Brookings Tackles “Water Problem” at Summit

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On March 28, the Brookings Institution convened a half-day summit, titled “Tackling the ‘Water Problem’: Challenges facing U.S. regulation, sustainability, and global geopolitics.” Former U.S. Secretary of Interior under President Clinton, Bruce Babbitt, provided a keynote address and two panels were convened to discuss domestic water infrastructure and regulations, as well as global water security, economics, and geopolitical issues.

Secretary Babbitt focused on how to improve the complicated groundwater regulation landscape to better measure – and thereby manage – the strategic resource. He acknowledged that while groundwater has long been considered a local right, states are beginning to develop frameworks for better management. For example, in 2016 California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which asks local agencies to adopt groundwater management plans tailored to needs of individual communities. In the Great Plains, where surface streams are beginning to dry up, Kansas is requiring withdrawal measurements. While these are encouraging signs, progress is slow. California’s new law gives local communities 20 years to develop their management plans. Congress can and should intercede and serve to incentivize states and localities to move more quickly to measure and better allocate groundwater resources, argued the former Secretary.

Following Hon. Babbitt’s remarks was a panel of water management experts, moderated by Pat Mulroy, Senior Fellow at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. Panelists included Jennifer Pitt, Director of the Colorado River Project, Jim Lochhead, CEO and Manager of Denver Water, Bret Birdsong, Professor of Law at UNLV, and Roger Patterson, Assistant General Manager of Strategic Water Initiatives at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Mr. Patterson observed that too often in the United States, water managers contend with “19th century laws, 20th century infrastructure, and 21st century problems.” Panelists agreed; climate change has accelerated changing surface and groundwater trends, and local, state and federal regulators are struggling to keep up. The panelists also focused on how to best make use of President Trump’s $1 Trillion infrastructure investment plan, should it come to fruition. Ms. Pitt argued that such a plan can maximize its impact by investing beyond single-purpose projects. Innovative approaches to restoring the Colorado River Basin and managing the resources provided by the California Bay-Delta were also discussed, at length.

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