The crisis with our nation's water

By , Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona is chairman of the National Water Alliance.

There is a crisis developing in this country that threatens the essence of our very existence, water. And while comparisons are being made between this natural resource crisis and the energy crisis of a decade ago, there is one major difference. It was possible to reduce our dependency on fuel by turning down the thermostat and cutting back on trips in the car. But it is impossible to reduce our personal dependence on water. When faced with the Arab oil embargo we had no time and no choice but to react. With the impending water crisis there is time for action, but we must begin now.

In order to confront the nation's tremendous water problems, I have joined with five other congressional leaders, from all regions of the country, to form the National Water Alliance. This new bipartisan coalition has started the crucial work of finding some solutions to the problems that threaten our nation's water supply.

How did we get to this point?

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* We have misused our water - more than one-fifth of the nation's water supply shows some level of contamination.

* We have overused our water - doubling our water use in the last 30 years alone, we Americans use three times as much per capita as the Japanese.

* We have allowed our water delivery systems to decay and collapse - some Eastern cities lose as much as half of their water through leaky pipes, some installed at the turn of the century.

* We can't agree on the necessary funding to rebuild and expand our nation's water systems: We spend $11 billion on municipal water supplies annually, but there is still a shortfall of $5 billion to $6 billion a year; another $50 billion in projects is unfunded and unfinished.

* We are at war with one another over water - state by state and region by region we are fighting over ownership rights and distribution of water.

Putting an end to such regional disputes requires a national effort such as the National Water Alliance. We rose to the challenge of the energy crisis because of our unified efforts. It is time for us to put down our regional differences and once again face the problem as a nation.

In my home state of Arizona it has always been easy to see the importance of water, against the background of a parched desert. But I have learned that water problems have been just as acute in Minnesota, the home state of my co-chairman, Sen. Dave Durenberger. The Great Lakes, the largest body of freshwater on earth, have suffered terrible pollution problems. Lake Erie was at one time dead.

Whether the water is undrinkable or unusable because it is polluted, or whether it is just not available in the quantities needed, the end result is the same.

The primary goal of the National Water Alliance is the development of a national water policy. There are national policies for just about everything: health, housing, foreign affairs, and even a current debate about an industrial policy. Yet it is inconceivable that there is no national policy for water - the lifeblood of our nation and its citizens.

In order to develop the policy, the National Water Alliance will bring people with expertise and wisdom together in a series of symposiums across the country. Our first symposium was held in Philadelphia in October. There, more than 200 professionals from all walks of life and from all over the nation met to discuss the ways that the National Water Alliance can address the pressing questions about our water supply.

There has never been a question about the existence of the talent, ability, and technology to deal with the nation's water problems. What has been missing is a forum where consumers, corporate leaders, environmentalists, and academicians can convene, share information, and lead our nation out of its difficulties.

The National Water Alliance will also embark on a campaign of public education about our water problems. It is vital that we gain a heightened sense of awareness about the enormous role water plays in our everyday lives.

It is one thing to realize that when we turn on the tap we'll have enough water to have a drink and take care of our sanitation needs. It is another to realize that the water it took to produce a meal for a family of four would fill a small swimming pool; and that the egg on your breakfast table took the equivalent of 2,000 glasses of water to get there.

Beyond that, there is hardly a single manufactured item produced without the use of thousands of gallons of water . . . from vacuum cleaners to airplanes. Water plays as pivotal a role in the economic health of our nation's economy as it does in our own health.

Without a continued supply of usable water, the nation's industries would come to a grinding halt.

By sharing information through the National Water Alliance, we will begin to realize that our problems are alike; Long Island may be thousands of miles from Tucson, but the two are both entirely dependent on ground water as their only source of drinking water - and that source is diminishing. By taking a national perspective we will begin to find some national solutions.

Water recognizes no political or geographic boundaries. It is time that we also drop these barriers to progress. The National Water Alliance will serve to provide the information and support necessary to help settle these regional battles.

During the energy crisis we looked for and developed other sources of energy. But there is no alternative to water. The water we have today is all that exists. We cannot allow the nation's most precious resource to be wasted, mismanaged, and taken for granted any longer.

It is my hope that through an organization such as the National Water Alliance, we will join together and start finding solutions to the nation's water problems today.

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