White Paper

White Paper: Sustainable Water Systems: Step One — Redefining The Nation's Infrastructure Challenge

A Report of the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Sustainable Water Infrastructure in the U.S.

During the past 150 years, a complex water infrastructure has been built throughout the U.S. to supply homes and businesses with clean water, collect and treat wastewater, and manage stormwater — and an equally complex regulatory system has evolved alongside it. A generation of progress has been made under the CleanWater Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, serious challenges still exist for the nation’s freshwater resources, including insufficient progress in achieving water quality goals, overuse of water resources, and looming challenges associated with global climate change, including droughts, heavy storm events, and flooding. Meanwhile, water and wastewater utilities are struggling with aged infrastructure that requires upgrades or replacement. Control of urban stormwater and rural runoff will require large new investments. Appropriate sources of funding and affordability of these investments also requires attention.

It was in this context that the Aspen Institute convened the Dialogue on Sustainable Water Infrastructure in the U.S., bringing together distinguished leaders from the water utility industry; federal, state, and local government regulators; and non-profit environmental groups to develop policy recommendations that address water infrastructure planning and management challenges for the coming decades. Between May 2008 and March 2009, participants in the dialogue met on four separate occasions, employing their broad range of expertise to peel back the layers of complexity surrounding our nation’s water resources.

In keeping with the mission of the Aspen Institute to foster enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue, this diverse group explored the sometimes competing values that underlie water infrastructure planning, management, and financing. While a system so complex and vital to all of society necessarily involves certain points of friction, the dialogue participants jointly developed and adopted 10 KEY POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS for a sustainable water infrastructure. Taken as a whole, these recommendations represent a departure from traditional assumptions about the nature of water resources and services that have informed regulatory policy in the U.S. up to now.

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