in Atlanta is now so bad, in fact, that the federal government has withheld funding for highway construction within the city.

The region's waters have also suffered. Road building has eaten up wetlands and precious open space, which retain and purify water. Today, metropolitan Atlanta loses up to 50 acres (20 hectares) of green space a day to pavement, and over 60 percent of the region's rivers and streams do not meet federal water quality standards.

Atlanta is not alone, of course. Water problems abound throughout our nation:

* Despite federal flood-control spending of over $40 billion since 1960, flood losses top $4 billion annually--triple the annual real losses of the early 1950s.

* Over half the wetlands in the continental United States have been lost--decreasing the natural capacity to filter water and prevent flooding.

* Some 40 percent of the nation's lakes, rivers, and streams are polluted and unfit for drinking, swimming, or supporting aquatic life.

* Agricultural runoff contaminates 60 percent of the nation's rivers and streams.

* America's cities, towns, and villages face an estimated $20 billion annual funding gap for water and sewer systems over the next 20 years.

Sadly, government policies force us to approach water management in an inefficient, piecemeal fashion. We cannot afford to continue this approach; water needs are quickly outstripping available supply. Government funds and programs at the local, state, and federal levels are simply not up to the task. Local and state governments have no authority or capacity to deal with water problems that cross political boundaries, while federal regulations do not allow for innovative water-management strategies that could, address our needs in a cheaper, greener manner.

Consequently, we cannot guarantee clean drinking water, flood protection, recreational waters, nor critical wildlife habitat--despite the billions of dollars we have invested.

We deserve better and we can do better. Using existing governmental powers and current revenues, we can begin to craft integrated solutions that improve water supply, restore water quality, prevent floods, and sustain wildlife. The key is to manage our water resources regionally, at the watershed level. This is the premise of Water Vision 2001, an approach that incorporates four critical elements:

* Enacting a Water ISTEA,

* Reshaping the Federal Flood Control Program,

* Reforming the National Flood Insurance Program,

* Strengthening the Coastal Barrier Resources Act.

Water ISTEA

Many of the same issues that confront water policymakers today-- limited funding, problems that cross political boundaries, and lack of flexibility--vexed transportation planners for years. Finally recognizing that transportation problems could not be solved one municipality at a time, Congress passed ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) in 1991.

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