Two recent New York Times op-ed contributors shed light on the magnitude of the challenges that we face domestically with respect to water, its infrastructure, and our ability to measure it, and offer possible policy prescriptions.
In Charles Fishman’s “Water Is Broken. Data Can Fix It,” Mr. Fishman contrasts our data- and metric-hungry world, both from the government (e.g., measuring unemployment on a monthly basis) and certainly the private sector (e.g., hourly sales-rank updates from Amazon), to the dearth of data for water. For water, we have the late-2014 U.S. Geological Survey, which has water data for year 2010 only. In sum, the government provides one year of water data every five years. As a solution, and for a variety of reasons, Mr. Fishman proposes that policymakers in the water space move to emulate the Energy Information Administration, which has “every imaginable data point about energy use” and is “indispensable.”
In a piece earlier this week, Dr. Michael Webber, in “Our Water System: What a Waste,” takes a broader view and suggests that “old, leaky pipes; archaic pricing; and a remarkable lack of data about how much water we use” has led to the current state of affairs. To fix just the infrastructure comes with a price tag of about $1.3 trillion or higher, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave our drinking water systems a grade of “D.” With respect to pricing and policies, Dr. Webber also urges water policymakers to look to the energy industry for inspiration and adopt “time-of-use pricing,” with prices rising when demand is up, and “inverted block pricing,” here prices increase with consumption. Taking into account equitable considerations, Dr. Webber notes that “[w]ater for necessities such as drinking, cooking and hygiene should be affordable. Beyond that, water for lawns, filling swimming pools, washing cars and other uses should be more expensive.”
As with anything, the political appetite can make “obvious” or better solutions not so easy to adopt. With the high-profile Flint crisis this year and the White House’s water summit earlier this week, political momentum may be moving towards a tipping point.