Why you should care

Thirsty? That’s your body telling you it needs water. So do all of the other 319 million people and counting in the United States.

It’s no secret that fear sells in politics. And hardly anything conjures fear like water. Too much of it and you’ve got devastating floods. Too little, and you’re looking at drought and drinking-water shortages. And then there’s the ever-lurking prospect of contamination.

As the election season hurtles to the November finish line, politicians from Ohio to Colorado are tapping (pardon the pun) the growing public angst over water, with Democrats and Republicans blaming each other for a slew of problems. In August, a poisonous algae bloom in Lake Erie contaminated Toledo’s drinking water, cutting off supply to a large number of city residents. In July, Detroit residents mounted a noisy protest after the city shut off water to delinquent consumers. And in California, legislators battled for months before finally agreeing to put a $7.5 billion water bond on the November ballot.

Our water woes are likely to worsen as climate change continues, water infrastructure gets older and creakier, and populations grow.

“What’s more important than water?” as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, observed during the Toledo crisis. “Water’s about life.”

But our water woes are likely to worsen, as climate change continues apace, America’s water infrastructure gets older and creakier, and populations grow. It’s not just about slaking human thirst, but economics: American farms, which use some 80 percent of the country’s water, netted more than $100 billion in 2013. Big cities need consistent water to keep residents happy and their tax bases sound. That will bring all manner of interests — big cities, farmers, businesses, environmentalists, sportsmen — into direct conflict. With virtually every drop of American water regulated in some way, shape or form, the water wars will also pull in all levels of government and politicians.

Already, candidates have built campaigns around water. Out in Northern California, GOP House candidate Doug Ose taped a recent video in front of parched Folsom Lake — which is at historically low levels— a testament, he tells viewers, to the failures of his political opponent, Democratic Rep. Ami Bera. “All we get from politicians these days are empty promises, there’s no results,” Ose laments. “Just look at our water crisis!”

It’s the Midwest’s water crisis, too. “We see it every day in Michigan, climate change having real effects,” intones a somber female narrator, as images of flooded streets and pools of polluted water sweep across the television screen. The ad, paid for by the League of Conservation Voters, slams Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land for allying with the Koch brothers, whom its connects to pollution and problems in the Great Lakes.

aerial view of the city of Cleveland's lake erie

Cleveland, Ohio, on Lake Erie’s shore

Despite the accusations and a welter of diagnoses and solutions, the only thing anyone can agree on is this: The current path is not sustainable. America’s population has nearly doubled over the past 50 years, but we’ve pretty much neglected infrastructure and regulatory frameworks since the 1960s. “We haven’t done our homework in terms of where we could capture more of that water and not harm the environment,” says Don Parrish, senior director for regulatory relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation. Rather than dealing with the country’s infrastructure needs, “we’ve now started rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

We’ve now started rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

 

We’re also dealing with the fallout of a massive scramble for water rights, in the 1950s and 1960s, with states, cities and municipalities all staking claims. “There were a lot of water rights being passed around, beyond what could be reasonably expected,” says say professor Helen Ingram, a water policy expert at the University of California, Irvine. To make matters worse, “we have less water in the rivers than we have had in a millennium,” Ingram says. “For that reason, the politics has sharpened.”

That’s playing out in the Farm Belt, where a policy battle between the Environmental Protection Agency and agricultural interests over water regulation has seeped into several competitive Senate races. At issue is the definition of a passage in the 1972 Clean Water Act that determines which bodies of water are under federal regulation. The EPA issued a draft rule broadening which “waters of the United States” qualify for regulation under the law, making farmer and business lobbies extremely nervous about just how far the government could potentially go. EPA officials, backed by environmental groups, insist the effects would be minor, but opponents have serious doubts.

aerial view of folsom lake in california

Boat docks at Browns Ravine sit on dry ground at Folsom Lake in El Dorado Hills, California.

The farmers have been pressing members of Congress — and potential members of Congress — hard to help them force the EPA to scrap the rule and start over. Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst, a Republican, recently slammed the agency. So did Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, who’s running to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in conservative Arkansas.

The fight will likely play out well past the November elections. So, for that matter, will the policy debates over how to help clean up Lake Erie and better prepare California for the next crippling drought. Eventually, voters and lobbying groups may force some choices. The question is who will win and who will lose. “Historically, it’s been fish and wildlife, but it’s not just going to be them. Like everything else, it’s now going to be poor people,” Ingram worries.

Inequality, climate change, Big Ag — they’re all incendiary political topics on their own. Together, they suggest a combustible future for U.S. water politics.

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