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Redefining Water Infrastructure for the 21st Century

Most of us think of water and wastewater infrastructure as consisting of big pipes, treatment plants and reservoirs. Few of us recognize the importance of our natural infrastructure — the forests, wetlands, flood plains and grassy, permeable landscapes, which filter and purify water for humans, provide habitat for fish and wildlife, and mitigate hot summers in city and town. Our natural landscape provides us with the most cost-effective and efficient system for recycling, reusing and filtering water.[IMGCAP(1)]We do not adequately recognize landscapes and natural resources as critical components of our water infrastructure in this nation. Further, we’ve long viewed water as a bulk commodity apart from a complex system of management, information and financing that delivers it to our taps and faucets.This way of thinking has to change. Our infrastructure is aging. We pay relatively low water rates, which fail to cover the full value or cost of clean and safe water. We are losing more undeveloped land each year along with its trees, shrubs and grasses and are replacing it with impervious surfaces — roofs, roads, parking lots — that allow pollution to be carried off into our waters. We find ourselves in a changing climate, whatever the cause, bringing with it chaotic weather patterns including droughts in some places and greater precipitation and polluted runoff in others.This week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will begin a series of hearings looking at the need for increased investment in water and wastewater infrastructure. Meanwhile, another group of leaders, experts and stakeholders, this writer among them, is endeavoring to redefine the concept of sustainable water infrastructure and outline a new template for effective management of water utilities. Our group, convened under the auspices of The Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Sustainable Water Infrastructure in the United States, has identified a sustainable path forward to meet the challenges to improved water quality in the 21st century.Our redefinition is a movement toward a much more holistic view of the water delivery system in this country. As water utilities and government entities around the country look at improving, upgrading, and replacing hard structures and built infrastructure, we urge them to recognize the protection and restoration of the natural watershed as a critical way to improve water delivery in this nation. We also urge them to utilize emerging small-scale water technologies and management solutions that conserve water and energy on both the treatment side and the consumer side.We are also urging national leaders to consider the natural water cycle when considering water infrastructure costs and improvements. Thinking about the way water moves through plants and soil and air, as opposed to gutters and drains and concrete, and in turn adopting green and low-impact development techniques, such as urban reforestation programs and green-roof and rain-garden projects, can ensure reliability and resilience of our water resources.Additionally, water and wastewater utilities must lead in building the necessary partnerships, among public, private, and nonprofit sectors, to implement integrated water resources planning and management, excelling at transparency in governance and operation, public outreach and consultation, asset and workforce management, and adaptation to and mitigation of climate change.Utility and system managers, governing boards, and regulators must also ensure that the price of water services fairly reflects their full value to human health and the environment and recovers the cost of maintaining, operating and replacing this invaluable infrastructure. They must address the needs of low-income customers through equitable rate design and, where necessary, direct subsidies.Small systems present a unique challenge for federal and state agencies. Of the approximately 53,000 community water suppliers in America, 8 percent serve 82 percent of our population. Smaller entities should consider low-cost loans, consolidation, regionalization and centralized financial and management systems.We also believe that the federal government’s role is to make strategic investments in new green and low-impact development approaches; water and energy efficiency; climate change adaptation; assistance to low-income or distressed customers; and research, development and demonstration projects for integrated watershed management.Overall, there are many ways to view water infrastructure holistically and sustainably — in fact, our group identified 20 abiding principles of environmental, economic, and social sustainability in water infrastructure — but regardless of the exact route, we return to this central thought: Utilities need to lead and manage this redefined infrastructure, again, on a watershed basis. By concentrating on how water cycles through watersheds, and by implementing practices that better protect freshwater resources, it will be easier and ultimately less expensive to treat and deliver clean and safe water.G. Tracy Mehan III, a participant in The Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Sustainable Water Infrastructure in the U.S., was assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency and is currently a principal with The Cadmus Group Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Arlington, Va. A copy of this report can be accessed here.