Joint Columbia Water Center and USWP Webinar: ‘Making the Grade: How to Fix America’s Failing Water Infrastructure’
On March 21, 2014, the U.S. Water Partnership and the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute co-sponsored a webinar to discuss the state of the water infrastructure in the U.S. and how leading organizations are coming together to develop solutions to this pressing challenge. The session was moderated by Mr. Dan Bena, Senior Director of Sustainable Development, PepsiCo, who helped frame the day’s session. Mr. Bena introduced the panel by discussing the state of the U.S. water sector in terms of the human right to water. “The elements of water as a human right are in fact holistic. There is a safety component, there is a sufficiency component, there is an acceptability component, which is largely how the community interacts with those water users within the community. There is a physical accessibility component… and then the last one…affordability… is squarely in the remit of water as a human right. ” He emphasized the need to not only look at these components as water issues, but to ground them in nexus thinking.
Summaries of each presentation follow:
Dr. Upmanu Lall, Director of the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, presented a summary of the numerous challenges the U.S. water sector will face in the coming decades. Dr. Lall showed that while the absolute level of surface and groundwater withdrawals across the U.S. have stabilized since the late 1980s, regionally there are strong disparities between demand and renewable water resources. He also presented an analysis showing that the cost to repair and upgrade our water-related infrastructure (which is nearing the end of its design life) is estimated to reach at least $3 trillion dollars over the coming 40 years. Dr. Lall broadened the discussion with the question: “Should we really be just looking at replacement of what we have or should we be looking at innovative designs for a resilient urban water infrastructure?” A potential alternative the Columbia Water Center has proposed is called ‘My Water’. “The idea here is to really look at a new design for our urban water infrastructure, which relies much more on a distributed set of sources for capturing rainwater, storing it, distributing it locally, treating it, while continuing to be integrated to the larger network. This would need to be smarter, it would need to have sensors that tell you what the loads are, where the loads are, when you should supply water from where, and it would need to look at all the aspects that we currently look at for monitoring water quality at the point of use as well.”
Mr. Alan Roberson, Director of Federal Relations, American Water Works Association, discussed the financial and regulatory challenges faced by today’s water, wastewater and stormwater utilities. He shared how these utilities are balancing the costs of meeting stricter regulations while also repairing and replacing existing infrastructure. Mr. Roberson believes customers have a certain level of tolerance for increased rates if they understand what they are getting in return. “We believe that the infrastructure costs, or the infrastructure replacement costs, are likely going to be much larger than the ongoing costs of compliance…how are you going to show the benefit of these increased costs?”
Mr. Laurent Auguste, Director of Innovation and Markets, Veolia Environment, introduced three ideas that can be used to shape how we think about this issue, including infrastructure, the challenge of innovation, and also how to unlock the traditional silos of thinking. Typically the way we design and manage infrastructure is thought of in terms of the built environment. The original thinking was predicated on the construction of the system and today, however, asset management is the pressing challenge. A new dynamic is required to integrate operational and financial management of these systems with the value of ecosystem services. Mr. Auguste introduced two examples of how Veolia Environment improves system performance by partnering with utilities to provide reliable service through innovative approaches. In New York, Veolia links public utilities with institutions around the world to share best practices that can then be contextualized to New York’s conditions. Lastly, in reference to nexus thinking, Laurent mentioned, “There is actually a lot of value to be unlocked from getting out of our traditional silos, the technical silos obviously that we have in the water sector, but also in other parts of the cities…we need to think in a more circular fashion…we can think about water, energy and waste nexus as well…realizing that the silo of water and silo of energy and the silo of waste can be bridged.”
Dr. William Becker, Vice President and Drinking Water Practice Leader, Hazen and Sawyer, continued the conversation by suggesting water reuse as a closed loop solution. Dr. Becker commented that, “Water reuse isn’t new. In fact it goes on, on a daily basis. Millions of Americans drink reclaimed water. Anyone that lives in a city that takes water from a river that is downstream from another city is essentially drinking reclaimed waste water.” Water reuse can be classified as non-potable (such as in irrigation or process water), potable (such as groundwater replenishment or aquifer storage and recovery) or direct tap-to-tap solutions. In the U.S. these various options are used across the country, including Big Spring, Texas, modern construction in New York City, and also in Orange County, California. In Orange County Water District, due to over abstraction, an advanced groundwater replenishment scheme has been implemented. Reclaimed water is pumped from the southern end of the county to northern locales where the water percolates into the ground through spreading ponds. He also discussed decentralized solutions, which consist of smaller systems that treat and reuse water locally, resulting in energy and water conservation.
Ms. Gretchen McClain, Former Chief Executive Officer, Xylem Inc., shared advice about what technology and innovation is needed. She stressed that any new concept or technology requires an integrated resource approach. Ms. McClain emphasized that (1) many solutions and technologies already exist and just need to be deployed and (2) the water sector should cut across silos to create new technological solutions. The future role of technology within the water sector included notions that infrastructure should be cheaper, backward compatible with the existing system, driven and managed by data across platforms/organizations for true optimization, scalable with valid business models, lower in energy and costs, and compatible with point-of-use collection/treatment/storage/reuse. “Point-of-use is really a keen example of smarter and better and greener. Here you are addressing the need at a location, decentralized from our existing infrastructure. And allowing us to make sure that we have all of the water needed for the operations (onsite).”
As the U.S. water sector begins to grapple with the issues of an aging infrastructure, it is crucial that all parties, consumers, utilities, regulators, and technology companies address the challenges together. Business as usual is no longer a viable option. Both the Columbia Water Center and the U.S. Water Partnership are keen to help foster this conversation and to create those partnerships required to address this rapidly emerging crisis.