By Peter Chawaga
From failing pipelines to increased threats from climate change, the water treatment industry has plenty of concerns these days. But which issues are first and foremost on the minds of industry leaders? And how do they approach solving them?
The global engineering, consulting, and construction firm Black & Veatch recently released its annual assessment of the water industry, “2016 Strategic Directions.” The firm polled 358 utility, municipal, commercial, and community stakeholders to get a handle on their most pressing concerns and where the industry might be headed in the future.
Unsurprisingly, the survey found that aging infrastructure, questions of capital and operational costs, and resilience are the things most concerning to respondents. Only 28 percent of the parties polled said that existing revenue streams would cover maintenance, debt service, capital investment, and reserves, down from 36 percent in last year’s survey.
“The cost of water as widely perceived by the public, whose understanding of the resources needed to treat and deliver a safe supply is generally limited, continues to compete with the industry’s ever-growing and deferred maintenance bill,” said Mike Orth, the executive managing director for the Americas with Black & Veatch’s water business.
Sadly, these issues are known all too well throughout the industry. However, Orth pointed out several surprises from this year’s findings. As Water Online’s Sara Jerome reported, the lead contamination crisis in Flint, MI, has had tangible results in the public’s interest in water service, per the report.
“We were a bit surprised by the extent to which headlines are changing the way many people communicate with their water service providers,” said Orth. “Increased public interest in how water supplies are obtained and maintained, related to headlines about the sad situation in Flint, seems to have contributed to increased customer interactions for more than half of the respondents.”
The report also found a rising interest in alternative water supplies such as reuse, likely a result of persistent drought and climate change issues.
“Survey respondents agree on the growing impact of climate change on sustainability,” said Orth. “There was a marked increase in climate change being ranked as a top sustainability issue for the industry in 2016, from 10.9 percent in 2015 to 14.6 percent this year.”
The report isn’t only interested in sharing the bad news. It strives to offer ways forward so that hopefully the results of next year’s survey indicate some relief in the utilities’ persistent problem areas. While Orth stressed that no one solution is right for every party, the report highlights some strategies that have been helpful to utilities.
“As some of the world’s foremost water leaders have demonstrated, change begins with leadership open to innovation and collaboration of all kinds,” he said.
Orth recommends that those communities that haven’t initiated an asset management program do so, beginning with a detailed assessment of the condition of its systems and facilities and a prioritization of needs and capital improvements. Systematically taking advantage of data that’s available or could be collected is another important strategy. Lastly, he urges transparency when engaging with the public about economic realities and the importance of water supply and resource-recovery.
All of that is, of course, easier said than done. But there is reason for optimism that despite increased budget strains and dwindling supplies for the foreseeable future, things stand to get better.
“There are bright spots of innovation and new approaches for communities that are learning to do more with less,” said Orth. “Alternative water supply strategies, energy-efficient solutions, advanced purification technologies, emerging financing and delivery options, and the application of advanced data analytics are promising avenues going forward.”
Black & Veatch hopes the report itself can also lead to a brighter future for utilities.
“We hope this report helps water and other community leaders learn more about how to tackle common issues using tangible, collaborative ways to take the industry beyond business-as-usual,” Orth said. “Sharing not only survey results but also analysis and examples of what some water leaders are doing worldwide is one way we hope to keep the conversation going.”
Here’s hoping that next year’s survey shows results.