By Cindy Wallis-Lage
Water is both a resource and a challenge.
As an optimist — a trait I think I share with many water leaders — I see opportunities and potential solutions when I look at challenges facing the water industry. Leaders in any field tend to have special vision that enables them to see beyond challenges to positive outcomes.
At the macro level, population growth, urbanization, arid climates, climate changes (including more drought and flooding, often in the same geography), and customer expectations for 24/7 delivery of a safe drinking water are consistent global issues.
At the utility level, asset maintenance/management, customer rates, financial viability, maintaining service with limited resources, and water conservation/demand management were top concerns cited in the Black & Veatch 2016 Strategic Directions: Water Industry Report, based on responses from 358 survey participants. Most of these concerns also topped the list in previous years. The U.S. water sector is firmly planted at the crossroads of cost and customer expectation.
The issues are daunting even for optimists. But water industry leaders are rising admirably to the challenges through wider collaboration, pervasive innovation and better customer communications.
Collaboration enables us to tackle common challenges from a position of strength. Together, we can generate, evaluate and perfect solutions to prevailing problems. Meaningful collaboration among water leaders from governments and government agencies, utilities, organizations, financiers, solutions providers, end-users and even infrastructure leaders outside the water industry can yield fresh ideas and adaptation opportunities.
One example of a successful collaboration is the former U.S. EPA deputy director who acknowledged that the agency had become a barrier to improved outcomes and consequently initiated a multi-stakeholder discussion about how it could become more of an enabler than a blocker.
Multiple water-focused, industry-leading organizations and events provide international platforms to develop and disperse water solutions and integrate diverse thinking to generate solutions. My company knows firsthand the value of sharing information among infrastructure industries; water, telecom and energy sectors have parallel challenges and much to offer each other.
“Business as usual” is a contradiction in terms. Even with the best roadmap, we all have to allow for changing conditions. It’s hard for companies responsible to stockholders to take risks and especially hard for utilities responsible to rate-payers or taxpayers to take risks. But by not taking risks for fear of failure, we risk more than we realize. In the end, the real failure is falling behind by remaining stagnant and failing to learn from occasional mistakes as we embrace innovation.
In one of his blogs, George Hawkins, CEO and general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), noted that DC Water “is a prime example of how the water utility sector is moving faster than ever before and taking calculated risks to achieve and provide cheaper, faster and more effective services.” With its own research department, DC Water is committed to innovation. Relatively few utilities have such resources, but any entity can build a culture that encourages and seeks out new solutions through collaboration with universities, research foundations, and others. Larger utilities generally seek to share innovation successes and lessons learned through conferences, publications, and websites.
The program for the 2017 AWWA/WEF Utility Management Conference featured many presentations devoted to fostering an innovative culture. Innovation in the water industry applies to financing, program and project delivery, and asset and information management as well as technology. Two emerging practices that merit special mention are public-private partnerships, which pair the public need for upgraded systems with private-investor capital, and performance contracts/ESPCs, through which utilities can cover the cost of improvements projects through annual energy and operational cost savings.
Headlines when water providers experience system failures or water shortages and/or are unable to protect public health provide a catalyst for publicly engaging customers about the pricing and value of water, alternative water supply strategies such as reuse and desalination, and the stress that deferring maintenance places on local infrastructure. No one welcomes a crisis, but a crisis can open eyes and minds to the important roles that resilient water resource strategies and robust infrastructure play in delivering sustainable water solutions and defining the value of water.
Water providers in regions with too little water or with water of insufficient quality especially need to engage customers in dialogue about reuse. Industrial reuse and use of alternative supplies for irrigation are established, but it’s time to proactively educate customers and honestly address concerns about health issues and risk related to direct potable reuse. Many utility leaders in states like California began this process long ago. It’s also crucial to help customers understand why conserving water doesn’t necessarily result in a lower bill, due to the fixed costs associated with water management and service. Many people don’t realize that the price they pay for this precious resource has been artificially low and now it’s essential to pay the piper.
Those of us working every day in the water industry understand the critical influence water has in creating strong economies and quality of life for communities. We understand the power of one drop and the ripple effect of not valuing that drop. It is incumbent on us all to collaborate, innovate and communicate — within and especially outside our industry — to create sustainable water systems.
Cindy Wallis-Lage is president of Black & Veatch’s water business, leading the company’s water-related engineering, construction, design-build and consulting and providing solutions to address water infrastructure needs at the global level. She joined the Black & Veatch board of directors in 2012 and serves on the board of directors for the US Water Alliance and the WateReuse Association.