Water Infrastructure Report Resonates

I don’t often use the term “resonance” with regard to my work, but  we definitely struck a chord with the report we released yesterday. Building off of our 2010 release of the consensus report “Charting New Waters“, The Johnson Foundationwaterinfrastructurecover_1 at Wingspread entered into a collaboration with Ceres and American Rivers to pursue the financing and pricing issues that underpin our nation’s water infrastructure. The product of this collaboration, “Financing Sustainable Water Infrastructure,” was released yesterday along with a webinar highlighting the report’s main points and answering audience questions.

The opening sentence of the report’s executive summary is perhaps the most important: “Our nation’s water infrastructure is at a critical juncture.” The physical structure of the pipes and treatment systems are in a scary state, receiving a D- from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Many of us know this, and there have been a series of proposals floated to pour hundreds of billions of additional dollars into getting ahead of this problem. But yesterday’s report points out that it’s not just a matter of fixing what we have. We need to re-think the way we use water, the kind of infrastructure that will best serve us in the coming century, and what types of financing are best suited to incentivize both of these.

What we heard from the experts who were involved in creating the report was that our nation is experiencing a number of trends, not all of them necessarily bad , which necessitate a different way to think about our water infrastructure moving forward. These include things like:

  • Municipal water use is generally declining, even in places where population is growing.
  • Climate change is resulting in changing weather patterns that in some areas mean more intense precipitation events, and in others mean dryer weather or changes in snowpack.
  • Groundwater tables and reservoirs in many areas are being depleted much faster than they can be replenished.
  • Energy costs, a major consideration for water and wastewater utilities, are growing.
  • Wastewater, and the energy and nutrients it carries, are increasingly viewed as resources with increasing competition for those resources.
  • We are starting to see a growing number of structures go “off-grid” (and hence, be independent of a utility) for their water and sewer.
  • New technologies provide exciting new opportunities for how we provide water and sanitation.
  • And there is growing recognition that the most traditional infrastructure of all, wetlands and other natural landscapes, provide some of the most cost-effective ways to treat water and buffer us from floods, while also mitigating climate change and enhancing community benefits.
Despite the fact that water system finances is a fairly arcane subject, we had a packed audience from a wide spectrum of professional spheres for yesterday’s report release.  This is a hot topic everywhere from the halls of congress, to local municipal elections, from Wall Street to community “Occupy” meetings.  There is a vital public need for water security, and a strong private interest in the enormous dollars that go into building, maintaining, and operating water and wastewater utilities. Our hope for this report is that all of these interests will think not just about the money, not just about the technologies, but about the absolutely critical juncture between the two.
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