America’s Water Initiative - A Roadmap For Solving Today’s Water Challenges


  • William Becker PhD - Hazen and Sawyer

Sustained growth in global demand for electricity is expected in the coming decades, contributing to the need for a broader approach to addressing challenges.

Over the coming 40-year period, repair and replacement needs are expected to exceed $1.7 trillion. Replacement needs account for about 54% of the national total, with about 46% attributable to population growth and migration over that period.

The 2017 AWWA State of the Water Industry survey shows costs and financing are major concerns for utilities regardless of location.

An overview of the trends and drivers shaping water regulation.

Ratio of Revenue to Operating Expenses, 2012 (Courtesy of Maura C Allaire, Columbia Water Center). Many utilities fail to cover annual costs (operation & maintenance) due to low water rates, declining per capita use, and future capital needs.

Given the emerging trends on urbanization, energy, climate change, and water availability, a new model for urban water infrastructure for the 21st century is needed. A concept being explored by a Columbia University team led by doctoral student Adam Atia is to utilize a flexible, renewable-powered, variable-salinity reverse osmosis desalination system.

Water utilities throughout the United States are facing many challenges. While the specific challenges are often region-specific, they include:

· Increasing population and dwindling water supplies.

· Declining revenue due to decreasing demands throughout the country.

· Coping with climate change and more frequent extreme weather events.

· Aging infrastructure and increasing costs of operations.

· New regulations and water quality concerns.

· And many others.

These challenges have historically been addressed at the local utility level, but given the complexities of the issues and the limited financial resources of today’s world, a broader view is needed. The purpose of this paper is to present results from a multi-year project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (and others) designed to address these challenges on a national level.

The Columbia Water Center’s America’s Water Initiative is in its third year. Two symposiums, several working group discussions, and surveys of water stakeholders have been conducted over the past two years. Experts from all areas of the water sector: water supply, water quality, infrastructure, utility management, manufacturers, and finance have participated. The experts were from academia, water utilities, consulting firms, regulatory agencies, professional organizations, nonprofit organizations, and government.

The purpose of the Roadmap is to outline solutions for addressing the following big picture questions:

· Cities: Given the emerging trends on urbanization, energy, climate change, and water availability, what should be the model for urban water infrastructure for the 21st century?

· National: What would be the key elements of a national water policy and investment framework that addresses issues central to sustainable development of resources, and collective action?

· Climate: What is a strategy for systematically addressing the major emerging climate risks at the urban and at the national scales?

· Technology: What are the emerging technologies that could transform water and wastewater treatment and facilitate a new model for infrastructure development? How can their development be stimulated?

· Water Markets: is there a place for potential transfers/credits with the agricultural sector to improve water availability or quality?

· Finance/Utility Management: What management structures are most successful for ensuring a sustainable water system capable of delivering safe water? What finance models are most successful?

Results from the symposiums and surveys are being synthesized into a “Roadmap” for politicians and policy makers. The roadmap covers issues regarding engineering, policy/water rights, infrastructure investment, utility management structure, and research needs. The Roadmap will ultimately be presented to the administration and the National Governors’ Association. These results of the Roadmap will be presented in this paper along with recommendations to the water industry on suggested actions.

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