The Ever-Present Value of Water

Editor’s Note: If there’s one person who can speak to the evolving perception of how we value water, it has to be Radhika Fox. Fox’s recent work with the Value of Water Coalition has led her to be recognized as an outspoken industry advocate on the subject. She was recently named as the new president of the U.S. Water Alliance, officially beginning the role in September. At the time of this issue’s publication, she was involved with several public speaking obligations, including our first Water Finance Conference in early September. We caught up with Radhika after the conference to chat about the value of water and upcoming activities of her two organizations.

Going back to the beginning of your career, what was it about the water sector that appealed to you?

I’ve always worked on infrastructure related issues ? housing, transportation, broadband. How infrastructure can connect us, give us a sense of place and build a stronger community is fascinating to me.

When I first joined the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC)four years ago as its Policy and Government Affairs director, I was drawn to the agency because I lived in the Bay Area and the SFPUC was making some of the biggest capital investments in the region. So I came to water because I was interested in the hard infrastructure projects, but then fell in love with all the dimensions of water and how it’s essential to building strong cities and regions.

I also love that the water sector can bring benefits to communities beyond water service. Great water providers are also great community partners. They make neighborhoods stronger, they create jobs, they fuel economic development and they can help lift up the most vulnerable among us.

You’ve now officially taken over as president of the US Water Alliance. What piqued your interest in the position?

The U.S. Water Alliance is dedicated to advancing a ‘one water’ framework. To me, one water is about recognizing that all water has value ?drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and greywater alike. And then, it is about managing these resources in a way that maximizes the economic, environmental and community benefit.

The Alliance has a holistic vision for water and a mission that is so inspiring and unique in the water sector, it absolutely felt like the right place for me to be. I was already really enjoying my time as the director of the Value of Water Coalition, which the U.S. Water Alliance organizes and staffs. The Coalition is focused on raising awareness among stakeholders and the public about the challenges facing our water infrastructure, with an eye towards bringing people together. Both the Alliance and the Coalition are rooted in collaboration, which is in my DNA. Throughout my career, I’ve found that positive change happens through productive collaboration, so that was a primary reason I was drawn to the Alliance.

What excites you most about the Alliance’s initiatives?

I want the U.S. Water Alliance to be a neutral broker, convener and connector that brings together the water sector, and beyond, to address thorny issues. We are stronger together. With that in mind, I?m focused on three main priorities:

First, the Value of Water Coalition. It will continue to be a priority for the Alliance because it is an unprecedented collaborator and has a track record of success. The Coalition has placed high-impact media pieces, increased its social media engagement and developed a popular toolkit for the sector in the last six months. We’re looking forward to continuing the conversation across and beyond the sector. ?

Second, I want to help advance the adoption and scaling of one water approaches, or integrated water management. Some Alliance members have told me about issues they want us to work on, including dialogues about nutrients in the Mississippi River basin, emerging business models in the water sector, challenges and opportunities facing smaller communities, advancing a sustainability platform for cities with water as the lynchpin strategy, and more.

Finally, I want the Alliance to celebrate what’s working. One water is a paradigm shift and its hard work for local leaders who are implementing these approaches. We want to tell the story of what is working. In addition to our Water Prize, we’re going to roll out other mechanisms for story telling for the benefit of the industry.

You sort of answered our next question, but will you still continue your role as director of the Value of Water Coalition?

Absolutely. I’ve loved serving as the director and I’m so proud of the work we’re doing with our coalition partners. I’ll continue to oversee the strategic direction of the Coalition. As I said before, collaboration is in my DNA and is the foundation of the U.S. Water Alliance’s mission. There are so many synergies between the Alliance and Coalition, it is important to maximize the collaboration. I have no doubt that we are stronger together.

The Coalition is all about communicating the importance of drinking water/clean wastewater and how it’s essential to quality of life. Do you think public perception is changing in those areas?

Yes and no. I think that with the epic drought in the national headlines on a daily basis, I do think people are thinking about water more, but I think it’s episodic. If we have big rains this winter, will it fall of the radar of public consciousness? The truth is, changing public perception is a long-term endeavor. Regardless of if drought leads the news, we need a cultural shift in how we connect to and appreciate our most valuable resource.

There is also an important distinction between the national public perception and what is happening at the local level. At the local level, we have public utilities that are educating and engaging with their customers in very creative and impactful ways. It’s a great trend and it engenders pride in local water and wastewater systems. This was certainly my personal experience at the SFPUC. Once people understand where their water comes from, where it goes after it’s used and the amazing systems that make it happen, they have a real sense of ownership and pride.

The Value of Water Coalition’s strength comes from our members, including the public utilities that are doing great work in communities like Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco and more. The Coalition’s job is to help knit together a national narrative and raise awareness informed by this local work.

The U.S. Water Alliance is somewhat unique in that its initiatives are broad and not just focused on one area of water. What are some of the future goals of the Alliance in promoting that ?one water? vision?

I’ve been working with the Alliance board, members and staff to develop five programmatic areas that we will focus on in the coming year to help promote our one water vision, including:

One, we’re working on a collaborative mechanism for one water leaders who are driving a sustainability agenda at the city/regional scale to converge, and move, progressive change agendas.

Along with several coalition members, we will convene dialogues to discuss a new concept: a watershed protection utility. The idea is a new finance and governance entity at the state (or multi-state) scale to advance state nutrient strategies with the support of all clean water constituencies.

We are going to host listening sessions with C-Suite leaders of water-reliant sectors of the economy. Better understanding how the business community views and values water is critical to our work.

We will be pushing the conversation on how to finance water service and will be exploring the ?new? business model for water.

We spoke earlier this summer about Ken Kirk from NACWA and your working relationship with him over the last couple years, initiatives between NACWA/VoWC, etc. Can you tell us more about how relationships like that have helped your understanding of this industry?

Ken is an exceptional leader. His 30 years of service in the water industry has helped usher in a whole new era of progress. As grateful as I am for his past contributions, I’m equally excited to see what he takes on next. He is just terrific!

In terms of working within the Value of Water Coalition, NACWA has been an invaluable partner. Their knowledge of what wastewater utilities are focused on helps us better understand priorities and challenges for the sector. Likewise, AMWA helps inform us on what the drinking water community is focused on. WEF, AWWA, NAWC have all been great partners in the Coalition as well, really bringing together a depth of knowledge and breadth of representation across our sector. From all of them, I’ve learned first-hand about the power of collaboration.

You have a background dealing with policy and government affairs issues for public utilities, as well as working with infrastructure investment issues. I’m wondering how you feel about the future of municipal water/wastewater project funding. What are going to be the biggest challenges?

This has been the topic du jour at a number of conferences I’ve attended recently, including our own One Water Leadership Summit. How are we going to pay for this? It affects communities with aging systems, which is almost everyone, and especially those grappling with the impact of conservation on the revenue base. We need to explore new approaches to financing ? creativity is critical for modernizing our aging water and wastewater systems.?

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