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It’s Time for a Collaborative Approach to Water Sustainability

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By Ralph Eberts

Twenty years ago the United Nations designated March 22nd as World Water Day. Once thought to focus exclusively on the plight of the developing world, mounting evidence shows that across the United States, addressing water scarcity and access challenges requires continued collaborative action.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, this year 36 state water managers expect water shortages to impact their populations. This issue is compounded by aging water infrastructure in many parts of the country that leak copious amounts of water each day. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” (2009) estimates the amount of clean drinking water lost in transit between often stressed sources and customer taps stands at 7 billion gallons per year. That is enough water to supply 22 gallons for every person living in the United States.

Yet, in many senses, U.S. water and wastewater infrastructure suffers from an image crisis. Despite widespread acknowledgement that water is the most important natural resource on the planet, outside of natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, we often don’t give it much thought. In most parts of the U.S., customers go to the faucet and safe, potable drinking water is immediately available.

Unfortunately, the impacts of climate change cannot be ignored by water utility service providers, nor should it be by customers, both residential and commercial. Last year’s historic heat wave: a persistent 12-year drought across the Southwest, record droughts in Texas, the Great Plains and the American Southeast are forcing all parties to view our relationship with water in a new light.

Consider this: the World Water Organization reports that the average American uses between 100-176 gallons of water per day. In the United Kingdom, the average person uses 40 gallons per day. In Kenya, the figure shrinks to thirteen. Conservation and access must become part of the daily conversation.

Here in the U.S., we are certainly aware of the global water crisis and experts frequently cite statistics about far-flung locales. So what is to be done? As service providers, we work with the organizations, utilities, municipalities, and regulators who are tasked with ensuring that future generations have access to water and are educated about the value of sustainability.

This work is not without its challenges. Planning for current and future water shortages requires a new set of tools to look at possible scenarios of water supply and demand while incorporating the full range of economic impacts of a changing climate. The solutions must address the needs and protect all interests, including agriculture and business. Investors must be assured of return and innovation must play a role.

Challenges aside, cooperation works. For example, officials in the Colorado River Basin, which serves over 35 million people in the region, are exploring supply and sustainability solutions using a collective approach. In light of recent drought and population growth, the U.S. Bureau Department of the Interior’s 2012 “Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study” mentions that the seven states that border the river are working together to implement plans that will be able to cover a projected 3 million acre-feet supply deficit by combinations of conservation, reuse, and desalting, along with a full range of other innovative options. In the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint River basins, located in the Southeastern United States, stakeholders are approaching water conservation issues through consensus building.

Legislators too are realizing the value of partnerships. At the federal level, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) would encourage public-private partnerships via a $250 million appropriations fund that could be used to finance water projects. Four states, Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, and Massachusetts are exploring similar water project funding initiatives. Regulatory initiatives like the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) WaterSense Program encourages consumer efficiency by promoting products and practices and links to utilities that offer rebates to program participants.

The private sector is on board as well. Private equity firm Alinda Capital Partners makes investing in water supply projects a priority citing potential for, “steady, growing, and predictable cash flow.” Investor-owned utilities like American Water are using metering software to help consumers monitor and increase awareness of their consumption.

It is often said that perception is reality. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude that World Water Day is meant only to highlight the needs of “places that are not the U.S.” obscures a dire reality. The good news is that the stakeholders across the country are working together to address the emerging U.S. water crisis. These efforts, supplemented with clear leadership by those who prioritize water and understand its value will help drive change. It is imperative that the industry and its stakeholders share experiences, knowledge and best practices, and seek out new ways to unlock innovation at every stage. We should all work together so that in 2014, World Water Day will celebrate progress.

Ralph Eberts, is the Executive Vice President of Black & Veatch’s global water business. With $3.3 billion in revenue, Black & Veatch is an employee-owned company with more than 100 offices worldwide and has completed projects in more than 100 countries on six continents.