Intensified by climate change, this "quiet crisis" threatens access to safe drinking water, the reliable supply of surface water and groundwater resources for agricultural, industrial and recreational uses, and the health of natural ecosystems, according to experts.
The Johnson Foundation's Freshwater Forum has convened 100 freshwater experts at a series of conferences to explore the emerging crisis and propose solutions. Conference findings are contributing to a new national agenda for action to put the United States on a course toward sustainable, safe water supplies by 2025.
That agenda will be shaped by leaders in business, government and non-governmental organizations invited to the summit at Wingspread.
"Over and over we have heard that U.S. freshwater policy has lurched from crisis to crisis over the last 30 years without a national strategy or set of clear, actionable national goals," said Roger Dower, Foundation president. "We hope the Wingspread Summit can be a catalyst for fulfilling this vital public need, and do so in a way that brings together diverse interests committing to consensus solutions."
The Foundation's decision to focus on freshwater issues is based in part on the view that earlier progress from the such 1970s legislation as the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, may have led to complacency in the face of current environmental and economic realities.
"We no longer see pictures of rivers on fire, most point sources of pollution are treated before being discharged into our lakes and streams, and we have markedly decreased or eliminated many critical waterborne diseases," said Dower.
"But this success may have fostered a dangerous notion that we have successfully addressed the freshwater issue; that we can now 'check that box' and move on. Far from it. Quietly, a crisis has been building that has yet to capture the full attention of leading public and private policymakers or the American public. We ignore this 'quiet crisis' at our peril," Dower said.
In conjunction with the Summit, The Johnson Foundation will issue a report describing the dimensions of this crisis such as:
* Threats to human health from polluted water, with new public health risks identified regularly that were not anticipated by the Clean Water Act, such as groundwater contamination and endocrine disruptive chemicals in drinking water supplies
* Regional and local water shortages that create economic and political turmoil, along with growing competition between municipalities, agricultural users and ecosystems for increasingly scarce freshwater resources.
* Aging and inadequate water infrastructure systems that pose not only health risks, but enormous financial burdens given the projected costs of building and financing municipal drinking water and wastewater systems - at a time of tremendous stress on public budgets. Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. EPA have pegged those costs as ranging from $500 billion to $1.2 trillion over the 20-year period ending in 2019.
* National food security threatened by unsustainable water withdrawals and land use practices affecting surface and groundwater supplies and water quality.
* Climate change that is altering the hydrologic cycle, leading to drought, severe flooding, reduced snowpack, dwindling aquifers and other affects that may have permanently altered our environment.
* A failure to recognize the powerful linkage between water and energy and adjust public and private planning and investment accordingly. Traditional and new sources of energy use tremendous amounts of both fresh and salt water, while water treatment and movement is responsible for at least 13 percent of U.S. electrical consumption - contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.Lynn Broaddus, The Foundation's director of environment programs, noted that America's ability to address the global impact of water scarcity and contamination depends in part on addressing its own water challenges.
"Our focus on water often turns, with good reason, to helping those whose very survival is threatened by scarcity or contamination of water supplies," said Broaddus. "As we continue to devote financial and humanitarian resources to this global crisis, we must recognize that our ability to help others is increasingly linked to more effective management of our own water resources.
"For example, the world's growing population depends on U.S. food exports, but if we are going to do our part to feed the world, we need to figure out how to support sustainable agricultural production here in the United States," she said.
Food and agriculture are the leading consumers of water, with an estimated 70 percent of the water taken from surface water and groundwater used for irrigation.
The Johnson Foundation Freshwater Forum is an effort to bring together experts who approach domestic freshwater issues from different vantage points: climate science, public health, protection of natural ecosystems, agriculture and food production, energy, and municipal water and wastewater management.
For more information, including conference reports, see the Freshwater Forum online.