Water leaders are in the business of delivering community value. They provide essential services in the face of complex, unpredictable, and fast-evolving challenges.
Pops was a loving and inspired man. A child of the depression, WWII Veteran, and father of six, he centered his life around his family and lived the values of trust, caring, persistence and civic responsibility. Pops never attended college, but he was a voracious reader and writer. His curiosity and engagement in the world around him were infectious — including his connection to water. I remember late nights together fishing along rivers and canals in California’s San Joaquin Valley where he’d share stories about the struggles and triumphs of water in the West.
On my 18th birthday, a package arrived from Pops. Inside was a special edition of National Geographic: The Power, Promise and Turmoil of North America’s Fresh Water.
I was fascinated. The striking photos, maps and graphics depicted the complexity of what it took to move, use and manage water. The stories also highlighted the risks facing our water supply including impending scarcity, contentious water rights conflicts and pollution that left supplies undrinkable or watersheds severely impacted.
But within the stories there was also a theme of hope. Emerging science, innovation in engineering and evolving policy promised a more sustainable — if not restorative — future for this vital resource. I knew I had to be part of it. Months later, Pops dropped me off at UC Davis for my college orientation. Our water dialogue continued for years; clippings from national newspapers and magazines arrived in a steady flow, his notes in the margins. With each package, my vision to Create a Better Water Future grew clearer and more determined.
Simon Sinek has a great definition of a vision. “It’s that which cannot be seen,” a “complete figment of our imagination” yet something so aspirational that we collectively champion it with all we have. Because it’s aspirational, it’s something that could take decades or an entire lifetime to achieve. Even when we realize a huge gain toward our vision — a game changer accomplishment — we find ourself saying, “we’re just getting started.”
While my formal training is in engineering and business, I am first and foremost a passionate water leader. As water leaders, I believe we have a fundamental obligation to create a better water future; to re-imagine our relationship to water in order to protect and enhance it for future generations. But what does this mean? What will it take to create? And what role can each of us play in getting there? Here are six principles I believe are at the heart of this vision:
1. Embrace the value of water
Historically, water in the U.S. has been plentiful and inexpensive. Yet we engineered and built infrastructure based on limited information. Longer and more frequent droughts now stress our streams and reservoirs, many of which are already overallocated. A lack of responsible management has left many groundwater aquifers overdrafted. Meanwhile, seawater intrusion, salt and nutrient accumulation and widespread pollution continue to degrade water quality.
A better water future is one where every drop of water is valued, conserved, used and reused as efficiently as possible. To this end, the evolving One Water movement aims to better integrate water management. Consumer education and behavior change will also play an important role. Many communities have embraced conservation as a way of life and awareness of the importance of our local watersheds’ collective health is increasing. But how can an expansion of public education and community engagement make this mindset commonplace? We must grow awareness and appreciation for the value of our most precious resource, and how our own behavior can help create a better water future.
2. Provide equitable access to clean, safe and affordable water
According to a 2020 research report from the Guardian, from 2010 to 2018 “the combined price of water and sewage increased by an average of 80 percent” in 12 U.S. cities. As these costs continue to rise, it will be increasingly difficult to decouple the cost of water from housing affordability, particularly for vulnerable populations.
To ensure reliable and equitable access to clean, safe and affordable water, we must:
- Deploy new technologies and approaches to more effectively and sustainably use, move and manage water;
- Leverage public-private partnerships to deliver more cost-effective, transformative solutions;
- Employ an integrated approach to finance water investments at the lowest possible cost; and
- Apply best practice water rate design and rate subsidies to equitably distribute the cost of water.
3. Prioritize thriving natural systems
The modern history of U.S. water management has focused on development of water supplies for urban and agricultural use, navigation, energy production, flood protection and recreation. Environmental protection was often viewed as a constraint or added cost without quantifiable benefits.
A better water future must emphasize the connection between the health and vitality of our natural systems, and the long-term wellbeing of our cities, towns and farms. Restored and sustained natural water systems must support diverse and sustainable habitats for sensitive species in addition to providing the benefits we depend on, such as a plentiful and reliable water supply.
4. Implement potable reuse
In most urban communities across the U.S., water is used once, treated and disposed of as waste. Yet for much of the west where water is scarce, this leaves a significant opportunity on the table. According to the USEPA’s National Water Reuse Action Plan, less than 7 percent of the nation’s 33 billion gallons per day of treated wastewater is recycled. By comparison, Israel reuses approximately 87 percent of its treated wastewater, and Singapore uses recycled water to meet 30 percent of its total water demand.
Creating a better water future must include expansion of recycled water use, and widespread adoption of potable reuse. Throughout the U.S. (and the world) recycled water has, or is, being integrated into the water supply mix, helping achieve improvements in local supply reliability and resilience, particularly in the face of drought. While the use of recycled water is growing, there is still substantial opportunity to expand its use from non-potable applications (irrigation, agriculture, urban and environmental use) to potable drinking water. As water leaders, we will need to work hard to build and sustain broad public acceptance of potable reuse as a safe, reliable and sustainable water supply.
5. Bring a restorative mindset.
Much of our country’s water and wastewater infrastructure is over a century old and either reaching its end-of-life or struggling to support needs it was not designed to serve. A recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers and Value of Water Campaign, shows that the U.S. is underinvesting in its water and wastewater systems, putting American households and our economy at risk. The report finds that “as water infrastructure deteriorates and service disruptions increase, annual costs to American households due to water and wastewater failures will be seven times higher in 20 years than they are today—from $2 billion in 2019 to $14 billion by 2039.”
As we face these challenges, we need to re-imagine our water infrastructure and management practices in a way that is both sustainable and restorative. These steps will bring multiple benefits. For example, what if we prioritized carbon neutral and net energy positive water systems that provide a positive climate impact? What tools can reduce the cost of water and wastewater operations while setting the stage for water reuse? Can we envision and deliver systems that create multiple benefits, such as habitat enhancement, groundwater replenishment and watershed restoration, while continuing to invest in sustainable infrastructure?
6. Don’t go it alone
To say that water management is complicated is an understatement. Creating a better water future can’t be achieved in a silo, yet our industry has suffered from a history of fragmentation.
Water leaders will need to embrace collaborative problem solving among diverse stakeholders with varying interests, including public agencies, regulators, elected officials, funders, NGOs, private enterprise and the general public.
Effective partnerships can help us create watershed scale, win-win, multi-benefit solutions that are just, equitable and sustainable. This part of our work is both messy and unpredictable. It requires us to build trust, listen and rethink what it means to deliver value to our communities. These are not necessarily the tools we learned in our technical educations, but they just may be the most important tools we have.
There has never been a more important time for leaders to work together toward a better water future. Our communities and future generations are counting on us.
Over the next few months, WSC will be publishing a series of stories that explore our company’s Core Commitments to Creating a Better Water Future. They are: Listen to Understand, Nurture Trust, Deliver Value, and Leave It Better. If these stories resonate, we want to hear from you. Creating a better water future will take every single one of us, so let’s get to work—together!