Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface News

White House Summit Focuses on Solutions to Water Challenges

Announced initiatives included funding for water research, development, and infrastructure projects; the launch of a new National Water Model; and the release of a drought resilience action plan.


With the western U.S. drought; recent flooding in the southeast; water contamination in Flint, Mich.; aging infrastructure; and climate change affecting precipitation patterns and sea level, the White House held a water summit on 22 March in Washington, D. C., to announce more than 150 initiatives from government and the private sector to confront water-related challenges and “build a sustainable water future.”

Among the summit highlights was a commitment of more than $1 billion from the private sector to conduct research and development into new and more advanced technologies for managing water, wastewater, and water reuse; about $4 billion in private capital for water infrastructure projects; and nearly $35 million in federal grants to support cutting-edge water research projects. Other highlights included the release of a presidential memo and action plan on drought resilience and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new National Water Model to increase water forecasting capabilities from 4000 to 2.7 million sites.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that global climate change “is affecting the water picture in a wide variety of ways,” including more extreme downpours and the melting of Himalayan glaciers “that stabilize the flows of the great rivers of China and India.” He also cautioned that although efficient water use is projected to decrease demand in some rich countries, a 2015 United Nations report indicates that overall, global water demand likely will continue to increase.

Technology Initiatives

Digital technology and data systems figured prominently among the initiatives announced at the summit. For example, David Henderson, managing director of XPV Water Partners, an equity and venture capital firm in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, said at the summit that the way that people manage and use water “is about to change” in large part because of digital technology including cell phones. “There is an incredible opportunity to take the productivity that we have seen from digital technologies in other sectors and apply it to the water sector. In simple terms, that means track it, measure it, change it,” Henderson told Eos. XPV announced a commitment of $250 million, in addition to $100 million to date, to help water companies bring technology solutions to the market.

Project Water Data, another technology-focused initiative, aims to modernize data systems to support communities, agriculture, and clean waterways for wildlife, according to Joya Banerjee, senior program officer with the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation in San Francisco, Calif. The project also would highlight the value of open, integrated water data to support better decision making.

Other Water Experts Weigh In

For Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif., federal authorities and other decision makers have neglected water issues for far too long. “It was a relief to finally see the highest levels of the federal government begin to tackle our national water challenges” at the event, Gleick told Eos. The most important part of the summit, he said, “was the clear acknowledgment that the growing risks of human-caused climate change for water resources must now be factored in to any long-term policies we choose to pursue.”

The crisis in Flint, Mich., brought about by high lead levels in the drinking water supply, shook people up about the need to maintain water infrastructure, according to former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly. “Water is a basic necessity and because it has been ubiquitous in most of our lives and we have had the benefit of having clean water come out of tap when we turn it on, we have taken it for granted,” he told Eos at the summit. Reilly, currently a senior adviser to the global investment firm TPG Capital in San Francisco, Calif., said that in many parts of the country water “is a resource that is under threat.”

Drought Plan

The summit occurred 1 day after the White House issued a presidential memorandum on building national capabilities for long-term drought resilience. That document institutionalizes the National Drought Resilience Partnership (NDRP), an interagency program to coordinate federal support for drought-related efforts. The memo calls for NDRP to maintain the newly released Long-Term Drought Resilience Federal Action Plan. The plan outlines measures to integrate data from environmental monitoring platforms to assess groundwater, soil moisture, and other indicators; study the current understanding of drought effects on ecosystems; and conduct research on improving agricultural water use.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), White House summit focuses on solutions to water challenges, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO048981. Published on 24 March 2016.

© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0