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A Global Crisis Highlights the Need for Safe, Secure Water Supply

April 20, 2020
With millions staying home – and washing our hands – we remember the value of clean water

How many times did you wash your hands yesterday? A dozen times? More?

This everyday ritual has become a near-obsessive health practice as we grapple with the novel coronavirus. The mundane has become potentially lifesaving – and we realize things we normally take for granted are more essential than ever.

When we think of essential workers during this crisis, we appreciate the first responders, medical professionals and those who make sure we have a secure supply of food and medicine.

Many of us have put hearts in our front windows and ribbons on our trees to celebrate those who are saving lives every day while the rest of us stay at home.

However, we should also celebrate the people who work at water utilities and make sure we have water flowing from our taps so we can wash our hands. So we can cook pasta, take showers, give our kids baths, or water the garden so we can skip a trip to the grocery store.

The people who work at the water utilities and keep clean, healthy, water flowing to all of our homes are unsung heroes of this pandemic.

And the people who came before them – who planned for future generations to ensure a safe water supply – are also unsung heroes.

I live in high-and-dry Denver, where much of my tap water originates from the Colorado River, flows through the Rocky Mountains, with feats of public engineering envisioned and implemented more than 100 years ago. Most of my food comes from fields irrigated with water that originates elsewhere, too.

Those leaders from 100 years ago thought big and relied on public investment to provide clean, reliable drinking water and food supplies.

Providing that clean, reliable water supply for the next 100 years also requires big thinkers and public investment, but not the same way as the past.

Big engineering can’t solve the problem of drought, overuse and an expanding population in the West.

As part of the foundation’s Colorado River Initiative, my job is to partner with big thinkers and planners who are working to share limited water resources and recognize system-wide issues like climate change and the value of nature.

I am also very aware that while my kids can entertain themselves during this crisis by playing with buckets of water in the backyard, more than 2 million Americans live without running water.

Environment Program Officer Jill Ozarski's daughters enjoy an afternoon playing in the water in the backyard of their Denver home.

In the Colorado River basin, this includes the most vulnerable in our country— low-income people in rural areas, people of color, tribal communities and immigrants. And this is a nationwide problem.

I was raised in Detroit, and still have family there.

It may shock a lot of people to know that, in a major American city that was the heart of our manufacturing economy, there are tens of thousands of people without running water.

The city and state are working together to fix that as part of their coronavirus plan, because it’s not possible to ask people to wash their hands or quarantine at home if they don’t have tap water.

For the rest of us, it can be easy to take running water for granted, because the truth is, most of us can’t fathom going to the kitchen sink and not having water flow from the tap.

In reality, we have running water in the West because our communities, our leaders, our businesses and others have all been working hard to figure out how to use water more sustainably.

There’s another lesson from the coronavirus that’s also worth thinking about.

Experts have estimated that tens of millions, and perhaps many more, Americans could contract coronavirus through the course of the pandemic. The strength and suddenness of our society’s coronavirus response is striking, and proves that we can do hard things.

By comparison, the Colorado River provides drinking water for roughly 40 million Americans, from Denver to Las Vegas to Phoenix and Los Angeles.

We should also be able to come together on creative water-sharing agreements and water conservation to protect our long-term water supply.

The ability of water leaders to think big in new and creative ways will define the future. So let’s remember we’re all in this together.

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