Q&A: An Interview with Christine Todd Whitman, Water Policy Institute Co-Founder

PennWell editor David Mogollon had an opportunity to speak with Water Policy Institute co-founder Christine Todd Whitman, the former NJ governor and EPA administrator, two weeks after the announcement of the institute's creation in June 2008...

By Carlos David Mogollon,
Managing Editor - Industrial WaterWorld and Water & Wastewater International

The following interview corresponds with a short article that appeared in the September/October issue of Industrial WaterWorld as well as Water Utility Management, a supplement of the PennWell Water Group, which also publishes WaterWorld magazine:
"Water Think Tank Talks Up Meeting of the Minds"
"New Water Brain Trust Targets Top Minds"

It focuses on the work of former EPA administrator and New York environmental lawyer, who teamed up in the summer of 2008 to create the Water Policy Institute, connected to the environmental law practice of NY law firm Hunton & Williams LLP.

As such, we had an opportunity to speak with Kathy Robb and Christine Todd Whitman, the former NJ governor and EPA administrator during Pres. George W. Bush's first term, on June 19, two weeks after the announcement of the institute's creation.

The following is our interview with Christine Todd Whitman:


PennWell: Just to give you a bit of background, I'm editor of two publications for the PennWell Water Group, Industrial WaterWorld and Water & Wastewater International. Our flagship publication is WaterWorld, which is the top municipal publication in its niche, and we have several supplements and e-newsletters that cover everything from stormwater and urban water management to pumps, water security and automated meter reading. Now, PennWell itself is a big publishing house and has other divisions for Oil & Gas, Power Generation, Solid State Technology, Firefighting Equipment and Dental Services, etc., not to mention trade shows.

Whitman: You cover the waterfront there.

PennWell: Exactly. We're talking because we want to do a piece on the Water Policy Institute and why and your participation and what you hope to see come from the institute, so let me put it in your hands and say, 'Give us a brief overview of some of the goals you have here.'

Whitman: Well, the purpose behind it, as far as I'm concerned, is to bring together water leaders who are the big players in the world of water but who are responsible and visionary, as well as an advisory panel that has some of the world and the nation's best water experts to look at the issues surrounding water both here and around the world and try to shape policy. Give thinkers and the policy makers some good tools and some good information in order to make good policy. Try to come up with some new ideas and new ways of looking at things. To identify the issues and questions they should be asking as they look at water -- things about which they should be concerned. And this is because I've been saying for a long time that, while climate change gets the most attention right now -- and I'm all for doing something right now to prevent future degradation -- but I think the most immediate environmental problem that we have right now in this country is water.

PennWell: Underscore that for me, if you could. Why?

Whitman: Because we don't make any more of it. Because we're using a lot of it. Because you have over a billion people who don't have access to clean and safe drinking water. You have tens of thousands who get sick every year and a million who die. There was an NGO study that was reported in the Wall Street Journal that identified some 46 countries with 2.7 billion people who live there whose contention over water has created what they determine to be a high risk of violent conflict by 2025. It's central to all of us as we know. Our body is made up largely of water. It's over two thirds water. You can last three weeks without food, but you can only go three days without water. And, in this country, you've got problems. You've seen heavy droughts. We've seen floods. But you've got huge problems with infrastructure in this country.

PennWell: It's also one of those issues that tends be all pervasive. We tend to hear about water conflicts globally, whether it's in the Middle East or Bolivia or Australia or wherever. But it's not one of those issues that's "over there." Awareness of it is something that I think you would agree has been increasing, but not necessarily at the pace you may like.

Whitman: Right. People still think, 'Hey, it falls out of the sky. What's the big deal? We're always going to have plenty of it. And I shouldn't have to pay for it.' And all of those issues are problematic. Yes, it does fall out of the sky, but guess what? That's not the way you want to drink it. You don't drink it that way.

PennWell: And if you're in huge city with toilets being flushed left and right, it doesn't just flow into the stream -- we hope -- it has to be treated. And that costs money.

Whitman: Right. That costs money and that's when people start to get a little stroppy. They don't want to spend any more money. Understandably, no one wants to spend more money. But on the other hand, people don't value something that they don't pay for.

PennWell: There's also the issue of penny wise and pound foolish in the sense that when drought hits or when flooding hits, and these organizations that are in charge of making sure that we have enough water and clean water are affected, we may be a little bit regretful that we didn't spend a little bit more on the system than we did before.

Whitman: Right.

PennWell: I know that here in Tucson a few years back there was a major water main break that made national news and that's another issue in terms of the whole American Society of Civil Engineer's Report Card on America's Infrastructure and how much we should spend on infrastructure in the future.

Whitman: Oh, when I left the EPA, we had done a study that indicated anywhere from half a billion to a trillion dollars in infrastructure needs in the country. I mean that's just mind boggling. And what we're trying to do with the institute is to listen to the members and the kinds of things they want us to look at. They want the experts to look at. But, actually, it's interesting, a lot of them want to know do we have the data that's at the starting point. How can you make good decisions if you don't have the data.

PennWell: There's also been a lot of contention in recent years over the influence of politics on science and the argument over do we have the right data but also what does the data mean and is it open to interpretation or not as well.

Whitman: Yes.

PennWell: So it's not only a challenge to get the right people together but also... herding the cats is one thing, but getting them to go in the same direction, i.e., agree on something, is quite another.

Whitman: Well, I've certainly found that when we did the report card on the environment that had been called for. Gee, the National Academy of Sciences had called for that practically since the EPA was started. And, I was amazed to find, because we've done it in New Jersey and I thought that you can't know if you're making progress if you don't know where you've started.

PennWell: Right.

Whitman: I was really surprised at the pushback, the difficulty that people saw with trying to come to agreement on what you measured, what you measured and how.

PennWell: Well, you came in just as the arsenic rule was being debated.

Whitman: Right. And, boy, did we get slammed on that one.

PennWell: That seems as if it was moreso because people were saying, "Wait a minute," when they started looking at the cost of what it would actually take to actually get to compliance.

Whitman: Well, what we got slammed on, the administration got slammed on, was the fact that we even looked at it again. I was looking at it, saying: "Look, I already went to 10 parts per billion as governor of New Jersey, but we don't have naturally occurring arsenic in New Jersey and so it wouldn't be as expensive as it would be for some others. And we needed to take another look just to make sure that this was the right standard, this is where we wanted it to be, this is where it needed to be.

PennWell: And that was reaffirmed.

Whitman: And it was reaffirmed. But you'd have thought we'd gone out and said arsenic is the best thing in the world for you and everybody oughta have a cup a day. It was just brutal.

PennWell: I remember that. You come to this institute from a very unique perspective, having been a governor and also an EPA administrator. I mean it would seem like you're the ideal person to kind of lead up an effort like this with the World Policy Institute. Tell me about what are some of the things you see you bring to this as well as some of the goals you have for the institute.

Whitman: Well, my No. 1 goal is that we get people thinking about these issues seriously. And that we provide meaningful data and information to the decision-makers.

PennWell: By meaningful, you mean?

Whitman: The stuff they need, the kind of stuff that stimulates thinking and provides, if it's data that they need, at least show them where to go to get it.

PennWell: What are some of the things you think they aren't getting?

Whitman: Well, a lot of them, we heard yesterday at our organizational meeting about a lack consistent data out there. And what kind of water resource plans exist in the various states. A lot of them don't have it. We could do surveys of existing data sources. Do we need a national water policy plan and how do you integrate that with states' rights and the municipal control. Because so much of the control and decisions are made at the municipal level, how do we get people to really -- whether the big thinkers or on a local level -- start thinking about water as a finite commodity and something they need to treasure. It's not that we'd say you can't take showers or anything like that. That's not where we're going, obviously, or people wouldn't go there. But, we need to think of it as a resource that we should take care of and I don't think people have that sense about water right now.

PennWell: I don't know if you're aware but Tucson is seeking to become the first city to actually require homebuilders to plumb all new homes for graywater reuse.

Whitman: That's something that we were talking about yesterday. If you consider that 100% of the water going into a home is drinkable -- it meets potable standards -- and yet only 3% of it is used for drinking and cooking, you gotta say: Was there something we could do there? Isn't there some smarter way? Can't we reuse the shower water? Can't we reuse the water from the dishwasher to take care of the lawns or something? Everything is coming out of that same system and everything is drinkable quality.

PennWell: At the time that you were EPA administrator and dealing with the new arsenic rule, I was editor of a residential point-of-use/point-of-entry water treatment magazine called Water Conditioning & Purification. The debate there that was going on was that POU/POE equipment can treat water to meet the standard and why should communities have to treat their water to this higher level. But then the rub was that someone had to be able to guarantee that the equipment was functioning properly and being maintained properly.

Whitman: Right. That was one of the challenges we had with that.

PennWell: At one point, I recall one of my editorial advisory board members for the magazine saying: "Look, it's kind of silly because we should have been delivering two kinds of water. We should be delivering water that's just for this use and treated to this level, as well as water that's treated to this other level for potable, cooking and personal use." The amount of water that's spent on treating water keeps going up. We see reports from McIlvaine, Freedonia, Frost & Sullivan that talk about the continuing rise in spending on water for this, pumps for that. Energy use is a key issue and now we're looking at the fuel prices continuing to push everything else up. How do some of these things come together for you in terms of seeing what needs to be done going forward?

Whitman: Well, everything that you've touched on has got to be part of the bigger decision. One of the things that we've all thought about is you can't talk about energy, you can't talk about food, you can't talk about climate change without talking about water -- or understanding tehre's going to be an impact. That's what we have to getting people to start thinking about. And we have to get the tools for that to the decision-makers, be they in the public or the private sector, to be able to start to engage in that sort of conversation, because there are going to have to be some decisions made eventually relative to water. Whether it's just how much you're going to spend on enhancing and fixing the infrastructure, there are decisions like that that are going to have to be made and they're going to require some money. So, policymakers need to know that there's going to be someone standing there beside them and they're not out there on the limb all by themselves. And that doesn't happen unless you've started the discussion and started the debate. And that's what needs to happen now. We need to have people understand that this where we've got to start paying attention -- and we really haven't been paying attention to date.

PennWell: I was speaking with Kathy Robb just before you called and asking what sort of information do you see coming out as a result of your effort here. And while you were talking, I was just thinking that oftentimes it seems that you understand that in the municipal government way in which water and wastewater spending is determined, it's usually a low-bid process. And this makes it extremely sensitive to the whole idea of taxes or levies or bonds or fees and other things that in the end taxpayers have to pay or pay back. One of the interesting things that may has been debated in some of the circles I engage in, such as the Water & Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association, American Water Works Association or Water Environment Federation, are: One, the real cost of water, two, the issue of explaining to people life cycle costs on equipment. Rather than buying the lowest price equipment, you want to be able to buy the one that's the most efficient over the long run for that particular purpose and costs the least over that long period of time. And, three, and I think this is an area where the institute can help a lot: What's the cost of not doing anything. If you don't do it now, what's it going to cost you later.

Whitman: That is a key question and, again, it's an question of educating people to the fact that, the longer you put off something like this, the higher price you're going to pay when the time comes, because you're going to have to deal with it. This is not an issue that can just be ignored.

PennWell: At the WWEMA DC Forum last year, I believe, there was an interesting presentation by a gentleman from a water research center at a university in Michigan and he was underscoring what are the costs that you anticipate when you look at that trillion dollars of infrastructure rehabilitation that needs to be eventually paid for and looking at when. It was basically a year-by-year timeline showing a curve on how the spending would need to be available over 10, 20, 30... years. As systems began to fail, it became more urgent and the point was being made that it's not so much that we need to spend all this money right now. Oftentimes, people look at that figure and suddenly they're daunted and throw up their hands and say we can't even talk about it. Rather, it's a question of if we don't begin to start addressing that now, that cure is just going to get higher.

Whitman: Right. But you've got to begin planning for it now, starting the process now. You're absolutely right. It doesn't mean you try to do it all at once. And you can't. There's no entity of government, whether it is local, state or federal government or the ratepayers. None of them in and of themselves can pay for the whole thing. They just can't bear all the cost. And so it is going to have to be spread out. It's going to have to be done gradually and shared across the different levels of government and ratepayers. But you've go to start thinking about that now -- and planning for that now. We just can't afford to say, "Oh, that will take care of itself and we've got more important things to take care of now." Again, all of the other major issues that people list when they list things that bother them, you can see them coming back. Water is an integral part of so many of them.

PennWell: Dr. Peter Gleick, who runs the Pacific Institute and is head of the World Water Resources biennial catalog, if you will, of these resources, spoke last year at a regional event here in Tucson based on Colorado River water users held at the University of Arizona. One of the points he underscored was that these are things that are a global issue but moreso on more levels than people realize. For instance, right now, we have the issue of food prices going up. He was making the point that subsidies in developing countries oftentimes mean that agriculture in some of these Third World areas that we send dollars to try and help them get over the different problems they're facing... oftentimes these subsidies are counterproductive to that effort. If they can't afford to grow the food, then they're dependent on us for food aid. At the same time, I'll draw a parallel to the gentleman who will be named this year's Stockholm Water Prize and who developed the concept of "virtual water," which looks at what are all the water inputs that go into any product as an economic aggregate. The idea that the food that's grown here has a certain water cost, and the point that Peter Gleick was saying was we're transferring that water overseas, in a sense. Do you see the parallel? Talk to me about the challenge of trying to explain and connect the dots on all these various different theories, which really require very, sort of complicated thought.

Whitman: Well, it does. And, again, that thought process has to start with the right questions. And people just haven't been engaged enough to ask them.

PennWell: Why is that do you think?

Whitman: I think because we have taken water so for granted.

PennWell: Do you think that's changing?

Whitman: It's beginning too. Climate change is beginning to have that kind of an impact. It is in the sense that you now see people saying: "Gee, we're starting to have a lot more storms. Maybe there's something to it. Gosh, we've got to be a little more concerned because we're seeing all this flooding." But they don't know. They're not there yet. They're beginning to become a lot more conscious of water... and the limits around it.

PennWell: The idea of sustainability is starting to permeate...

Whitman: It's starting to, yes. It's interesting. I'm not at all surprised, but I'm just surprised nobody else has said anything about it 'til now. You've had the report and some of the thinking coming out along the way by scientists saying, I'm not sure this was a natural disaster. A lot of this may have been because of land use changes.

PennWell: You mean flooding going on in Iowa or along particular rivers?

Whitman: Yes. All that flooding going on, part of what we've done -- and absolutely it goes back to this. I don't know if you've ever read "The Worst Hard Time"? It was about the Dust Bowl and people who survived, tracing it back literally to government policy when we decided we were going to become the wheat bowl of the world. We started paying people, giving them 20 acres if they would go out and tear out all the native grass to plant wheat. We would export it. What that did was when you had a drought, you didn't have the roots. The native grasses were gone and couldn't hold the soil. His point was that we are now raising cattle and farming right up to the edge of the riverbanks.

PennWell: And building homes there...

Whitman: Yes, there are some regulations now to hopefully take care of some of that. But we've changed so much. And there are houses there where there weren't houses there before.

PennWell: The same argument could be made regarding Hurricane Katrina and dredging of canals and reduction of and impact on wetlands surrounding New Orleans which turned to serve as a soft, cushiony buffer as well as act as more effective drainage, filtering out things that otherwise would go into the Gulf of Mexico where there's a big hypoxic or dead zone today.

Whitman: And they've lost an awful lot of that buffer land in the Midwest, too. People are going to have to start looking at these things and engaging. You can't stick your head in the sand forever. Eventually, you're going to have to come to grips with the interrelationship of everything. And the point behind the institute is to provide a place where you have the diversity of opinion. We don't have any of the ag community on the advisory board or as members and we want to get them on because they're so important to water and water usage. I've found that, as governor and at EPA, the way you solve problems is by bringing everybody that has a stake in the issue to the table at the same time. You say, "Okay, let's have a discussion. It's not going to get nasty. Nothing like that. But let's get all the issues out on the table and see if we can't figure out a smart way and do this." We want to protect our water so that it doesn't cost everybody an arm and a leg. So it doesn't force people out of their homes or ranchers to give up ranching. There's smart ways to do these things if we just put our mind to it. The problem is that we haven't been putting our mind to these issues for a long time, except in areas where they have real problems. I mean, Las Vegas is doing a lot of things, as an example.

PennWell: You mean as a collective mind, I imagine. There've been isolated cases, but those may not gain the traction you're saying is required for this.

Whitman: As a collective, yes. We need a broader discussion.

PennWell: What about internationally? What sort of role will the institute play on global issues?

Whitman: Well, again, if you start asking the right questions, and you look at the impacts around the world, you're going to understand that we can't talk about it in a vacuum. There are international aspects to this as well. And it's in our interest to care. If you've got 46 countries with 2.7 billion people who might be at each other's throats by 2025 over water, that destabilizes the world. And just the fact that not having access to clean and safe drinking water and losing over a million people a year, mostly children and women. Also not having clean drinking water readily accessible in some of those emerging countries and their communities, more rural communities, means that the women and children spend half their day going somewhere to get water and bring it back. And that really undermines their economic productivity, as we've seen over and over again when women can spend time in a job contributing to the family income and children can spend time in school not getting water, but getting an education. When the women can start to become productive members of the economic society, those societies thrive.

PennWell: It's proven time and time again.

Whitman: That's what happens. It's in our best interest.

PennWell: I think it also was proven very significantly with the microloans movement.

Whitman: Oh, absolutely. Women repaid their loans at a far greater rate than men.

PennWell: Exactly. I work with a lot of those organizations that work with water on that level, NGOs like Water For People and WaterAID, for instance. I've got an article going in my international magazine now on a project in Guatemala that was coordinated by the Colorado School of Mines, which has a Humanitarian Engineering Program, in partnership with the Plastic Pipe Institute, which donated the piping to bring water to a village created by refugees of Hurricane Mitch a few years ago. There was such a rush to get them relocated that they didn't have an adequate water supply there. Lots of different projects like that go back to the issue of how far do women or children have to go to get their water.

Whitman: And what does that mean for society as a whole. There are just a lot of fascinating very important issues around water and on of the things that excites me about the institute is the ability to start to focus the discussion. That's what we need so desperately. We really need to get people thinking seriously about water as a resource that must be managed. I think that's really what we've been missing, this idea that we have to manage this resource.

PennWell: In recent history, it used to be said that the Democrats were more environmental. But we're noticing that, in recent years, that's kind of shifting and a lot of times this is an issue that's not only crossing political lines but also social ones as well. For instance, fundamentalist religious groups are now becoming very active in these environmental issues because they're looking at it as the world and taking good care of God's kingdom, so to speak.

Whitman: Exactly. We were given the ability to oversee this. This is our responsibility. And we need to take that seriously.

PennWell: My thought was I'm assuming you want this to bring together not just diverse groups, but groups of divergent opinions as well.

Whitman: Absolutely. It's gotta be that way. As they say, you can't be effective if you don't hear from everybody who's got a stake in the issue. Or, to put it another way, you do much better when you have that kind of a diverse group. And I've seen it happen again and again. It's one of the ways interestingly enough that the Aspen Institute approaches a lot of its issues when it takes them on. You bring the people who you think absolutely wouldn't talk to one another and you sit them down together and say, "OK, how are we going to solve this problem." And it's just amazing what you can get out of them and how opinions can change.

PennWell: I agree. Yesterday you had the organizational meeting. What are some of the fine points we can look forward to over the next year or two.

Whitman: Well, we're going to produce about two white papers a year. And those will be determined largely by what the membership feels that they want to explore -- where they think the gaps are -- and the kind of issues that they want to engage in at this stage. And we'll see. I hate to predict exactly what we're going to be doing next year, but one of the things was data collection. And that's controversial as we've said before. Certainly, at the EPA, one of the big challenges we had when we started to put the report card together was what do you measure. How do you determine what's needed, what you need to measure, what data points you have and what is appropriate?

PennWell: You could look at the issue of perchlorate and how long it's taken for something to come together there.

Whitman: Sure. Well, it took forever to get the scientists to agree as to what you measure. How you do concentrations. What should you be looking for? Getting policymakers to be able to ask the smart questions is an important part of it.

PennWell: And also thinking ahead in terms of if the issue of perchlorate can be credited in large part to the ability of science to develop tools to measure down to infinitely and more infinitely smaller levels -- which is why perchlorate popped up on the radar -- how do you build into your policy development process a way of anticipating future developments in technology that will raise or solve additional issues.

Whitman: Uh-huh, it's not as straightforward. It's going to be complicated. But one of the things we've said again and again is you're not going to get any work you don't start. And this is one way we're going to approach it to start.

PennWell: I was looking at your press release where it mentions some of your members, including BP, Central Arizona Project and GE Water. I deal with GE Water not just in the states, but worldwide. Often, I see more press releases from them on projects they have going on overseas than here. Likewise, I deal with Siemens, which is a German company but whose Water Technologies Division is based here in the States and is largely a byproduct of their acquisition of the old USFilter assets from Veolia Water. ITT Corp. has major operations that actually center out of here related to water and pumps. Likewise, the French companies that had bought into the U.S. market and divested themselves to a degree are still here. Are these all some of the players you're anticipating being on the committee.

Whitman: Well, we'd love to have them. As I said, we had a hole. We don't have agriculture. It was suggested that one of the native American tribes, because water is such an issue in the Southwest and they have so much land that it's a great concern of theirs. The trick is going to be to have enough diversity without overloading it so that the board is so big that you can't get a reasoned discussion going.

PennWell: What's an ideal board size do you think?

Whitman: I don't know. I don't have an ideal in mind. But it's more do we have the diversity of representation rather than a total number. It's as much that as anything because certainly, again, as I said, both as governor and at the EPA, we found that people were surprised at the kinds of agreements that would come out of a reasoned discussion even with people who basically didn't like each other sitting in the same room.

PennWell: The American Petroleum Institute vs. the Environmental Working Group, for instance.

Whitman: Yes. Amazingly enough.

PennWell: Okay. In closing, the readers I've got are industrial, they're international -- what sort of comment would you offer them to wrap things up.

Whitman: We'd love them all to take a look at what we're doing. They should go to our website and see and, if they'd like to join, we'd welcome that. We welcome input into the issues that they think are important. And hopefully they'll watch what happens and we'll be able to get the white papers out in a way that it really does stimulate the discussion.

PennWell: Thanks so much for your time. I appreciate it very much, as will our readers, I'm sure.

Whitman: Thank you. Bye.


Kathy Robb
Director, Water Policy Institute
Hunton & Williams LLP
200 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10166-0091
Tel: 212-309-1128
Web: www.hunton.com

Christine Todd Whitman
Whitman Strategy Group
888 16th Street, N.W., Suite 800
Washington, D.C. 20006
Tel: 202-355-1374
Web: www.whitmanstrategygroup.com

For more on the Water Policy Institute, click here.


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