Water’s Critical Role in Mission Success

  • Published
  • By Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Could you imagine living without water for a few hours, or even days? The human body can only survive for about three days without water, and our installations are no different. From fire suppression and facility cleaning to human consumption and system operations, water security is vital to ensuring end-to-end resilience for Department of the Air Force installations.

In honor of World Water Day, the Department of the Air Force is raising awareness about the importance of freshwater resources and sustainable water management.

"Balancing water needs for daily operations, training, and residential use is critical to mission readiness,” explained Ms. Nancy Balkus, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety, and Infrastructure. “Our installations operate in diverse environments, with unique mission sets and water availability concerns. Our ability to prioritize water allocation at our bases, ensure continuity of supply during emergencies, and plan for long-term sustainable use of this finite resource are key factors in ensuring military readiness across the enterprise.”

Aging water infrastructure, pollution, and climate change all pose increasing risks to water quality, quantity, and access. Rising global temperatures lead to more frequent and severe droughts, sea level rise, and fire hazards, all threatening the security of water infrastructure and availability of this finite resource. Simultaneously, compromised water supply – from contaminants like heavy metal and biological agents, and aging water infrastructure susceptible to leaks and cyberattack – can impair mission critical operations.

To address these challenges, the Department of the Air Force is investing in water-saving technologies and collaborating with federal, state, and research partners to identify compelling solutions that address the unique water challenges of each installation. 

Particularly in the drought-susceptible west, installations are leveraging xeriscaping (landscape design practice using a mix of rock, mulch, and native drought tolerant plants) to reduce irrigation demand, replacing athletic fields with artificial turf, and re-claiming wastewater for non-potable use. At Nellis Air Force Base, located in the Mojave Desert of Nevada, the department replaced water-thirsty grasses with efficient desert landscaping, reducing water consumption by 10% in a location that only receives an average of 3.5 inches of rain per year. The bases also use robots to clean their solar panels, which use 90% less than water than traditional cleaning methods.

At Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, SAF/IEE is partnering with the State of Idaho and the Idaho Water Resources Board to supply surface water from the Snake River to the installation. Currently, the base relies on a regional confined groundwater aquifer for water, which is experiencing chronic water-level declines (approximately 2.0 feet per year). To increase water access and fortify resilience, the state will construct a pipeline and pump station (estimated at $61.7 million), which it intends to provide as a real property gift to the Department of the Air Force at the end of construction. In turn, the department will construct a $103 million Water Treatment Plant, with anticipated completion by February 2026.

In alignment with the climate resilience goals outlined in the Department of the Air Force Climate Action Plan, SAF/IEE established the Water Security Program in 2023 to better track and test water availability and security across the enterprise. SAF/IEE initiated a Water Resilience Readiness Exercise Pilot Program to help inform policy updates and recommendations for more resilient water resources management. Utilizing scenario-based table-top discussions, the department will assess the mission impacts of potential water supply disruptions in conjunction with planned Energy Resilience Readiness Exercises. No water will be turned off. The department executed its first exercise on March 7 and plans to execute three more during 2024-2025.

Additionally, SAF/IEE is partnering with the Air Force Institute of Technology to explore Managed Aquifer Recharge – the manmade replenishing of natural aquifers. The department is developing a list of suitable pilot sites, considering factors such as water surplus, infrastructure readiness, water quality, and aquifer condition. The pilot program will create installation-specific plans to begin Managed Aquifer Recharge and will inform future water resilience planning across the enterprise.

Water security directly impacts Department of the Air Force mission readiness. By seizing opportunities to make our water consumption more efficient and sustainable, collaborating with partners outside the fence line to bolster resilience, and raising awareness among personnel to fostering a culture of water responsibility the Department of the Air Force can ensure a reliable water supply and safeguard the mission.