Water & Health Advisory Council
Like many Gen-Xers, Star Wars was my favorite movie growing up. I can still remember clutching my seat with excitement as the hero Luke Skywalker used the Force to aim his weapons at the Death Star’s exhaust system. Enemy fighters were firing at Luke and his wingman, who through the din and chaos of the battle said in a calm, determined, deep voice, “Stay on target.
That phrase always stuck with me. When the odds seem overwhelming, when your actions are of high significance and consequence, when it’s all just about to hit the fan—stay on target. I’ve tried to do that throughout my life.

As Director of Phoenix Water Services, which serves safe, clean, reliable water to around 1.7 million people and is one of the largest water utilities in the country, I was confronted with operational problems, budget challenges, political controversies, legal disputes, droughts, floods, and many other issues that made the job challenging, interesting, and rewarding. Distraction was a daily part of life.   
There are so many dimensions to managing a water utility that must all perform perfectly in the never-ending symphony that quietly plays unseen, behind the faucets, making sure that everyone has reliable tap water at perfect pressure and quality parameters 24/7/365. There are many costly needs—the provision of safe, clean water is one of the most capital-intensive undertakings on the planet—and dollars are nearly always short. 

At neighborhood meetings and other public venues, people would often ask me about the next thing. What the next thing was varied over time and from community group to community group, customer to customer. Sometimes the next thing was, “What is Phoenix Water doing to become more carbon neutral?” Other times it was “What are you doing about rainwater harvesting?” Or “Are you concerned about micro-plastics in water?” These are valid concerns, and the next thing is generally more captivating than the unseen things, the boring pipelines, pumps, and infrastructure that keep a water utility functioning. Interest in the next thing is commonly based on activism or fear, both effective at stoking public interest. Political interest follows public interest and eventually enough eyes are fixed on the next thing to dictate new laws, requirements, and regulations, which invariably require additional funding.

The next things are nearly always good things. I want utilities to be carbon neutral because I, too, care about this planet. I harvest rainwater at my house (though it nearly never rains). And of course, I wish it rained more in Phoenix (so that my rainwater harvesting could be more successful). Am I concerned about micro-plastics in water? I haven’t seen the science that tells me whether I should or shouldn’t be, but I have seen the science about bacteriological contaminants in water and the effect they have on human health. So I always focused my energy making sure we were treating water effectively to eliminate them, and proactively replacing aging pipelines to avoid their introduction into a customer’s home. That’s a now thing, not the next thing.

Here’s the question I never heard at a public meeting: “What are you doing to invest responsibly in aging water infrastructure?”

I want the next thing, too. But what I really want is for every person in this country to enjoy the privilege of safe, clean, reliable tap water. The best way to achieve that is to focus on the now things. The boring things. The unseen infrastructure—pipelines buried beneath our streets—plants, wells, tanks, and pumps hidden behind homeland-security protected walls—that make it all possible. Attention and money focused on the next thing is attention and money taken away from the thing that is most impactful—the thing that best protects public health for the greatest number of people—investment in aging water infrastructure. 

I am now at the Arizona State University Kyl Center for Water Policy. To those of you out there fighting the good fight, I can be your wingman. Stay on target.

Kathryn Sorensen
Council Member & Director of Research at the Kyl Center for Water Policy, Arizona State University
Water Advisory Insights
AWWA SOURCE Magazine: Does Regulating PFAS Represent a Meaningful Opportunity for Health Risk Reduction in Drinking Water?
Council member Chad Seidel’s research was featured in the Winter 2022 issue of American Water Works Association’s Source Magazine. Chad, along with his co-authors Katherine Alfredo and Amlan Ghosh, recently released a peer-reviewed analysis that sets a new way for policymakers to analyze toxic contaminants throughout the US.
Circle of Blue: The harrowing trail of toxic nutrients in farm country water
Council member Chad Seidel sat down with Circle of Blue to discuss the nitrate issues impacting our nation’s drinking water supply: “If we were addressing nitrate with the fervor we’re currently addressing PFAS, we would have solved the problem a decade ago,” said Seidel. “But we haven’t. We’ve accepted the fact that hundreds and hundreds of water systems across the U.S. can be out of compliance. And we’re okay with it.”

Water News
From emergency climate-induced weather conditions to ongoing aging infrastructure needs, our nation's water supply is at risk. We must prioritize what best protects public health for the greatest number of people.
EPA Releases New Memo Outlining Strategy to Equitably Deliver Clean Water Through President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law
WASHINGTON (March 8, 2022) – Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a memorandum to guide collaborative implementation with state, local, and Tribal partners of $43 billion in water infrastructure funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Associated Press: California calls for more local water conservation
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Californians will be asked to further cut back on their water use, state officials said Monday as they warned water scarcity will shape the future of the drought-stricken state.
But those cut backs would come from cities and local water districts, not the state, with members of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration saying allowing local retailers to set conservation needs is the best approach in a state of nearly 40 million people where water needs vary.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: PWSA investment will ensure water reliability for generations
As stewards of a vital public resource, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has a responsibility to provide Pittsburgh with reliable, high-quality water services. Through hard work, increased funding, and greater transparency with the public, we are transforming as a modern organization ready to meet the demands of current and future generations of customers.
Circle of Blue: Is Agrochemical Contamination Killing Nebraska’s Children?
AURORA, Neb. — In the final, frantic hours Jacob Peters’s body gave out. As nurses worked to stabilize his vitals, his blood pressure dropped. Fluid built up in his abdomen and brain. He vomited. His words were slurred. A ventilator kept the 17-year-old alive long enough for his younger brothers, Jerod and Dalton, and other family members to make the two-hour drive to the Omaha hospital where his parents stood vigil.
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