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Ideas Made to Matter

Climate Change

Does the US need a federal Department of Water?


Climate change has contributed to dramatic weather events. With severe flooding and drought happening across the nation, the U.S. needs a national water strategy to manage outdated infrastructure and technology, according to a presentation at the most recent MIT Water Summit.

“It’s very timely to create a new department that is responsible for water quantity and water quality in the United States,” said Aaron Mandell, founder and CEO of Wacomet Water, which creates technology that transforms unusable water into drinking water. “We need to double down on building the technology that’s going to secure water in America for the next 100 years, and that’s something that requires a new national water strategy.”

In his presentation at the summit, Mandell detailed three areas of concern a Department of Water could coordinate at the federal level.

US water technology is behind the curve

Mandell is an advocate for desalination, a technological process that removes minerals from saline water to make it drinkable. The ability to generate potable water on a large scale through this process would represent “an incredible domestic resource” that could help create economic stability.

Without desalination, “we could find ourselves in a situation where water is actually beginning to drag down the GDP or causing people to leave areas where there isn’t sufficient water,” Mandell said. “That’s one of the reasons why desalination needs to be front and center to a Department of Water, in the way that nuclear energy led to the creation of the Department of Energy.”

That said, if desalination takes off, it stands to place “an enormous demand on the power grid that can’t be sustained,” since most desalination techniques heavily rely on electricity.  A U.S. Department of Water could assist in integrating desalination with different forms of energy, such as geothermal, nuclear, and solar.

“There’s a lot to be gained if we look harder at the direct integration of energy and water generation using desalination,” Mandell said.

Water infrastructure is becoming obsolete

Whether it’s low water levels in Lake Mead (a major source of drinking water for Western states) or drought’s threat to hydropower at the Hoover Dam, “our core water infrastructure is becoming obsolete and can no longer deliver reliable fresh water,” Mandell said.

“We’re reaching a critical inflection point. If we don’t focus on doing something differently, we’re going to permanently lose some very core water infrastructure that’s responsible for delivering fresh water to an enormous number of people throughout the Colorado River system and in the Western United States,” Mandell said.

Mandell also noted the problem of PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), chemicals that seep into water that have been linked to cancer and other detrimental health effects.

“Our existing water treatment infrastructure is really not suited to remove PFAS, so there’s an enormous upgrade that’s required in order to be able to continue to provide high-quality water and not have issues like this,” Mandell said.

The US needs to increase global competitiveness

Looking abroad, Mandell said that China is boosting its GDP via investments in water and an $800 billion annual water budget. China also has a Ministry of Water Resources, state water laboratories that are responsible for developing water technology, and an “extremely clear and driven” mission statement, he said.

“To become globally competitive, and maybe more importantly, to be able to bring back the production and productivity that we need to have in this country and not outsource to other countries, we need to elevate water as a national priority,” Mandell said. “That includes setting a very clear mission, which is ensuring that we have water security by dramatically increasing the supply of water through scientific innovation and technology development.”

Read next: In the global water crisis, an opportunity for private business

For more info Tracy Mayor Senior Associate Director, Editorial (617) 253-0065