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Younos: Imperatives in water management, 2021-2030

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We’ve just entered the third decade of the 21st century and it’s an appropriate time to make our new decade resolutions. What problems we want and need to address, and what do we want to achieve and accomplish?

To move forward, first we need to look back and remind ourselves why we are here and how we got here. Our thinking and values have evolved over time – decades and sometimes generations.

The 18th century Industrial Revolution resulted in the emergence of high-population urban centers and an agricultural sector which demanded more water and energy.

As a result, uncontrolled volumes of contaminated domestic, industrial and agricultural wastes were discharged into the environment which caused significant water, air and soil pollution. The environmental values of the 18th century were dictated by the 18th century state-of-knowledge, and did not foresee unintended consequences on human health and ecosystem degradation which continued to the middle of the 20th century. Evolving environmental values are mostly based on advances in science and technology.

The environmental revolution in America was triggered in 1960s. For example, Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, brought significant public awareness about DDT and other pesticides’ impact on human health and environment.

Public awareness and activism led to enacting environmental laws and regulations to protect waters of the United States.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970; the Clean Water Act of 1972 expanded the 1948 Federal Act to regulate pollutants’ discharge into surface waters and establish water quality standards for surface waters; the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 was established to ensure the safety of public drinking water supplies.

Before the 1960s, the focus of water research and education in America was mostly on water source development and delivery. In 1970s, the focus shifted to non-point source pollution, i.e., stormwater runoff from agriculture and urban areas. Water problems identified in the 20th century still continue to impact the environment to a great extent, and some problems such as contaminated urban stormwater runoff have been intensified due to significant urban growth.

In the aftermath of 9-11 terrorist attack in 2001, the beginning of the first decade of the 21st century, water security issues began to dominate water research, education and management.

During the second decade of the 21st century, the impact of climate change on water resources/water infrastructure management and policy became a prominent issue and continues to this day.

At present, the beginning of third decade of the 21st century, COVID-19, the unexpected crisis, has exposed a diverse range of preexisting water infrastructure problems across the U.S., including poor drinking water quality in low income communities and the need for environmental justice. In many ways, problems emerged during the first two decades of 21st century are added to the problems we inherited from the 20th century.

Today, in the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, major water management challenges include the availability of adequate and safe drinking water free of contaminants such as lead, microbes, hormones and pharmaceuticals; enhancing deteriorating water infrastructure; groundwater and ecosystem preservation; energy use efficiency in all water sectors; climate change and its consequences on water resources (droughts and floods); cybersecurity for water infrastructure; and coping with increased competition for water demand in urban, agriculture and energy sectors. Food, energy and water (FEW) nexus, or the interrelationship, is the emerging research topic with significant consequences.

Unfortunately, from a water management perspective, we still mostly depend on traditional water management technologies, policies and college curricula which were developed in the 20th century and are, obviously, not adequate to meet significant challenges facing us today.

In recent decades, the strong interconnectedness of the global economy has significantly increased the importance of global climate variability and human activities as critical factors in sustainable management of water resources. And there is a significant need for a paradigm shift in water research, education and regulations to meet water related environmental and societal goals.

In the beginning of this decade, understanding the social and human dimension of water (and energy) management is emerging as the most significant imperative in water management.

Younos is Founder and President, Green Water-Infrastructure Academy and Former Research Professor of Water Resources at Virginia Tech. He lives in Blacksburg

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