The Color of Water -- An ENN Commentary

Our country is polarized over very basic issues: taxes; the size and role of government; religion and secular priorities. Yet at a time when many things are increasingly viewed...

Our country is polarized over very basic issues: taxes; the size and role of government; religion and secular priorities. Yet at a time when many things are increasingly viewed through red or blue political glasses, we might take a lesson from recent polls that show the American people can sometimes be color-blind. In a remarkable survey conducted jointly by two polling firms that lean red and blue politically, the issue of safe and clean water has turned out to be crystal clear: Americans want the government to step up and protect our nation’s water resources.

The survey, published jointly by the Luntz Research Companies and Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, finds that by two-to-one Americans prefer spending for safe and clean water to tax cuts. By more than five-to-one, Americans would prefer to see the federal government invest in water than increase spending on entitlement programs. And by an astounding 10-to-one, Americans agree that needed federal investments should be made in the nation’s rivers, lakes, and oceans.

It is appropriate to maintain a healthy skepticism about polls, especially when the pollsters admit to being "Republican" or "Democratic" rather than independent and unbiased. Nevertheless, the issue of water appears to transcend party politics -- as well it should. There are few issues of more fundamental importance to our health, economy, and environment than clean water. And while "red" and "blue" people may have irreconcilable differences about many things, it is hard even for hard-core libertarians to argue cogently that there is no need for governments to protect our access to, and the quality of, fresh water.

The bad news is that politicians still try to paint water issues in terms of colors. The Bush Administration has regularly proposed dramatic cuts in clean water funding from the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. Most of the most recently proposed cuts -- over $500 million annually -- would come at the expense of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program. This fund, which helps local communities repair and replace old water systems, has been enormously successful at only modest cost. Water-quality enforcement efforts have been slashed and proposals have been put forward to drastically reduce 30-year old protections for streams, brooks, and wetlands. By most measures there have been substantial declines in EPA water-quality monitoring and enforcement under the current administration, compared to recent Democratic and Republican presidents. Tighter regulations for arsenic in drinking water were delayed and efforts to control toxic mercury have been weakened. Costly federal subsidies that encourage inefficient agricultural water use continue to be provided to select corporate farmers. And the Bush Administration took steps to legalize the destruction of Appalachian rivers and streams through mountaintop coal mining and the dumping of mine debris in river valleys.

When it comes to water, we haven’t always been this polarized: two of our most popular and non-partisan laws -- the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act -- were passed, revised, and reauthorized under both Republican and Democratic leadership. Both parties have supported additions to the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system, which protects our few remaining relatively pristine waterways. Bipartisan efforts to restore the unique Everglades in Florida are moving forward.


Perhaps there are signs of a thaw: in a recent show of wide support for water, the Senate’s top Republican and Democrat (Senators Frist and Reid) jointly introduced a bill to increase U.S. involvement in addressing international water supply and sanitation problems, noting the connections between poverty, lack of basic water, and our own security concerns. I believe that parallel efforts to protect our own water resources would receive similar bipartisan support. In the end, protecting our limited freshwater resources needn’t be a polarizing political issue.


Based in Oakland, California, The Pacific Institute is an independent, nonpartisan think-tank studying issues at the intersection of development, environment, and security. Information on The Pacific Institute's funders is posted on its website.

Dr. Peter H. Gleick is a 2003 MacArthur Fellow, member of the US National Academy of Sciences Water Science and Technology Board, a lifetime member of the International Water Academy in Oslo, Norway, and President of the Pacific Institute, Oakland. Dr. Gleick did some of the earliest research on the impacts of climate change for water resources in the early 1980s. His findings, suggesting dramatic impacts of climate change for snowfall, snowpack, and runoff, still form the basis for our understanding of some important risks of climate change, despite vast improvements in models, computers, and climate analysis over the subsequent two decades. He was recently appointed to the UN-Sigma Xi Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development analyzing approaches and policies for adapting to and mitigating climate change.

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Source: An ENN Commentary