Big Vision: Re-inventing America’s Urban Water Infrastructure

I can’t help but be hopeful about our ability to solve our country’s overwhelming water challenges when I see the extraordinarily gifted and committed people trying to tackle these problems. It’s one of the great  parts of my job – to find these experts and to try to figure out how to help them advance their ideas.

In December of 2009, as part of the exploratory phase of the Johnson Foundation’s Freshwater Forum, we hosted a meeting on examining the public health challenges and solutions tied to the larger U.S. freshwater water challenges. We wanted people who could help us articulate the challenges around water supply, water contamination, health challenges tied to crumbling water infrastructure, the role of emerging contaminants, etc. As is typical for us, we had people from a variety of perspectives: government regulators, grassroots advocates, large engineering firms, manufacturers, researchers, national environmental groups, etc. One of those experts was Dr. David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
While David was at Wingspread for that 2009 meeting, he told that he and Dr. Richard Luthy of Stanford University were working on a grant proposal to develop a consortium of academic research universities focused on a new and more resilient urban water infrastructure. At the time, I told told him that if they were funded The Johnson Foundation would be interested in helping out. Because they expected to be a multi-campus endeavor with a panel of outside scientific and industry experts, David thought that Wingspread could be an integral partner in hosting their strategic planning retreats, etc. To me, this seemed like a win-win: they would get a great meeting location, and I would get to meet lots more smart water innovators who might be able to help me with our ongoing Freshwater Forum efforts.
Over the next year or so, I got periodic updates from David as he and his team went through the rigorous process to be considered for a multi-million dollar (per year) National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center (ERC) grant. The application process is so demanding that it amazes me that anyone even applies – you have to be extremely committed to make it through. But in late winter I got the big news that their application had been accepted and funded. Stanford and UC-Berkeley, along with the Colorado School of Mines and New Mexico State University would be forming an ERC entitled “Re-inventing America’s Urban Water Infrastructure”. I get chills just thinking about it!
This week researchers from the four universities met in Golden, Colorado (home to the Colorado School of Mines) to begin their work in earnest, and invited me to join them for their meeting. Their goals are lofty – stuff like working to develop and improve technologies “that can fundamentally transform urban water infrastructure”. Their original proposal states that, due to climate change, population growth, the need to protect and restore ecosystems, etc., they “are convinced that our water infrastructure will be radically different in 50 years”, and they want to accelerate the pace toward that new future. Their research over the coming years will focus not only on the technical innovations around decentralized water treatment and distribution, maximizing energy and resource recovery from wastewater, and the use of natural systems to do as much of the work as possible, but also around the economic and political drivers that are just as important as the technical issues.
Eighteen months after first discussing this idea with David Sedlak, who is now Deputy Director of the ERC, he and I both see multiple benefits to having The Johnson Foundation as a partner in their work. In addition to providing secluded meeting space for the ERC researchers and advisors at critical junctures, and in addition to providing me a stable of smart experts on a variety of topics, I’m hopeful that The Johnson Foundation can also serve as a bridge between their expertise and vision and the government officials, utility managers, industry innovators, regulators, and advocates who are all key to putting a reinvented infrastructure in place.
If it takes a village to raise a child, then what does it take to see an idea to fruition? Could it be a network? Like the Charting New Waters Network? Whatever it takes, I’m ready to do my part.
p.s. Check out their new website:

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