The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for integrated governance of public systems. The outcomes of crises such as the current pandemic or the Flint water crisis that started in 2014 and continues today are made much worse when communication, management and decision-making networks are not resilient in the face of upheaval. And we must remain vigilant even during a pandemic; one crisis does not negate another. While COVID-19 should have the brunt of our policymakers’ attention, there are risks in allowing the pandemic response to paralyze other aspects of public policy – such as clean drinking water.
We recently wrote a report for the Minnesota Department of Health on “The Future of Drinking Water” highlighting the increasing pressures on our drinking water supply. Pressures include: the likelihood of contamination from industrial and agricultural pollution; personal care products such as pharmaceuticals, which can escape into the environment and have negative effects at very low levels; the threat of aging supply systems exacerbated by the increasing frequency of storm events; and the difficulties in covering the costs of water treatment and cleanup — especially by small rural communities. Our work focused on public water systems, but private wells, serving 1 million people in this state, also raise concerns, especially about contamination. Private owners, for various reasons, in general do not pay sufficient attention to monitoring and managing their drinking water.
Luckily, there is no evidence that the virus causing COVID-19 is transmitted through water. But a failure of our drinking water supply triggered by any of the pressures outlined above would complicate our ability to respond to COVID, as reliable and clean water is an essential part of fighting disease. And a Flint-style failure leading to public health impacts would require attention and resources sorely needed right now to combat this pandemic.
Our report recommends several policy changes to help Minnesota better prepare to respond to pressures on our drinking water:
First, to help us come to terms with the many contaminants of emerging concern, develop objective prioritization based on comparative risks. And, where action is called for, consider the costs of intervention compared with the benefits for better health. Earlier work on lead contamination (“Lead in Minnesota Water”) estimates the cost to address lead in supply pipes and plumbing in parts of Minnesota at $4 billion over 20 years. But the health return could be worth twice that.
Second, address the difficulties that small, often rural, communities have in covering the costs of managing drinking water by considering consolidation of suppliers. This will also be important in addressing the brain drain of expertise from smaller systems.
Finally, as a minimum the Legislature should consider putting in place a requirement and standards for testing well water at the transfer of property as a better basis for encouraging the safety of water from private wells and as an important signal underlining the importance of safe drinking water for all.
Even more fundamental for managing a complex, interconnected water system is an integrated approach. Too many state agencies (there are at least seven involved with split statutory responsibilities) can spoil the decision-making broth. We argue for more integration, minimally by an interagency body with responsibilities defined in statutes and geared toward providing everyone with safe and sufficient drinking water in a way that respects the environment. This will be important for public confidence. In this context, customers also need to be credibly involved in all aspects of decision-making from strategic planning to dealing with day-to-day quality reversals. As technology develops, we could reach a time when we can all monitor the quality of water at our own taps. That would drive better awareness and appreciation at all levels.
It is right to focus attention on addressing COVID-19. Let us use this pandemic to learn the importance of integrated management, and to realize that the situation would be worse without dependable drinking water. Paying attention to policy needs for drinking water can and should never be forgotten.
Peter Calow, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Ann Lewandowski, M.A., is the senior research and extension coordinator at the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center. Lucia Levers, Ph.D., a research associate, is an environmental scientist and economist at the Water Resources Center.
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