WASHINGTON – The United States does not have a major water problem – it has several major water problems.
That was the realization of Jeffery Lape, the deputy director of science and technology at the Environmental Protection Agency, after meeting with officials from several states over the past year. California is in the midst of an historic drought. Rivers in the Pacific Northwest have become hotter, harming salmon populations. Cities around the country are facing the same problems as Flint, Mich.: contaminated water and deteriorating distribution systems.
So Lape gathered groups from across the country March 22 for the White House Water Summit. The meeting was held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. Scientists, politicians and environmental advocates from all corners of the country came to discuss the challenges they face and possible solutions.
“This event, it’s probably the first ever of its kind,” Lape said.
Melinda Kruyer, director of Confluence, which helps to develop solutions in sustainable water use in the Cincinnati area, was there.
“We heard about a call to action from the White House, and after reaching out and a series of interviews, we were selected to come to Washington,” Kruyer said.
Confluence was founded by the EPA in January 2011 to help bind together businesses, government, research institutions and other organizations to identify issues and develop efficient, inexpensive programs to keep water clean in the Ohio Valley. Several similar programs have popped up around the country.
One is the New England Water Innovation Network in Boston. Michael Murphy was in Washington on behalf of the group.
“We’re all regional, but there’s a lot we can learn from one another,” Murphy said. “How to create revenue for a cluster group, best practices in marketing … what we’re doing in Boston, we have a lot of assets that we can share.”
Over two dozen politicians, scientists and advocates spoke at the water summit over four hours, and their problems were as diverse as their places of origin.A White House press release said the EPA has pledged $35 million in grants this year, and another $1 billion in private capital has been pledged.
Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix, talked about his reservation’s need for water. Hope Culpit of the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, told the crowd that some families in the South rely on buckets for water. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., said the nation had “failed miserably” to maintain its “criminally underfunded” water supply.
Kruyer said the speaker who had the most profound impact was Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich. His district includes Flint.
Kildee repeated the details that have now become familiar. The city is deteriorating, its population is poor and information about the water system was so old it was stored on index cards.
Kildee blamed the Michigan government and said austerity measures had prevented Flint from fixing its water system.
For Kruyer, the most affecting thing Kildee said was a story of a child living in Flint. The girl told a journalist that she was afraid she would never be smart, because drinking lead hurts the brain.
“It’s one thing to talk about these challenges on paper,” Kruyer said. “When you hear about that the girl, it breaks your heart. It puts a human face on all this.”For Kruyer, the most affecting thing Kildee said was a story of a child living in Flint. The girl told a journalist that she was afraid she would never be smart, because drinking lead hurts the brain.
When the speeches were finished, audience members made their way to a pair of large rooms offering several interactive demonstrations of water challenges. From Denmark came a city block made of Legos that displayed ways water was used. There were virtual reality machines and interactive weather charts.
Particularly popular was a table of sand with a projector over top. A computer registered the different heights of the sand and projected blue light over the low areas. A large group of scientists, journalists and government officials quickly gathered around the table in fascination, taking turns playing in the sand.