Water problems have been front and center recently, between the disastrous lead poisoning of Flint’s water system and the drought that has now plagued California for half a decade. So the water community was quietly hoping the first-ever White House Water Summit on March 22 might be something like, say, the Olympic diving competition. High profile. Attention-grabbing, even if you don’t normally pay attention. With a few truly astonishing performances that might go viral.
It was an expectation built in part by weeks of small-group meetings and preparation by the White House, that water problems would, for a day, take center stage in the national policy discussions—and that water might then join other issues, like energy and jobs, in getting much more routine attention.
Instead, the summit was more like a July afternoon at the local community pool—a few too many people crowded into the water for anyone to really stand out. At a preliminary event in December, the White House Roundtable on Water, administration officials had suggested they might ultimately announce a bold national stretch goal related to water: to cut total U.S. water use by 33% from current levels, for instance; or push to cut the cost of desalination by 75%, so desalinated water had what the White House called "pipe parity," no more expensive than water from a reservoir, well, or river.
In fact, at the summit, water conservation wasn’t even a topic of any of the dozen sections. Desalination, if it came up at all, was mentioned only in passing.
The summit, instead, was a quick tour across the wide horizon of water issues: replacing outdated pipes in cities, providing resilience to water utilities (and also farmers) in the face of climate change, and paying for the infrastructure work that needs to be done. Thirty-one people spoke, about 14 topics, in the course of three-and-a-half hours. Everyone got about seven minutes.
Although the summit had a little gloss of a big event—everyone got to go home with a box of M&Ms or Hershey kisses signed in gold by Barack Obama—in fact it was little different than a lot of water innovation meetings held around the country. Undoubtedly valuable, effective in connecting people from different water communities who don’t see each other that often, but not game-changing for water issues, not even game-changing for the people and projects spotlighted.
Indeed, in what may count as perhaps the least effective example of scheduling-to-create-excitement, the White House Water Summit kicked off with a panel on "innovative finance" for water projects.
Finding the money to fix water problems is hard and essential. But as a compelling topic, finance doesn’t even capture water geeks. The panel told the story of Bayonne, New Jersey’s success with outside water financing—but the panel never, in fact, explained to the audience how financially struggling Bayonne wooed in outside financing, or what the city had to do to make itself attractive.
Kathryn Sullivan, the head of NOAA and a former NASA astronaut, introduced a new flood forecasting model that will predict water levels at 2.7 million places in the U.S. instead of the current 4,000. That’s great news: it may save lives, it may help communities better protect themselves from flood. But is the news of an upgraded mathematical flood prediction model why you host a summit at the White House?
Dr. Sullivan—introduced as the first U.S. woman to walk in space—was the glamour at the event. Hopes that Obama might poke his head in evaporated when he scheduled his first trip to Cuba for this week; there was a brief hope that Vice President Biden might stop by. In the end, four members of Congress spoke, but not a single cabinet level official.
The most interesting bit of casting, in fact, was that the summit was closed by Alice Hill, from Obama’s national security staff, a subtle reminder that grappling with clean water, with flooding, drought, famine, and climate change, are all vital economic and national security issues.
While the White House itself didn't make a major water announcement, what it did do was unleash its fantastic written catalog of water research efforts, water innovations, and water conservation "commitments," the vast majority of which the Obama Administration curated from companies and organizations outside the federal government, which were already doing them.
The list of projects is optimistic. A quick scan suggests that someone in the U.S. is paying attention to any water problem you can imagine. But it is also exhausting. The White House document is 34 single-spaced pages —16,000 words, a quarter the length of a novel—and lists 172 individual projects, being undertaken by 286 different companies, universities or organizations, including MIT and UCLA, GE and Google, and also AccelerateH2O and the Water Reclamation District of the City of Chicago.
Ali Zaidi has been one of the Obama Administration’s driving forces in getting the White House to pay attention to water. But once the summit was finished it was hard to know quite what aspect of water issues the White House wanted people to pay attention to. "The summit showcased the stakeholders and the storylines that surround our water system," Zaidi said in an interview. "Hopefully it’s clear coming out of the summit that when you do that, well, simplicity is not one of the features of the system."
It’s likely that, with just 10 months left in office, pushing forward dozens of mid-level efforts might have more long-term impact on water management, simply because a single high-profile effort could easily be undone by the next president, or immediately frustrated in Congress. And White House officials may also have discovered that unleashing a bold goal might so distract and distort the decentralized world of water that it could actually undermine or derail all kinds of efforts already underway.
Zaidi acknowledged that among the vast list of projects—"commitments," the White House calls them— many "have taken months or years to develop. We aren’t taking credit for them, the credit belongs to the people making the commitments. We hope we’ve done a good job of catalyzing and convening. The reason we lift them up is to encourage people to do the same."
And although the White House uses the word commitments, Zaidi says, there isn’t any formal accountability. "The follow-through is on the shoulders of the people stepping up."
The group inside the White House—Zaidi is associate director for natural resources, energy and science in the Office of Management and budget—decided, Zaidi said, that the challenges facing water in cities, on farms, and in the environment were so sweeping that "they demand an approach of hopefulness and humility. Rather than the hubris that we’ve got this all figured out."
It’s hard to say what happened between the excitement of December’s White House Roundtable and the much more work-a-day air of the summit, and why we didn't get the major pledge-cut water use 33%, make desalination affordable for all—that the administration had hinted at.
Obama Administration officials may have discovered, in doing a 120-day crash-course on water issues, how complicated the topic is. From Flint’s lead contamination to California’s drought to the effort to ready Miami for sea-level rise, there isn’t a small set of things you can do that will fix water.