Wars have and will be fought over water; it’s a reality that we’ve been lulled into thinking can never happen here. Nonetheless, it will become an increasingly bigger problem with the demand increasing. Industrial and residential consumption, coupled with poor stewardship, will only accelerate the challenges we face in the next decades. Without a radical change in the way we think and act with regard to our water, the crisis will be a question of “when” and not “if.”
Our first responsibility in facing the issue is to rely on experts. For too long we have ignored what science can show us about stewardship. Our demand for “progress” has caused us to marginalize the chorus of professional warnings. Embracing the reality of what the hydrologists and soil scientists are saying is an acknowledgement that something is wrong and needs our attention.
As we move into action with water planning, the inevitability of legal challenges will be part of the process. This brings us to the next responsibility: drafting sound law. Establishing responsible and sustainable water legislation is a major component of moving our nation into water security.
This won’t be an easy step. Complex legal issues will be raised, and the court system is behind the 8-ball. Nothing shows this more than the fact that since Sandra Day O’Connor retired, there is no Supreme Court justice with significant experience in resource law.
The third action step will be planning. For too long we have built in areas with poor resource availability. The impacts from this will force us to re-examine where and what we build. This could mean that desert residential and commercial development will wane, or it could mean that new construction is just as dependent for water availability as it is for sewer availability. But one thing is certain: Development without the capacity for water (without an adverse impact on neighboring areas) cannot continue as it has for the past few decades.
The state has made some progress on this front, but more needs to be done. I have suggested that a single regulatory agency be created to approve development with regard to water use. This would replace the hodgepodge of regulatory agencies we now have, and ensure that the resource is monitored equitably across the state. However, if the agency is to be successful, it needs a certain degree of autonomy (similar to the Public Utilities Commission.)
The final step is consolidation. With the previously mentioned steps there will be supply issues, increased technological demands, cost increases, and distribution challenges. Consolidation will also shift the reliance on sources, adjusting the percentage taken from ground and surface water. With the consolidation, the ownership and management should be adjusted as well. Water does not recognize the boundaries that we set; the resource needs to be managed by an entity that transcends city and county lines.
We don’t need to embrace this model in a day, month, or even a year, but we have to move forward no matter how small a step. Without action, we are not going to wait this problem out. Our inaction will only create a greater crisis for the next generation, and that’s not something we should even be willing to consider.
John Zanmiller is the mayor of the City of West St Paul. He is a former member of the St Paul Regional Water Board of Commissioners.
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