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One Water Summit Showcases Innovative Solutions to 21st Century Water Challenges

By Jon Honeck, GOPC Senior Policy Fellow The U.S. Water Alliance is a coalition of water utilities, environmental engineering organizations, nonprofits, academics, and other groups interested in raising public awareness of challenges facing the U.S. water supply.  The group held its “One Water Summit 2016” in Atlanta, GA, in June, attended by GOPC Senior Policy Fellow Jon Honeck.  GOPC is engaged in a multi-year project to address water and sewer infrastructure needs in Ohio. 

Conference programming reflected the diversity of water-related challenges across the country.  Panelists at the opening plenary session discussed Atlanta’s attempt to address water supply and water quality issues brought about by decades of population growth, sprawl, and more recently, climate change.  The Atlanta metropolitan planning commission took the lead by integrating water with land use and transportation planning.  With changes in water pricing to promote conservation, the Atlanta metro region achieved a 10% water consumption decline in spite of population growth.   Water audits are now required for buildings with 25,000 ft2.  The Atlanta PACE program (Property Assessed Clean Energy) can provide commercial loans for water and clean energy efficiency that are paid back through property tax assessments.  Current efforts are aimed at improving water quality through green infrastructure.  The Turner Foundation is a major driver of this effort and a regional green infrastructure strategy is in the planning stages. 

One of the panels discussed the possibilities for implementing green infrastructure on a larger scale.  Green infrastructure has become a nationwide phenomenon with cities learning and sharing their experiences with each other.  Federal rules now require EPA-funded Clean Water state revolving funds to set aside an amount equal to 10 percent of their annual capitalization grant for green infrastructure projects.  Philadelphia has been considered a leader in this area as it implemented a plan to address combined sewer overflows under an EPA consent decree.   Atlanta has completed its CSO projects, but wants to continue to make progress in water quality to protect drinking water sources and to enhance recreational opportunities in urban areas.  Atlanta sent a large delegation to Philadelphia to learn from their experience.  The delegation included a multiple city departments and private sector groups, illustrating the breadth of the partnerships needed to carry out its goal of reducing runoff by 225 million gallons per year.   Panelists discussed the new mindset needed to implement green infrastructure, including treating natural vegetation as a capital asset and tracking long-term maintenance.  Philadelphia has no ROI information yet on its extensive green infrastructure installations because it is too soon to understand long-term maintenance costs, but green infrastructure is receiving about 3.5% of its annual capital budget.  In the Q&A session, other examples were brought up of cities moving ahead with green infrastructure, including the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District grants program, which provides assistance to private landowners with large surface parking lots (and large amounts of stormwater runoff), and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, which aggressively pursuing green infrastructure for flood control and watershed management. 

One of many interesting panels discussed “Building a New Business Model for Water.”  Unlike most other countries, the U.S. water and wastewater industry is very fragmented, with 69,000 individual utilities nationwide.  David St. Pierre, CEO of the Chicago Water Reclamation District, discussed opportunities to think about larger structures through mergers, including the potential for cross-state mergers of public utilities.  This would entail putting in place a new regulatory structure that does not exist at present, but it would allow utilities to reap the benefits of economies of scale and learning that at present are only available to large international companies.  Often times, drinking water and wastewater utilities remain separate even in the same municipality.  Tony Parrot of the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District discussed an inter-agency agreement to tie the operations of the MSD with the local drinking water utility, and how this led to the implementation of a new common billing system that will save operational costs.  The next step is to move to a full merger of the two systems.   Increasingly, some systems are turning to private companies to build or operate their facilities, and representatives of Veolia Water and MVP Capital discussed their experiences in partnering with public utilities. 

It is clear from the One Water Summit that there is tremendous energy and creativity in addressing water-related issues, and that the formerly sedate world of water utilities is changing fast.  Ohio cities have much that they can learn from their peers.  Other legacy cities, such as Louisville, are facing that challenges brought about by managing an infrastructure built for higher levels of water use.  Ohio’s capital city could also learn from growing cities like Atlanta that have combined land use and water infrastructure planning.  The issue of aging infrastructure, which is GOPC’s main concern, was brought up repeatedly by conference participants in panels and in informal conversation.  We are hopeful that GOPC’s forthcoming recommendations on financing mechanisms will not only be of use for Ohio but for other states across the nation.