From The Editor | August 16, 2013

The 13 Biggest Challenges Facing The Water Industry


By Kevin Westerling,

AWWA reports on the ‘State of the Water Industry’

Each year, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) surveys water professionals to identify the industry’s biggest challenges and concerns, while also providing key data to help support the development of solutions. The majority of respondents were utility workers, comprising 54 percent — 27 percent from drinking water facilities and 27 percent from combined water/wastewater facilities — while consultants (15 percent), government/regulatory agencies (10 percent), and manufacturers (6 percent) rounded out the field.

In looking at the executive summary of this year’s State of the Water Industry (SOTWI) report, I noticed some very familiar themes, but I was also struck by a few surprises. The most startling revelation is that 80 percent of utilities (at least those that were surveyed) are losing money on the services they provide. For explanation, look no further than the top two challenges cited in the list compiled below. Couple the high cost of infrastructure repairs with the fact that the public takes water services for granted (and thus is resistant to paying more) and it’s no wonder utilities are operating in the red. Solving this “value of water” conundrum would go a long way toward resolving the omnipresent funding issue by getting us closer to full-cost pricing on rates.

Another surprise was the attention given to climate change. Not only was it singled out as its own challenge, but water scarcity and drought were also given separate entries. Concerns over global warming, it seems, are trending up in direct proportion to its effects. However, this particular issue requires utilities to be proactive, not reactive.

Those observations aside, there are certainly other lessons to be extracted from AWWA’s “top challenges of 2013” poll. Review the full list here, presented with some interesting nuggets culled from the report and/or links for further information.

  1. Condition of water/wastewater infrastructure – The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America’s infrastructure a “D” grade.
  2. Lack of public appreciation for the value of water
  3. Funding for capital improvement projects – More than 40 percent of non-utility respondents believe the water industry is not prepared to meet financial needs.
  4. Water scarcity/supply
  5. Replacing a retiring workforce
  6. Drought potential – Ten percent of respondents believe their home water service is not prepared for a drought of more than three years.
  7. Customer/community relations – Outreach is needed to communicate the challenges of water stewardship and develop public support.
  8. Recovering costs for service/investment – Eighty percent of utilities (water, wastewater, and combined systems) said they were not able to recover the full cost for providing service.
  9. Government regulations – Utility personnel ranked disinfection byproducts (DBPs) as the top regulatory concern, followed by pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs).
  10. Emergency planning and response
  11. Energy usage/cost
  12. Climate change – Only 20 percent of non-utility respondents feel the water industry is prepared for climate issues such as risk and resiliency.
  13. Utility security – Worries include intentional water contamination and cybersecurity.

For deeper insight and analysis on the results of the annual SOTWI poll — as well as the methodology, history, and purpose behind it — please reference the full executive summary (available to AWWA members). Stay tuned as well for the complete SOTWI report, which is due later this summer.

What observations did you gather from the list of challenges cited? Which challenges are missing? Which ones are most relevant, troubling, or (one would hope) solvable? Please share your thoughts…