America’s Water Events

Americas’ Water: When Global Challenges Hit Home

On March 23, 2017, the Columbia Water Center hosted its fourth annual workshop on the future of water in America, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.  This year’s event, Americas’ Water: When Global Challenges Hit Home, jointly hosted by the international organization WaterAid, brought together academia, NGOs, corporations and government agencies to discuss innovation and new technologies and disaster preparedness across the American continent both here in North America as well as South America. Over 100 business leaders, policy experts, investors and researchers discussed solutions to these problems, with the hope that these important conversations will lead the two American continents to a sustainable water future and provide a model for other countries in the world to follow.

After a brief introduction, Upmanu Lall, the director of the Columbia Water Center, first outlined the goals of the day’s workshop before giving the floor to the first keynote speaker, the President of Columbia University, Lee C. Bollinger. President Bollinger spoke about the challenges faced by today’s society in the areas of communication and democracy, and how universities must reform themselves, partner with world actors, and commit to provide the necessary resources and faculty to advance fundamental research in the realm of water. Bollinger emphasized the necessity to partner with outside entities from the beginning and see projects through to fruition to really effect change. He noted that:

“..everyone in the room can say there are problems. Income inequality, problems of droughts, problems of global warming, problems of this and that, all of us can identify those. That’s great, but the goal here is to say we’re going to identify problems that we can actually contribute to solving and solving them in a discrete period of time.”

The second keynote speaker of the day was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the President of Peru. In a prerecorded video, President Kuczynski discussed what is needed to preserve water quality and prevent further flooding and other disasters that have recently plagued Peru and its citizens. Lall summarizes Kuczynski’s address by saying:

“You can see why of all of the world leaders we are very happy to have the president of Peru talk because in a few minutes he captured the essence of all the issues that one has to deal with on water and is clearly signaling that they are intending to make serious progress on this issue.”

Finally, Dr. Lall emphasized the decay of U.S. dams and levees, discussed the growing need for new infrastructure designs that deal with climate, changing energy platforms, and globalization.


There were two panel groups during the day both moderated by Andrew Revkin, senior reporter for ProPublica. The first panel discussed issues of sustainability, water, and climate, and the necessary allocation, infrastructure development, and investment in each of those areas. Panelists included Marc Robert, Water Asset Management, Jeffrey Lape, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Christopher Neale, Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute. The panel covered topics of water laws based on physical water processes, adequate metering, transparency of water costs, rebranding of waste water treatment, the role of academia in reframing the water problem as a solution game rather than a blame game and suitable measures for economic productivity to inform the valuation of water.


The key focus of panel 2 was to consider active strategies for climate, ecology, and socioeconomic disaster preparedness and resilience in the Americas for water using key financial instruments. This group included Mark Bove, MunichRe, Sarina Prabasi, WaterAid, Irwin Redlener, National Center for Disaster Preparedness, and Patrick Schultz, Veolia, contributing to the conversation. The panel covered topics of the insurance sectors’ lack of data to price flood risks, they need more than knowing what zones are more or less susceptible, should polluters be required to carry insurance for the catastrophic risk of disaster, the need to get insurers to insure reservoirs based on climate projections, and so on and that resiliency has translated into bigger walls to keep water out in many areas.

Prabasi spoke about WaterAid’s mission to serve the worlds poorest and most vulnerable people and explained how the issues for water security are really not here and there, but are global issues effecting not only the U.S but developing countries as well. She summarizes the focus of the panel by explaining WaterAid’s work as such:

“Without locally based infrastructure and skills and solutions, and without options for employment, there is no resilience. Our approach is very much about strengthening the community. While our focus is on water, sanitation and hygiene, for that to really be a long-term sustainable thing, it has to be integrated and owned and it has to provide options and livelihood for people who are involved in it.”


The event participants were tasked with answering several questions to help shed light onto the various issues presented during the panel talks.  The questions ranged from topics on investment in water infrastructure, how to assure that the human right to water at a reasonable cost can be preserved and how financial risk management instruments improve preparation and response to climate and water related disasters. The discussion concluded with a recognition that a sustainable water future for the Americas’ entails innovation in key areas including accruing more data to understand what the root causes of the water crisis are, the mixing of financial instruments, public, and private sectors together is vital in order to complete any project or find solutions and that the water sector must unite and modernize to effect significant change.

The event concluded with a group discussion and final remarks.




America’s Water: Innovation at Work

On March 25, 2016 the Columbia Water Center hosted its third annual national workshop on the future of water in America.  This year’s event, America’s Water: Innovation at Work, focused on three prominent themes facing water in America today – water infrastructure, financing water projects and the future of water utilities. This one-day event brought together over 100 business leaders, policy experts, investors and researchers who discussed solutions to these problems and the need to develop a water roadmap for the next 30 years that leads us to a sustainable water future and provides a model for other countries in the world.


Water Center director, Upmanu Lall, opened the event by addressing the grave situation of water in America today. He went on to introduce keynote speaker Ali Zaidi the OMB Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy, and Science at The White House. Zaidi spoke about the path to progress the U.S. must make to diminish water risks.

Click here to watch the opening remarks and keynote address

There were two panels during the morning presentations that focused on the need to consider the important linkage between urban and regional water systems. The first panel was comprised of Christine BoyleValor Water Analytics, Albert Cho, Xylem, Pramod Khargonekar, National Science Foundation, Ed Rightor, Dow Chemical. William Becker from Hazen and Sawyer led this conversation as the specialists used their industry expertise to focus on driving innovation to secure water resources.

Click here to watch panel 1

The key focus of panel 2 was to communicate America’s opportunities to encourage policy reform. This group had Brett Walton, Circle of Blue, Mary Ann Dickinson, Alliance for Water Efficiency, Lynn Broaddus, Broadview Collaborative, Inc., Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute contributing to the conversation. The discussion was led by Jon Freedman from GE.

Click here to watch panel 2

After the morning session concluded, an interdisciplinary group of experts continued the conversation as teams. They were tasked with answering several questions to help shed light onto the various issues everyone was grappling with during the morning.  The day’s discussion concluded  with a recognition that a sustainable water future for the U.S. entails innovation in:

  1. Instruments for financing water infrastructure
  2. Utilizing existing and emerging technologies towards an integrated “One Water” view of water infrastructure
  3. Addressing fragmentation in the industry and creating opportunities for more efficiency
  4. Resilient systems design, operation, and management, learning from the energy sector, and addressing climate risks

To keep the momentum, the Columbia Water Center has brought onboard a core group of 6 experts for the America’s Water Steering Committee to help drive the development of an America’s Water roadmap. To develop a water roadmap we will consider regional and nationwide characteristics, investment goals on a federal, state and citizen scale, legal and regulatory reforms, implementation of measures to ensure operational efficiency and risk reduction, and societal benefits. The scope of this agenda requires close collaboration between federal agencies and local partners, a better exchange of ideas and data sharing between utilities and academic communities, and engagement of the entire water community. As a start, Columbia Water Center researchers are creating an outline from which the steering committee will establish a time line and deliverables for actionable change.


America’s Water: Partnering Science with Industry to Find a Way Forward 

On March 12th 2015, more than 90 experts from industry, academia, environmental state agencies and the non-profit world met at Columbia University for the first annual “America’s Water” event, organized by the Columbia Water Center and sponsored by the PepsiCo Foundation, to explore America’s water challenges and develop a future plan for collaboration.

Watch video of the event.

Leading off the discussion, Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center, made the case for both risks and opportunities in addressing water challenges, arguing that by solving America’s Water, we can create models and spark innovation that could be used around the world, a point that was echoed by Dan Bena, senior director of operations development at PepsiCo.

Throughout the day, participants listened to panel discussions outlining the scope and nature of Americas Water issues, and discussed various options for addressing them.

Among the diverse group, there was significant consensus that while technological solutions to water challenges exist or can be developed, what is most needed is policy and governance changes and most especially, changes in the way that we value and price water.

Read more about the event at the State of the Planet.


America’s Water: Renewing Our Aging Infrastructure 

On Wednesday, October 23, 2013, the first session in the 2013-2014 Sustainable Development Seminar Series offered diverse perspectives and discussion on the needs and implementation challenges necessary for new sustainable infrastructure on a global level.

The speakers at the event were:

Daniel Bena, Senior Director of Sustainable Development, Pepsico

Upmanu Lall, Director, Columbia Water Center, the Earth Institute, Columbia University, Senior Research Scientist, International Research Institute for Climate and Society, the Earth Institute, Columbia University, Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor, Earth and Environmental Engineering, Civil Engineering, Engineering Mechanics, Columbia University

Peter Schlosser, Vinton Professor of Earth & Environmental Engineering, Professor, Earth & Environmental Sciences, Deputy Director and Director of Research, Earth Institute, Columbia University

Jeffry Sterba, President and Chief Executive Officer, American Water


America’s Water in a Global Context 


On March 28, 2013 the Columbia Water Center hosted, ‘America’s Water in a Global Context’ looked at ways in which America can provide global leadership towards addressing the critical problems we face assuring water for people and the environment. The discussion focused on managing the total urban water cycle as well as the risks and opportunities for water systems.

Water is emerging as a major global risk and is listed by the World Economic Forum as one of the most likely and most impactful risk factors over the next ten years.  Our hope was to provide a platform for America’s businesses and universities to innovate 21st century solutions that address local and global water problems. The panelists discussed how aspects of water risk can be mapped specifically to cities, companies, and their supply chains.  The first panel focused on the issues associated with urban water development such as funding R&D and green infrastructure.  The second panel discussed the value of water, the role governments and the financial community play in regulation and water research, and water’s broad impact on society and economic development.