Five years ago, I became Director of the Value of Water Campaign. When I talked to people across the water sector about what the Value of Water should focus on, I’d often hear some variation on: “The infrastructure dialogue is always roads and bridges. What about water?”
With much of our water and sewer infrastructure hiding below ground, water is often out-of-sight and out-of-mind. It’s hard to do a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new water main. As a result, water is often left out of the conversation about infrastructure, even though our water and sewer systems face the same problems with age, underinvestment, and new climate threats that our roads and bridges face.
The Value of Water Campaign set about to change that. We sought out partners and allies to help us elevate water in the infrastructure conversation. We joined with newly found partners to co-create messages and high-impact events that included water. And a few weeks ago, we co-hosted the first ever Presidential Candidate Forum on Infrastructure. I sat in the ballroom listening to four presidential candidates outline their infrastructure visions, and they all talked at length about water. Water was the star of the show! Water wasn’t out of site and out of mind anymore.
Why did we need to co-host a Presidential Candidate Forum? Televised presidential primary debates rarely include questions about infrastructure. This means that constituencies and voters don’t often hear the candidates’ plans for the roads, rails, pipes, and ports that we all depend on. Forums are an effective way to elevate a single issue and get candidates to go in-depth. Hence, the idea to host a candidate forum just on infrastructure was hatched.
For several years, the Value of Water Campaign has been part of the Steering Committee for United for Infrastructure, a 501(c)(4) non-profit working to educate people about the importance of infrastructure to our economy, workers, and communities. The Steering Committee is a bipartisan coalition that includes business groups, labor unions, and policy organizations. And it was United for Infrastructure that convened the Moving America Forward Candidate Forum on February 16, 2020.
Major candidates from both parties were invited, and Joe Biden, Tom Steyer, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg participated. Journalists Gerald Seib and Jeanne Cummings of The Wall Street Journal moderated the forum, asking questions about infrastructure to each candidate in front of a live audience at the University of Nevada. Five hundred people were in the audience, along with 70 members of the media, and millions more tuned into the live television broadcast on C-SPAN, the livestream online, and on social media. I was in the audience along with dozens of Value of Water supporters, and we were thrilled that every candidate was asked about water. Many of the questions were actually submitted by members of the Value of Water Campaign!
The success of this event has given me a chance to reflect on what it looks like to help Americans value water, the progress we’ve made, and the opportunities we have ahead.
First, water is the medium to make progress on all the things we care about as Americans. Water connect us all in a physical sense on multiple scales: waterbodies flow in and out of jurisdictions and across boundaries, connecting communities, cities, and countries; and water molecules that pass through you eventually pass through me, too. It is a physical link between us and our environment, and between one another. But water connects us in other ways, too: water makes our economy possible. We need water to make pretty much everything, from energy to roads to a cup of coffee. Water is the way through which larger economic and climate forces are expressed on an individual level: running water or the lack thereof, flooded basements, water restrictions, climbing water and sewer bills. Jobs, climate changing economic opportunity, and safety are all issues that Americans care about, and that presidential candidates are trying to convince us they are the best equipped to handle. These are all issues that can be addressed by smart, values-driven investment in water.
Second, there is a disconnect between the candidates understanding of water issues and the sophisticated and dynamic solutions that local leaders in the Value of Water Campaign are driving every day. For example, many candidates spoke about aging water and sewer pipes and the need to replace them, but many utilities, like Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, have sewers that are decades old but function well thanks to innovative technology and management approaches. Pipe replacement is a complicated challenge, and it’s not simply a matter of digging up the old and putting in the new. The size of the distribution or collection system, its age, material, pressure, and retention time, are all factors that play into the decisions around pipe replacement. We still have work to do as a sector to lift up these innovations to inform the next generation of water policy that our nation sorely needs.
Third, we need to get better as a water sector in making water a human-interest story. In fact, The Wall Street Journalists moderators urged us to do so. I loved this observation. Water is personal. Unlike bridges or airports, water is a resource that enters our homes and our bodies. Understanding this can help the water sector make the case for investment. Investing in water is investing in our own lives. If we want to continue to ratchet up public understanding, and the political will to invest, as a sector we need to tell the story of water as a human-interest story, because it is. And that’s what the Value of Water Campaign is for.
With seven months until Election Day, we need more than ever to work together to elevate water. The water sector is a force to be reckoned with when we speak with one voice. Join the Value of Water Campaign and stay tuned for all that we have in store in 2020, including results from our bi-partisan research on the national value of water, our updated study of the economic impacts of water infrastructure, and our signature annual event, Imagine a Day Without Water on October 21, 2020.