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This article is from the In-Depth Report Election 2012: Grading Obama and Romney on Science

Does Congress Get a Passing Grade on Science?

Scientific American asks leaders of a dozen House and Senate committees for written answers to eight policy questions related to science and technology

Fresh Water. Less than one percent of the world's water is liquid fresh water, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of U.S. and global fresh water is now at risk because of increasing consumption, evaporation and pollution. What steps, if any, should the federal government take to secure clean, abundant fresh water for all Americans?

Representative Timothy Bishop, New York State–1 (D) and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, writes:

On Long Island where water quality is a cornerstone of the local economy, I have stood second to none in advancing federal policies to protect our water resources.  As the Ranking Member of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee in the House of Representatives, I understand the value of clean water to protect health and sustain the environment. I have led the way in developing policies to promote innovative financing mechanisms for water infrastructure, as well as policies to protect our beaches, rivers and wetlands while better utilizing our waterways to promote tourism, and improve domestic and international commerce. 

Efforts to undermine the Clean Water Act and other federal initiatives must be strongly opposed, and I have led the charge against legislative proposals to roll back important clean water protections that may benefit some special interests, but risk public health and will damage the broader U.S. economy.

Representative John Boehner, Ohio–8 (R) and speaker of the House, declined to respond to the eight science questions we asked. We have not found public statements that address fresh water resources as of press time.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, California (D) and chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, writes:

All Americans deserve access to reliable, affordable and safe drinking water. To move toward this goal, the federal government must work with local and state governments to make investments in water infrastructure. This means investments in new and expanded reservoirs; levee repairs and flood protection; groundwater storage; desalination; and water reuse. We must also continue to remediate contaminated aquifers—especially those where the federal government contributed to their contamination at former defense facilities—in order to take full advantage of natural groundwater recharge. Not only will these investments provide water supply reliability, but they will also create jobs.

Representative Ralph Hall, Texas–4 (R) and chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, writes:

The U.S. is fortunate to have access to abundant volumes of fresh water resources.  From lakes and rivers to enormous aquifers, the supply of fresh water is critical to all aspects of life, including our agricultural, industrial and recreational activities.  States and the Federal government share the role of ensuring access to clean and abundant fresh water for all Americans.  Continued collaboration and research to monitor water resources and better understand water availability and processes is important to assisting local, State, and Federal decision-makers manage and sustain this vital resource.

Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa (D) and chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, writes:

The Clean Water Act, signed into law in 1972, plays a critical role in maintaining the quality of our water resources, and we absolutely must continue its implementation. We must not allow the simplistic calls for decreased regulation to limit the protection of our water resources. This is especially critical in light of our increasing population and economic activities that tend to expand the sources and volumes of potential contaminants.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Kentucky (R) and Senate minority leader, did not respond to the eight science questions by press time. We have not found his public statements that address fresh water resources as of press time.

Representative John Mica, Florida–7 (R) and chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, writes:

Again, technology and innovation can solve the fresh water problem.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, California–8 (D) and House minority leader, declined to respond to this question. In 2007, The House approved three clean water bills and Representative Pelosi released a statement on March 9 of that year, an excerpt of which follows:

Today's bill, H.R. 720, funds the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides for low-cost loans to communities that need to repair and build wastewater treatment plants and sewage lines. H.R. 720 will help clean up our rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, so that Americans can fish and swim without fear of pollution.

In recent years, the Republican-led Congress slashed the clean water fund by 34 percent. After the fund expired in 1994, the Republican leadership refused to bring legislation to the floor reauthorizing the fund in an effort to avoid the Davis-Bacon requirement of paying a prevailing wage to workers on federally-funded projects. Today, with Democrats voting unanimously against it, the House defeated a Republican-sponsored amendment to waive Davis-Bacon, ensuring that H.R 720 provides workers who build these wastewater projects good and fair wages.

On Wednesday, the House passed H.R. 569 to provide $1.8 billion in grants to local communities to prevent sewer overflows. In many communities with infrastructure, sewers overflow whenever there is a heavy rain, sending raw sewage into rivers and lakes. On Thursday, the House passed a H.R. 700 setting up a pilot program to increase usable water supplies through water conservation and reuse of wastewater, an approach that is crucial in the arid West and Southwest.

Without new investments in wastewater treatment, we could lose many of the gains our nation has made since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.

In conjunction with the creation of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming earlier this week, Democrats are taking our country in a new direction to preserve our environment. This week, we have rededicated ourselves to addressing America's clean water needs.

Senator Harry Reid, Nevada (D) and Senate majority leader, did not respond to the eight science questions by press time. His Web site has information about policies and specific projects the senator has supported related to clean water. There he also writes:

I have been a strong supporter of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. These cornerstones of environmental protection have implemented pollution control programs, set water quality standards, and funded waste water treatment facilities in Nevada. Throughout my career in Congress, I have helped provide funding for water system improvements for communities across Nevada. Improving and maintaining the quality of water in Nevada will continue to be one of my highest priorities as Nevada’s senior Senator.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia (D) and chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, writes:

Clean water is absolutely essential to daily life and survival. But we are facing a potential global resource crisis as the use of water has increased six-fold while the world's population has only tripled. In areas where water resources are limited we see conflict between multiple needs such as drinking supplies, irrigation and even energy development. At the same time, existing water supplies are being impacted by climate change and overexploitation.

There are no easy solutions to this problem.  Water desalinization and treatment is possible but incredibly energy intensive. Conservation needs to be the starting point of the discussion about water policy. Additionally, we need to continue funding research conducted by the Department of Energy into the energy-water nexus and find ways to reduce the water demands of energy production.

Representative Chris Van Hollen, Maryland–8 (D) and ranking member of the Committee on the Budget, writes:

Securing clean, abundant fresh water for all Americans in the 21st century will over the long term require a comprehensive strategy that prioritizes pollution prevention, using our water more efficiently and developing cost-effective technologies to increase our fresh water supply. As regards pollution prevention, we have unfortunately seen an unprecedented effort to weaken and dismantle the Clean Water Act over the past two years, with 31 votes specifically targeting that landmark legislation in the 112th Congress. I strongly oppose efforts to weaken existing safe water standards or undermine the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to enforce water quality rules. 

Additionally, as the result of Supreme Court rulings in 2001 and 2006 and guidelines issued by the Bush Administration in 2003 and 2007, 20 million acres of wetlands and 60% of all streams (including those that supply drinking water to 117 million Americans) are without Clean Water Act protections. We need to clarify the original intent of the Clean Water Act to ensure that these essential waterways meet basic safe water standards. In addition to pollution prevention, we need to redouble our efforts at using our water supply more efficiently – whether by eliminating waste or by recycling and re-use where appropriate.  Finally, we should invest in developing technologies like desalinization and other filtering processes capable of cost-effectively increasing our fresh water supply.

Representative Henry Waxman, California–30 (D) and ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, writes:

Sources of drinking water are a valuable resource that should be protected through full funding and strong enforcement of environmental law. The Safe Drinking Water Act, which ensures that the nation has a safe drinking water supply, should be fully enforced. The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which can be an important funding mechanism for state source water protection efforts, as well as water treatment, should be reauthorized and fully funded. 

We must also ensure that oil and natural gas drilling, including hydraulic fracturing, meet the highest safety standards to protect underground sources of drinking water from potential contamination. Regulations for waste disposal, including the disposal of coal ash, should be strengthened and fully enforced to prevent the creation of new contaminated sites and new threats to drinking water.

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This article was originally published with the title "Why Science Is Better When It's Multinational."

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