Want to Build Climate Resilience and Create Jobs? Fix America's Water Infrastructure

Written by: Camila Thorndike, Board of Directors
Watershed Management Group

While “water is life” borders on cliché, we too rarely hear about how our economy also depends on carefully managing this critical resource.  Yet desert dwellers know it in our bones: no water, no Tucson, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Denver, or LA.  The federal budget debates challenge us to voice our priorities. While we may have dodged a bullet on the fiscal cliff, by delaying sequestration until March 1 the Administration and Congress must come up with approximately $85 billion in cuts for the FY 2013 federal budget.  If Congress slashes funding for job training and investment in infrastructure improvements that help communities withstand climate change, they will dry up a rising groundswell for a water-wise future. Not one of us can afford that outcome. America’s aging and stressed water infrastructure is falling apart. Fortunately, a sufficient financial commitment from Congress to manage stormwater and preserve water quality across the country could generate 1.9 million jobs and over $265 billion in economic activity.  Public infrastructure investment in our most precious resource is a ready solution to our ecological and jobs crisis. 

Job training is among the vital services of the Watershed Management Group (WMG).  This Tucson, Arizona-based nonprofit offers internationally-renowned certification programs in water harvesting, urban stream restoration, and community-based green infrastructure. Most students are working professionals who sign up to augment or retool their skill sets for the green economy. Others are entrepreneurs who launch new businesses with WMG’s help. These programs prepare property-owners, organizers, educators, and professionals such as landscape architects, engineers, planners and policy makers to grow a vibrant and inclusive green economy.

Recently, I heard Watershed Management Group (WMG) Executive Director and co-founder Lisa Shipek, a pragmatic and energetic leader, share the vision that drives her: that the dusty local riverbeds she loves would flow again within her lifetime.  Anyone touched by WMG can envision a world where communities develop in concert with their environment—because we are doing so with our own hands. Anyone affected by drought or floods knows this mission is urgent. In less than ten years, WMG has built popular programs across the Southwest, Mexico, and the world in water harvesting; greywater systems; green streets landscaping co-ops; soil stewardship; technical trainings, and more.  In the public co-op program, over 1,500 Arizonans alone have collaborated with neighbors to install systems that inexpensively collect, store, and channel water from the sky, into homes, and out to gardens. These and other programs endow people with the requisite skills and “do-it-yourself” confidence to thrive in environmentally and economically chaotic times.

Americans want to get to work—but not in just any job. We have reason to be selective.  Climate change is dramatically elevating threats of widespread water shortage, conflict, and poverty.  Support for government to take action is strong.  People are connecting the dots between fossil fuel use and long-term water security. We want water dependably stored in snowpack and aquifers, not pumped hundreds of miles uphill in expensive and polluting pipelines. Low-impact and community-based green infrastructure offer solutions and jobs we can be proud of: thrifty and non-polluting ways to store water where it lands on roofs and streets, greening our lives in more ways than one.

Every drop of funding counts for WMG. Government grants help our shovels dig catchment basins and cisterns of hope; just as taxpayer dollars subsidize the roads we drive on and the bread on our grocery shelves.  On average, WMG’s budget is comprised of over 35% federal funding now imperiled by austerity measures in Congress. The bulk of grants we receive come from the US Forest Service (USFS), the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and state funding that often originates at the federal level.  If federal funding further declines, non fee-for-service programs like schoolyard water education may dry up and blow away.

It’s easy to get discouraged about the future. The planet’s heating, sickness is on the rise, natural and dollar wealth is hard to find. Politicians can avert physically catastrophic cliffs by supporting the green economy as grown by groups like WMG. Our country needs investment in restorative, community-building, and clean-energy work—not austerity.

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