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Originally published Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 4:10 PM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Basic survival: water supply and quality

Issues of water supply, water quality, water costs and competing water uses will dominate public-policy debates. Ignoring them will risk our lives and livelihoods, and economic and national security.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Water. Get used to seeing the word and reading about the looming aqueous dilemma that will command our attention for decades.

This is not about having to take your whiskey neat. The challenges go to fundamental questions of who and what uses will get water, and how we provide, regulate and pay for life- and job-sustaining water.

Notice how the discussions are already changing. Environmental concerns are morphing into basic assessments of adequate supplies for human consumption.

Alarms are sounding that we are using water at such a rapid pace, some parts of the country — let alone chunks of the world — will be out of water. Author Robert Glennon broadens the perspective in "Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do About It" (Island Press, 2009).

Glennon explores the economic consequences of declining water supplies: factories closing, people losing their jobs and investments not being made for lack of water to support all manner of agricultural, industrial and commercial activities.

Glennon, who is the Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy in the Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona, offers a trickle of optimism in a phone conversation, but he is mindful of humanity's "infinite capacity to deny reality."

Options exist, and they are as close to home as deciding to compost food scraps instead of using 150 gallons of water a year to run the garbage disposal. Choices in outdoor plantings and green lawns. Personal decisions that make a huge difference citywide. Glennon points to progress in Albuquerque, Tucson and San Antonio — and oblivious, wasteful behavior in Phoenix.

Glennon lays out a horror story about the vast amount of water and energy consumed to produce the anemic fuel additive ethanol, and to get it from Midwest corn fields to the pump.

Corn and ethanol subsidies have their own political complexity, and it only gets worse when the water discussion broadens to consider applying price signals and market forces to reflect the true cost of water. Moving water from lesser-value uses to higher-value uses. Water permits versus water rights. Difficult, necessary debates.

Instead of reading the Constitution aloud, Congress ought to be getting a chapter a day of Glennon's book. His insights about the links between water and energy need to be understood. Of course, some of the senators and representatives are coming from places that do not even meter water use.

The water industry is getting the word. Chuck Clarke, chief executive officer of Cascade Water Alliance, which serves 370,000 east and south King County residents and 22,000 businesses, is active in The Johnson Foundation Freshwater Summit, a nationwide review of water resources.

For too long, Clarke said in an interview, people have taken water and water quality for granted. The time for tough decisions is here. Supply is less urgent for Puget Sound, but stormwater runoff and its impact on water quality is huge. Northwest rainfall flushes the residue of modern life — and the consequences of land-use decisions — into our waterways.

Clarke said necessary conversation is coming about the true cost of providing clean water, and how it is reflected in the prices we pay.

Stormwater is a top legislative priority for Washington environmental groups, and the emphasis is reflected in the 2011 Clean Water Jobs Act they will promote in Olympia this session. Mo McBroom, policy director for the Washington Environmental Council, articulates the need for investments in infrastructure to deal with stormwater runoff. A bonus is substantial job creation.

East of the Cascades, disparate interests are years deep into negotiations about the future of the Yakima River Basin, with talks narrowing to expanding storage at Bumping Lake and building the Wymer reservoir. Droughts, lean water rations and fish worries started the dialogue. Elsewhere, plunging water tables have stirred more talks.

Water. Live with the topic.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

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