Guest Column | August 18, 2014

Water Utilities Own The Value Of Water Equation

By Donna Vincent Roa

ValueOfWaterUtility

I was listening to a web presentation on the value of water and heard this statement: “Most Americans don’t understand the true value of water.” I would argue that most Americans don’t understand the true value of water utilities.

Let me take you through my logic on this

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put a lot of resources behind trying to answer the question, “what is the value of water?” The agency attempted to quantify the impact of water on the U.S. economy by examining economic and water resource statistics and evaluating economic research on the use and value of water across various sectors and regions.

I was at the EPA research project kick-off meeting at American University, December 4, 2012, which featured a who’s who of the water industry talking about this issue, from utility champions to technology purveyors to representatives from the water-based tourism. The resulting final report, which came out about a year later, did not use value of water in the title. It was called, “The Importance of Water to the U.S. Economy.”

Value of water data is elusive

The key finding of the EPA effort was that it is a true challenge to identify data that would accurately reflect water’s true worth. In essence, we are not able to actually calculate the value of water. The data is elusive.

The report explains that we just don’t have the empirical data to define the value of water at a systems-level perspective. Water is a complex and essential commodity. Water is valuable, pervasive and demands for it are interrelated, so trying to determine its value is equally as complex.

So, if we can’t calculate the value of water, can we truly understand the value of water?

From the American public’s perspective — if I may speak from that perspective, I believe that we appreciate and value water, the product. We don’t need the numbers. We don’t need the economic justifications.

The missing link here, in my opinion, is that most Americans don’t understand, appreciate or value the water utilities that manage the processes and infrastructure that deliver the product.

Value of water paradigm – water utilities make all this possible

I believe that there are four dimensions or components of the value of water paradigm that apply to this argument: economy, business, individual and water utilities. If I could assign a scale to show value for each, it would go something like this:

  1. Economy: value of water from an economic perspective (substantiated importance 10 out of 10; data to quantify value of water — at the moment it’s a 2 out of 10 – we can’t quantify it and it’s unlikely that this number will change very much despite trends for increased analysis and examination)
  2. Business: value of water in business and as it relates to business risk and business continuity (3 out of 10, but likely to change as more emphasis is placed on water stewardship, documenting value chain imperatives as they relate to water, and increased transparency and reporting on water)
  3. Individual: value of water in a person’s life (9 out of 10 with regards to an individual’s appreciation of water and understanding of its importance to life and public health)
  4. Water Utilities: value of water as it relates to water utilities’ identity, and importance to business, community and public health (1.5 out of 10; a shift in action and priorities is needed to change this number).

While it is easy to accept the reality of the EPA’s report findings about lack of ways to quantify the value of water, I think that there is closely held appreciation of water by most Americans and a growing interest and awareness of its importance for business — what we may not know, or certainly understand, is the real value that our water utilities provide. That’s a strategic communication challenge and opportunity.

We know the consequences when there is no water

I think that people, in general, understand and appreciate that water — the product — is fundamental to life. In essence, they value the product. They know the consequences when there is no water. I don’t think we need to convince people of the value of water from a person or personal standpoint. That exists by default.

And while we may never be able to accurately quantify with hard data water’s value in the economy, we are acutely aware that water shortages or supply shocks can negatively affect businesses and have dire implications for consumers and other industries and activities directly connected to the original businesses’ supply chains.

If we want to maintain a strong, vibrant economy, we need water. So, we must protect it. We must efficiently manage it. Similarly, if we want to maintain health and existence, we need water.

Water utilities make all this possible

Water utilities contribute directly to all: the economy, business continuity and our health and existence. My conclusion: Water utilities carry the most embedded value in value of water equation. They move water. They clean it. They deliver it.

The real story of water and its value is inside the fence of our public and private water utilities that consistently perform — delivering high quality, life giving water — despite the myriad of challenges they face.

Water utilities make so much possible.

About The Author
Donna Vincent Roa, PhD, ABC, is Managing Partner of Vincent Roa Group, a strategic business and environmental science communication firm that helps organizations achieve excellence in high-stakes communication, position brand communication as a key enterprise asset, and maximize communication resources. Donna serves as strategic counsel to CEOs in the water sector and at water utilities on brand and communication issues. She is a member of the Water Environment Federation and the Chesapeake Water Environment Association and frequently writes on water and water sector communication issues. She is currently working on The Value of Water: A Compendium of Essays by Smart CEOs, which will be launched at the 2014 WEFTEC.

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