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Refreshing water policy

Leading U.S. expert delivers public lecture on looming water crisis
June 12, 2013
By Tom Peacock

Ben Grumbles, president of the non-profit U.S. Water Alliance, says there are three main threats facing water supplies for the United States: water is undervalued, water policy is fragmented and innovative solutions are stifled by conservative forces that govern policy.

Ben Grumbles delivered an evening lecture called “Water’s Three Biggest Threats (and Opportunities)” at the Henry F. Hall Building on June 5, part of the Workshops on Social Science Research. | Photo by Tom Peacock
Ben Grumbles delivered an evening lecture called “Water’s Three Biggest Threats (and Opportunities)” at the Henry F. Hall Building on June 5, part of the Workshops on Social Science Research. | Photo by Tom Peacock

The former assistant administrator for water with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spoke June 5 at the final of four public evening lectures held during Concordia’s annual Workshops on Social Science Research (WSSR). The series also featured Peter Trent, mayor of Westmount, Que., Sébastien Dallaire, research director at Léger Marketing in Montreal, and Professor Harold Clarke from the University of Texas at Dallas, an authority on U.S. electoral politics.

Grumbles began by detailing how water is taken for granted and largely invisible, which means the price paid for water is far below the actual cost. “It’s already becoming a regional crisis in some areas, and it will become a catastrophe if more value isn’t placed on water,” he explained.

His organization, the U.S. Water Alliance, is part of an effort to lobby congress and other policy-makers on the need to put more value on water and water infrastructure. However, the alliance’s ultimate goal is to create a national water policy to unite the agendas of the countless overlapping bureaucracies charged with overseeing water policy in the U.S.

“It’s a patchwork and it doesn’t always make sense,” said Grumbles. “From my perspective, there really is a need for more coordinated efforts on water.”

The other major threat to the U.S. water supply, he said, is that politicians and policy-makers tasked with overseeing water policy are conservative and resistant to change. “Over time, that will kill you. They’re really is a need, now more than ever, for innovative approaches.”

The shift from grey to green infrastructure in some cities is one innovation Grumbles says is already having a major impact — allowing for better stormwater management, water conservation and water treatment. He also mentioned two other innovations gaining ground politically: a cap-and-trade system to reduce the level of nutrient pollution from agriculture, and initiatives to allow the private sector to get involved in managing water treatment and supply systems.

There are ways to solve the existing problems surrounding water conservation, continued Grumbles. Yet if nothing changes soon, the rising threat of global warming could turn the water situation into a national security crisis.

“It’s going to become even more difficult in the coming years as the wet areas get wetter, the dry areas get drier, temperature extremes grow and infrastructure is at greater risk,” he said. “There is a greater need for resiliency. Some of these innovations are really going to be needed.”

Grumbles delivered the evening talk following a day-long WSSR workshop he hosted on water governance. He still fielded questions from students and members of the public for over an hour following the lecture.

Afterwards he told Soheyla Salari, assistant coordinator of the WSSR, that coming to Concordia was a great opportunity to hear different perspectives on water issues. “He was really surprised, not only by how much he could share with students, but how much he could actually gain from the experience as well, in terms of getting feedback,” she said.


Launched in 2005, the WSSR were initially designed to provide students with training in research methodology. While that component still exists, the program has expanded to include seminars on quantitative and qualitative methods, and a new section on public policy and democratic governance.

Mebs Kanji, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, says the main idea behind the expanded WSSR program is to give students the chance to discuss current issues with people who have actually spent time on the front lines of politics.

“When you want to learn the ins and outs of how a budget is made, who better to convey that message than a former finance minister at the provincial level or a treasury board president at the federal level?”

The WSSR continues until June 28 with workshops hosted by several prominent Canadian political figures, including Keith Archer, chief electoral officer for British Columbia, and Kevin Page, former parliamentary budget officer.

Related links:

•    Workshops on Social Science Research
•    Department of Political Science
•    U.S. Water Alliance

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