Navigating to New Shores Release at WEFTEC
The following remarks were given by Lynn Broaddus at a press conference announcing the culminating report, Navigating to New Shores: Seizing the Future for Sustainable and Resilient Freshwater Resources, during WEFTEC in New Orleans, Sept. 29, 2014.
For more than 50 years, The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread has been convening the nation’s leading thinkers to address the challenging issues of our day. We have a history of taking on big issues and having big impact.
Six years ago we decided to take on U.S. freshwater resources and services, dedicating much of our convening expertise to these challenges and their solutions. Since 2008 we’ve brought together more than 600 experts from nearly 300 organizations on a wide variety of topics related to water, and many of you are here. Our partners have included business, academia, all levels of government, farmers and ranchers, and citizen advocacy organizations because we believe that a broad base of perspectives makes for the most robust recommendations.
I want to especially acknowledge the collaboration with the Water Environment Federation and its members, a collaboration that has developed into a number of genuine friendships. Between the leadership and staff of WEF, as well as the utilities and private sector entrepreneurs who have been so generous with their time and expertise, we are deeply appreciative. Though we have a different role, we share a vision for the sustainable and resilient future that we know is possible. The optimism and energy that we see among WEF’s membership is one of the reasons we know that there is indeed a new shore ahead.
But today I’m here to share with you the culmination of those 6 years of work, “Navigating to New Shores.”
WEF members are all too well aware of the challenges we face:
You know that most of our nation’s water infrastructure is feeling the effects of age, much of it dated and inefficient, and vulnerable to single-point, catastrophic failures. Increasingly, storms overwhelm our water supply and treatment systems, sometimes leaving a community without basic services for weeks at a time.
Major portions of our country are experiencing the daunting reality that there are limits to our water supply. Drought, changes in snowpack, groundwater depletion, and saltwater intrusion, as well as paralyzing events like chemical spills into urban water supplies make us realize the true worth of our water.
And then there are problems with energy. As this crowd knows, providing clean water to our communities has traditionally been an energy-intensive business. And providing energy has, to date, required a lot of water. The challenges facing each of these two resources are magnified when dealing with the complexities of the real world.
As if that weren’t enough, we also are facing growing challenges from polluted runoff and emerging contaminants. Valuable nutrients are being lost from wastewater facilities, roads, and farm fields, causing problems downstream.
Overlaying all of these challenges is the undeniable reality of climate change. As water and resource recovery providers, WEF members know that climate change will be felt primarily through water. But the water industry is not just on the receiving end – as our recommendations show, the water industry can and will play a critical role in bending the curve on climate change.
While we certainly have challenges, this report, “Navigating to New Shores,” highlights the opportunity for change. It represents the distillation of ideas from these six years and more than 600 experts. As we wrap up our work, we felt an urgent need to summarize what we’ve learned and to put it out to the world.
While we believe that there is an urgent need to accelerate change, we recognize that there is a spectrum of actions. The report’s recommendations fall along a continuum, some of which entails the basic common sense efficiency of resources that so often gets overlooked in day-to-day priorities. But to meet the future with confidence, we cannot escape the need to begin transitioning existing practices on the way to fully rethinking and transforming the way we work with water.
We’ve broken our recommendations into five broad categories which I’d like to highlight:
Optimize the Use of Available Water Supplies: Much more can be done with the water we have, and that includes the water recovered from sewage. We need to aggressively increase the efficiency of operations, which includes keeping rainwater and groundwater out of our collection systems. We need to examine rate structures and policies that incentivize efficiency. We also need to get smarter about using the right water for the right purpose – not all water needs to be cleaned to potable standards. And of course we need to break the barrier on water re-use as well as find ways to stop throwing our valuable freshwater, cleaned by resource recovery facilities, away to our oceans. By continuing to drive better practices in our built environment we use less energy while also leaving more water for essential agricultural, fisheries and ecological needs.
Transition to Next-Generation Wastewater Systems. What we’ve traditionally called “wastewater” treatment is undergoing a quiet revolution which needs to be encouraged and amplified. We have a chance to change water treatment from one of our communities’ single largest users of energy to being a source of renewable power, while also recovering other valuable products. Best estimates are that more than 12 percent of our nation’s energy goes toward water. Imagine the impact that this sector can have with its energy recovery efforts! Many of you are already well underway on this route, but we need to make this the industry standard. Tightening up systems to keep unnecessary rainwater and groundwater out is an essential underpinning to this transition. We also need to right-size our treatment facilities, finding the size and scale that maximizes community resilience and ecological restoration while still providing essential services. This means finding ways to encourage and move toward distributed technologies and natural or “passive” infrastructure where possible for water harvest and recovery, groundwater restoration, and sewage treatment rather than always assuming that bigger is better.
Integrate the Management of Water, Energy, and Food Production. There are so many opportunities for efficiency and shared expertise that could be gained by bringing the water sector into closer partnership with other sectors. There are enormous opportunities for better use of recovered water, one of which is to partner with nearby energy utilities which need cooling water. Conversely, water utilities should switch to renewable energy sources that don’t exacerbate climate change or put pressure on water reserves. Water utilities can work directly with electric utilities to manage demand on both ends, thus shaving off the all-expensive peak loads for both. And there are exciting opportunities for sharing expertise, technology and resources between the wastewater sector and the agricultural sector. The work of the Mississippi River Nutrient Dialogues, and the WEF Nutrient Roadmap, also being unveiled at WEFTEC, are the kinds of partnership that can lead to these solutions.
Institutionalize the Value of Water. Many of you have been leaders in the “Value of Water” coalition or similar efforts and know very well how important it is to have a citizenry, both individual and corporate, that values water and water treatment and is willing to invest in it. And as you know, to make this happen we need more than good marketing: We need new financing mechanisms and rate structures that build incentives for efficient use on the part of the customer while allowing for financial sustainability for utilities. We also need tools that allow us to recognize and incorporate the value of natural infrastructure – healthy streams, rivers, wetlands and aquifers.
And finally, Create Integrated Utilities. We need to open up current regulatory and disciplinary silos to integrate utilities. There’s no one fixed model for doing this, but by recognizing that all water – water supply, groundwater, wastewater and stormwater – comes from the same well, and by managing our resources – water, energy and solid waste – in an integrated way that wastes nothing, we all win. The water sector, like the energy sector, is seeing an erosion of its traditional business models. Rather than fight the change, those utilities which are finding new ways to generate revenue and be relevant to their customers in this new market are the ones who will thrive in this changing world.
The report takes a deeper dive on these recommendations, and I encourage you to read it, share it and use it for a springboard for further conversation.
Collectively our communities spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year on water infrastructure and services, but the key to the future is that we must focus those resources on solutions and new developments that will make us resilient to our changing reality. Yesterday’s technology is no longer sufficient, and tomorrow’s innovations can serve as an economic engine for our communities.