Seven Ideas on the Future of Water - Plus 1
Updated: Nov 6
David LaFrance, the Executive Director of the American Water Works Association, asked me to speak to the GM’s Dinner at AWWA ACE. His charge: imagine the future of water, even if some of that future seems impossible today.
To prepare, I read each of the five reports that comprise AWWA's excellent series on Water 2050. More than a hundred leaders in the water sector participated in five multi-day sessions at locations across the country and produced an excellent series: https://www.awwa.org/Resources-Tools/Water-2050
I had a hard time narrowing down the scope of my talk - mindful too that David asked me to speak for only 15 minutes. (I know, that is hard for me!) In that context, I decided to focus on technology and governance issues - knowing that people and diversity are a essential foundation of every topic I raise.
So here goes:
1. Trust. In the future, people will be able to see the quality of the water at their tap in real time.
In 2020 Americans spent $36 billion for retail water that is available from a utility for pennies to the gallon. This unbelievable number reminded me of the hardest question I fielded from the public, “Is my water safe?”
I could not give a clear answer. A utility knows the quality of the water at the treatment plant and in the distribution system. But we do not regularly test at the tap, and even when we do, it only tells us the quality of the water at that moment.
Public support for water systems comes from trust. Priority 1 is a sensor at the tap that provides clear information about the quality of the water. Once people trust their water or know immediately if there is a problem and how to solve it, they can both save much of that $36 billion and be persuaded to invest some of it in the system.
2. Chemical Responsibility. In the future, we need to be able to charge the producers of chemicals for the cost of treatment.
The estimate to clean up PFAS in Minnesota is $14-28 billion, which is just one state, and one chemical, of a long list of emerging contaminants. There are hundreds of chemicals introduced to the environment by companies using them. The public, through water bills, often end up holding the bag for the cost of removing them.
Utilities need to “bill” the right parties to internalize this cost into the price of a product. Priority 2 is some sort of block-chain mechanism (OK, I am out of my league here) that can tag chemicals at the molecular level by the user. Then when the chemical arrives at a treatment plant a sensor can identify the user and generate a bill.
3. Watershed Responsibility. In the future, public funding must be allocated to the highest risk sources.
Urban populations must pay for the cost of treating their waste, yet similar waste from agricultural and other non-point sources, often in larger quantities, are often discharged untreated. We will not achieve water quality in watersheds and the oceans unless every source of pollutant is addressed.
Priority 3 is to deploy sensors across watersheds that identify every source and quantity of pollutants into a working model. Everyone can then pay into a fund that is guided by the model to direct funds where the most pollutant reductions can be accomplished. Simple fairness will yield success.
4. Cost and Benefit. In the future, we should be able to charge some customers for the benefit that water delivers.
We often hear that housing and economic development will not happen without access to water or the management of flooding. To enable investments to build sophisticated water reuse and stormwater infrastructure, commercial enterprises that gain economic opportunity from this investment should return some of that benefit to help ensure these services are affordable to the community.
Companies (and people) often pay for commodities not based on cost, but on their perceived benefit. Doing so for water for key customers will help generate jobs, build homes, and keep rates affordable.
5. Everyone, Everywhere. In the future, every lot, building, family, and business will be part an active part of the water system.
No matter how much we infrastructure we build, more frequent extremes in the water cycle will require engagement by everyone – to capture stormwater for use and to reduce flooding and to reuse water with on-site levels of treatment to help ensure supply during droughts. Rather than water being “hidden,” people will become integral parts of managing water issues in their communities.
6. Professional. In the future, water systems will be managed and governed by professionals.
Thousands of water systems are governed by political bodies that are unfamiliar with technical needs and making financial decisions based on politic cycles. Parallel infrastructure agencies are governed by subject experts and have rates overseen by professional commissions. Whether public or private, water utilities need to be managed by experts and overseen by professional commissions.
7. One Water. In the future, people will benefit from these upgrades no matter where they live.
Future advances will cost money to create, design, implement and manage. The risk is that our countries will further divide into places that can afford these changes, and those that can’t. The effort to ensure everyone has access to clean water will require a range of parallel improvements including cooperative sharing of technologies and expert operators, regionalization or consolidation of small systems and a network of advisors to help communities gain access to knowledge and funding.
8. Water and Energy. (I am embarrassed I did not have this on my original list.)
At DC Water, our largest expense after personnel was for energy – because water and wastewater is so heavy to move from source to user and back again, and then through each stage of treatment. Moreover, aeration is a huge part of drinking water and wastewater treatment – which also requires huge expenditures on power. On the other side, power generating requires enormous sources of water – either for steam and cooling, or for hydropower generation itself.
In the future, every water utility will become a significant source of “base load” renewable energy from biosolids, falling water, sewer thermal, solar generation (think large open areas in urban locations with no shade – i.e. treatment plants) and more. Every utility will have a comprehensive plan to reduce energy use in every step of the process - saving money and power. Water utilities will help solve improve our carbon footprint while helping to make clean water more affordable for ratepayers.