The essence of geo-urbanism is that national governments solve problems. Or try to. Cities, by contrast, cope with them – and more modestly so. National governments, however imperfectly, seek once-and-for-all solutions. Cities and local governments, by contrast, know that such results don’t really exist. Instead, they seek continuing collaboration to manage change and keep the lights on.
With little fanfare and even less glory, cities simply get things done. And there’s scarcely a better example of this then in the emerging concept of “One Water,” the focus of this round of our work at Urbānitūs and among the most dramatic exemplars of this ever more important fulcrum of leadership.
Of course, the exploration of this divide between the changing nature of “senior” and “junior” levels of governance is a broad subject. It is at the heart of our mission here. National governments create (but don’t always maintain) interstate and interregional highway systems; cities become laboratories for smart grids and ride-sharing and scooters. National governments make health policies and create systems like Medicare. Travis County’s Central Health looks after those who fall through the cracks. National governments create mortgage lenders like Fannie Mae and set the tax policies that drive or restrict housing demand. But it is cities that cope with growth, density and gentrification – as Austin knows so very well.
We have and will continue to make the case that this “junior” level of governance is increasingly taking on the most senior responsibilities as nation states – including ours – struggle to cope with the global interdependence inherent in such woes as climate change, refugee migrations, pandemics, technological displacement and more.
As just one example, when the United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, 1,200 mayors, governors, businesses and universities stepped in to bridge the policy gap.
But when it comes to water these contrasts fall into a category all of their own. Almost by the day we see the national administration – the presidential administration of Donald Trump to be more precise — dismantling the key institutions of national water policy we’ve come to know over the past half century. The EPA is being hollowed out. The 1970s-era Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Act are being gutted. Just in recent days, protections for streams, wetlands and groundwater were essentially stripped away. Or will be as soon as the ink dries on the latest executive order.
We certainly count ourselves among those who are aghast. We join those who lament this abandonment of national leadership on drinking water access and quality. However, we also hope this issue of Urbānitūs is an opportunity to acknowledge and salute a counter-trend that is happening far from the national spotlight. Profound innovation in water conservation, water quality management and protection of resources is taking place across the country. Even as the federal government hands victory after victory to polluters and rapacious developers. As we explore in our work here this month, there is much to be hopeful about, not because of national leadership, but despite it.
As we explain, it’s happening around this organizational principle known as “One Water,” a concept quietly embraced by utilities across the country that is deeply integrating the ecological and political boundaries so that the clean water we take for granted will always be there.
Austin, with its 100-year master plan dubbed “Water Forward” is just one of many cities around the country, and around the world, that is part of this movement. In doing so, Austin is leading not just the city we live in, but all cities toward a change at least as profound as any of the now endangered national initiatives that have come before.
“Austin’s Water Forward plan is a striking example of the progress we can make toward a sustainable water future when people come together,” says Radhika Fox, CEO of the U.S. Water Alliance, the chief champion of this movement.
As we note elsewhere, there are famous crime fighters, famous firefighters and many an epic book or movie celebrating all that they do. Deservedly so. There are also monuments to the creators of dams and reservoirs – usually elected ones — inscribed as the names on these grand edifices.
But we can’t think of a TV show about a utility manager or a monument for a sewer worker, or a statue in the likeness of a water quality engineer. That’s too bad. Because we really believe, and hope that our work this month shows, that they are both the architects of much of our civilization and certainly the stewards of its future.
Join us in hoisting a glass of tap water in their honor.
If you like what you’ve been reading, please click here to subscribe and we will send you updates and our newsletter.