Following six years of research, The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread helps water and wastewater utilities navigate the uncertain future, sharing best practices for resiliency, sustainability, and water security.
By Lynn Broaddus, Ph.D., MBA
No one needs to tell the water sector that, “The times they are a-changing.” Whether it’s increased storm intensity, prolonged drought, saltwater intrusion, or disappearing aquifers, no region is unaffected by change. Add to that maintenance backlogs, a dynamic regulatory environment, declining revenues, and an aging workforce, and it’s easy to feel like the future is about as predictable as a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl at the state fair.
But there is no need for queasiness on this ride. As leaders throughout the sector are proving on a daily basis, there are solutions at hand, but they require a new approach.
In the past, we had the luxury of taking challenges on one by one. Polluted water? Clean it. Increased water quality standards? Clean it even more, no matter what the energy costs. Short on water supply? Build a new reservoir, construct a longer pipeline. Dropping water table? Drill deeper. Urban flooding? Channelize those streams, line them with concrete. Combined sewer overflows? Build a deep tunnel.
These practices, however, solve one problem but create others. They shift the burden, exacerbating runoff, increasing energy demand, incurring debt that limits future options, and undermining natural ecosystems. Today’s leaders are looking for new approaches that solve multiple problems simultaneously, while also minimizing future risk.
While we can’t entirely predict the future, we do know that certain changes are highly probable and, in some cases, are already upon us. For years communities have increasingly felt the brunt of either increased storm intensity or reduced water supply. Some regions have even had the dubious distinction of experiencing both. In the future, it’s reasonable to expect disruptions to energy and other supply chains, price disruptions, new water use patterns and disrupted business models, changing consumer expectations, and technological revolutions. For decades water and sewer authorities have had the luxury of being monopolies in their communities, but with new technologies and shifting price points that security is slowly eroding.
So what is a water service provider to do?
This is the question that The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread spent the last six years examining, culminating in “Navigating to New Shores: Seizing the Future for Sustainable and Resilient U.S. Freshwater Resources,” a capstone set of recommendations addressing challenges in the water sector.
The recommendations were based on dialogues hosted among hundreds of individual experts representing a wide range of perspectives, including utilities, municipalities, NGO (non-governmental organization) advocates, academics, growers and producers, regulators, and private sector entrepreneurs. We distilled from these conversations a number of recommendations, bolstered by real-world examples, in five categories:
1. Optimize the Use of Available Water Supplies
This includes fundamentals like water audits and systematic reduction in non-revenue water loss, to changes in rate structures that incentivize conservation while not undermining utility sustainability, and diversifying supply with rainwater harvest and water reuse.
2. Transition to Next-Generation Wastewater Systems
Again, recommendations range from basics such as sewer separation and other steps to keep clear water out of collection systems to recovering energy and nutrients and considering distributed treatment such as green infrastructure and new on-site waste treatment.
3. Integrate the Management of Water, Energy, and Food Production
Traditionally, these three sectors have competed with each other for valuable resources, especially water, but communities win when the three sectors work together rather than compete.
4. Institutionalize the Value of Water
We can no longer afford to maintain the illusion that water and water services are cheap. Customers will pay for what they value, so communities need to be honest about infrastructure needs.
5. Create Integrated Utilities
When utilities reflect the realities of the physical world, integrating water, waste, energy, and potentially more services under a common organizational structure, incentives to minimize waste and support public values begin to align with each other.
Yes, the challenges ahead can seem daunting at times. But those who embrace the challenges with an eye toward long-term, system-wide sustainability and resiliency are not daunted. For more specific recommendations and real-world examples, be sure to check out the full report, “Navigating to New Shores,” available at www.johnsonfdn.org.
About The Author
Lynn Broaddus, Ph.D., MBA, formed Broadview Collaborative, Inc. in 2014 to increase her impact on the resiliency and sustainability issues that defined her previous work directing The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread’s environment program. Her work also includes six years directing Milwaukee Riverkeeper and 12 years serving the The Nature Conservancy and NatureServe. She earned her Ph.D. in botany and genetics from Duke University, an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and her bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia.