Water Policy is Boring. Pay Attention Anyway.

Show of hands: Who knows the name of your local water agency director? Or the name of your local water agency, those people you pay every month? What about the source of your water? No, not your city’s pipes. Before that.

Water comes out of your taps. How much can you possibly do about how it gets there, where it’s sourced, and what you pay?

A lot, in fact. But we can’t get distracted by cat videos or craft beer Instagramming. We have to focus. Because the worst outcomes happen when the things we rely on most suddenly stop working, and water infrastructure is fundamental to daily life.

The decisions your water board makes aren’t just about how much to charge consumers for water (hint: everyone, everywhere is undercharged). Water policy includes whether or not to change the source of your water, how the treatment plant tests and treats your water, how to maintain the water lines in your district and much more. Water agencies across the country have limited budgets for increasing needs, but there’s little appetite for price increases. Already 12 percent of consumers can’t afford their water bills, so across-the-board price increases are potentially devastating for large groups of people nationwide. Water rates have increased 41 percent since 2010, and will continue to rise. This is not a small problem.

Water infrastructure. Fight the urge to yawn.

Knowing the name of your water director doesn’t mean that your water department will be flush with cash and clean water, or that your pipes won’t test positive for lead, or that water policy will be any less boring. But if water consumers — that is to say, all of us — are just slightly more informed about who is advocating policies that affect our taps, we will have a greater voice in a system that affects our fundamental well being. Is there a desalination plant proposed in your area? Learn about the costs and benefits, and see if it’s the right solution for your community. Find out how much water urban consumers and farmers are using, and what they’re paying for it. Learn when your water agency plans to upgrade your pipes — and how they plan to pay for it. Find out the source of your water and how it is being protected. Learn how much water you’re using, and, every few months, translate that usage into gallons, not some convoluted way of measuring that no one understands, so you have a point of reference for what you see on your bills.

Have I lost you yet? Stick with me. There won’t be any more math.

Water policy is boring. Water infrastructure is overwhelming. Both involve bureaucracy on many levels, short- and long-term planning considerations, environmental factors out of anyone’s control, bad decisions from the past that continue to impact current policy, and consumer and government budgets that are perpetually strapped for cash. It’s a mess.

The lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan is only the best known of the recent blows to our water infrastructure. It is far from the only one, and we don’t need to spend time ranking disasters by severity. We know there is a systemic, national water disaster looming; chemicals leaching into water supply, overpumping that supply to the point of saltwater intrusion or water tables collapsing, the pipes that deliver water to our taps being in such disrepair that even patchwork fixes are no longer an option.

I’m not saying I have the answers for you, because a community, state or region’s water policy is highly individualized and complex. What I’m saying is that water policy is boring, but it’s time to suck it up and pay attention. We can’t have a voice if we don’t know who to talk to, or what to say.

You’re online right now. As soon as you finish reading this not-at-all depressing article, search for the name of your local water agency. The web page for your water agency should tell you the source of your water, the name of your water director, and the price of water in your area. See where your water comes from, and, after that, look up its status: Do water officials think your water source is ample and safe, low and in danger of contamination, or somewhere in between? Are there any buried news articles about upgrading your local infrastructure? No need to jump in and run the bureaucracy or prep the new pipeline yourself, but get informed, and don’t take water for granted. There’s a lot of water to go around, we just need to be thoughtful about how we use it. Baby steps. We can do this.