From The Editor | June 5, 2015

2015 State Of The Water Industry, Or Groundhog Day?

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By Kevin Westerling,
@KevinOnWater

groundhog

Each year, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) publishes their State Of The Water Industry report, which is a direct reflection of its members’ concerns via survey responses. I keep waiting to be surprised by the results, but the fateful moment of review feels something more like the movie Groundhog Day — reliving the same experience over and over.

This is certainly no knock on AWWA, which does an excellent job in pulling together and presenting detailed data and analysis (download the report here), but check out 2015’s “top five most important issues”:

  1. Renewal and replacement (R&R) of aging water and wastewater infrastructure
  2. Financing for capital improvements
  3. Long-term water supply availability
  4. Public understanding of the value of water systems and services
  5. Public understanding of the value of water resources

Sound familiar? Here’s the top five from AWWA’s 2014 report:

  1. State of water and sewer infrastructure
  2. Long-term water supply availability
  3. Financing for capital improvements
  4. Public understanding of the value of water resources
  5. Public understanding of the value of water systems and services

 

The water industry feels your pain, Bill!

Moving The Needle

Despite the fact that it feels like a recurring dream (or nightmare), there is progress being made. At this week’s AWWA’s Annual Conference and Exposition (ACE15), there were countless examples of solutions at work — new technologies, strategies, and initiatives that are helping utilities overcome these persistent, pervasive challenges.

Because the issues are so deeply rooted, they won’t go away quickly, but it’s encouraging to see the needle moving. On the grand scale, the pace seems incremental (and frustrating), but change at the local level can be paradigm-shifting.

How To Effect Change

Although ‘public understanding’ lands at #4 and #5 on the list of industry concerns, it may be the most important element(s) of all. It’s not as tangible as the top three — infrastructure R&R, financing for capital improvements, and water supply availability — but the public’s understanding of the value of water and water services may be the key to most all of the issues cited in AWWA’s report. Because the cost involved is so steep and federal money so scarce, the public will have to contribute more toward the life-giving services that are provided them. It shouldn’t be a hard sell, but we know it is; generations of Americans taking water for granted have deemed it so. Ironically, the industry is suffering for doing its job too well.

Beyond outreach and education efforts, utilities can also improve their predicament by leveraging new tools at their disposal. If the status quo is failing you, it may be time to (gulp) try something new. Risk aversion is the enemy of innovation.

The U.S. water industry has proved itself resilient, but now it’s time to be bold. When asked to rate the “health of the industry,” this year’s survey respondents gave it a 4.5 on a scale from 1 to 7. Last year it was a 4.6. Perhaps that’s another Groundhog Day moment, but I prefer to see it as remarkable consistency in the face of tremendous obstacles.

If the industry continues to move forward, reach out, and innovate, the “same old thing” may become a thing of the past.

Image credit: "Groundhog," © 2012 ShenandoahNPS, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/