No Continental Divide Needed: Bipartisan Support Can Flow From Water

Water is one of the greatest equalizers.  Within regions, most of our water is delivered via the same municipal systems, derived from the same, shared sources and treated in the same manner.  That’s why I’ve always told my family, friends, students and colleagues that there is vast potential to make great strides on water issues in the United States — because they deeply affect everyone in our country.

Likewise, impacts to the quality and quantity of water in a region are experienced equally.  When there’s a flood or a drought, we’re all affected. When groundwater supplies are being depleted, many wells go dry, not just one. If a local water supply is contaminated, everyone is subject to its ill effects. In short, with water, we have far more reasons to agree than to disagree.

Although I’ve been described as glum (“delightfully glum” actually, which I’m rather proud of), I was pleased to see, first hand, bipartisan support for drought spending in the United States.  Last week I testified before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS).  Many Congress members, both Republicans and Democrats, came, stayed, listened intently, and asked good questions.  Sure, a few barbs were traded. But, after all, it is Congress. I left feeling sooo much less glum than usual.

OK, I agree.  A drought hearing in the middle of a major, widespread drought is truly setting the bar quite low as an indicator of the potential for bipartisan collaboration.  The hearing was minimally confrontational, and both sides agreed that NIDIS support should be continued and increased over the next few years.

However, while in town, I spoke with a number of Republican and Democratic Congress members and staffers, and aside from the occasional awkward exchange, I was struck by their apparent willingness to cooperate on a broader range of water issues:  from the application of advanced technologies for monitoring and prediction, to the emerging threats to food, energy and national security.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not that naïve. I recognize that we’ll always fight over the details. Water rights are contentious. We have numerous waste issues that are difficult to resolve. We don’t agree on climate change, or at least that humans may be to blame.  But because water is one of our nation’s most important resources, and  because it is a shared resource, there is clearly a foundation for cross-aisle collaboration already in place.

On the day following my testimony, I was extremely pleased to see U. S. Senators Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) announce the formation of a bipartisan Senate Water Caucus to encourage dialogue on critical issues of water supply, water quality, and sustainable water resources management.  Senators Pryor and Moran recognize that the only way to make timely and significant progress is to focus on the common ground — the shared desire to ensure access to clean water for all.

Admittedly motivated by the vast scope of the current drought, the caucus will engage experts from the public and private sectors to explore emerging technologies, funding mechanisms, better coordination of local, state and federal infrastructure projects, and will even consider much needed policy changes, all in the name of ensuring the health of America’s water future.

Perhaps my goggles are tinted water-color blue, but I see a tremendous opportunity for the caucus to make important progress on fundamental issues that we have simply taken for granted for too long in our country.  I’m betting that shared goals can be found in some of these areas:

  • We need to stop using our waterways and our groundwaters as our national dumping grounds. There is simply no excuse for putting human health at risk in the name of economic growth. Period. It’s time to move on from that phase of our nation’s history.  Without any doubt, we now understand how hydrology works, so that denial of our widespread impacts is no longer a viable option. We also have the technology to do much, much better in the future.
  • Let’s figure out how much groundwater we have in our nation’s aquifers, including both its volume and potability.  In many aquifers, we just don’t know.  Let’s determine how much water we actually need, for domestic, industrial, power, and for agricultural needs, and importantly, for the preservation and health of the environment.   Let’s explore how both of these will change, with conservation, enhanced efficiencies and population growth on the demand side, and with increasing temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns and declining snowpacks on the supply side.
  • Let’s vastly improve our decision support system for water issues so that we can tackle them using a technologically-advanced framework.   Our nation’s computer modeling assets for water resources can be far more realistic than they are at present.  As above, the technology and understanding are there. But bipartisan commitment is essential in order to get it done.  Only then can our researchers and water agencies provide sound, science-based, truly best available options for our elected officials and water managers to consider.
Read the sign: what to expect without bipartisan support. (l-r) Kathy Eiler, UC Irvine, Congresswoman Grace Napolitiano (D-CA, 38th District), Jay Famigletti (UC Irvine), Sasha Richey (UC Irvine), Neeta Bijoor (UC Irvine), and David Wegner (U. S. House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment)

Water knows no political boundaries, and on several of these common sense steps forward, I am optimistic that like-minded members of Congress can transcend the their parties’ boundaries as well.

In the U.S., push is finally coming to shove with water.  There is now a compelling need to erode the continental divide to foster much needed cross-party cooperation.   Water issues can emerge as a shining example of successful bipartisan collaboration, while propelling our nation to the global forefront of advanced water monitoring, prediction and management.  It’s time to show the world how water can unite in our country, and that together, we are all taking America’s water future quite seriously.

Changing Planet


Jay Famiglietti is a hydrologist and Senior Water Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is also a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, where he was Founding Director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling. Jay's research group uses satellites and develops computer models to track changing freshwater availability around the globe. Jay is a frequent speaker and an active science communicator. His team's research is often featured in the international news media, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, CNN/Fareed Zakaria GPS, Al Jazeera, National Public Radio, BBC Radio and others. Jay also appears in the water documentary called 'Last Call at the Oasis.'