Financing Sustainable Water Infrastructure

In Tuesday night’s State of the Union Address, President Obama reconfirmed his commitment to clean water, “I will not back down from making sure our food is safe, our water is clean…” Our communities and waterways need this commitment more than ever. 

In the second decade of the 21st century, our nation’s water infrastructure is at a crossroads. Largely built during the 19th and early 20th centuries, in many communities’ water and sewer systems are aging, based on outdated technology outdated and ill equipped to handle rising demand and environmental challenges. Urban growth and the shifting rain and snowfall patterns brought about by climate change are placing additional strains these overtaxed systems.

Even as federal subsidies and local revenues shrink, our nation and our local communities need to make significant investments in water infrastructure. In order to ensure that each of us has access to safe water, the ways that water systems are built and financed must become significantly more sustainable.

In August of 2011, American Rivers, with its partners Ceres and The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, hosted a series of conversations about new financing techniques that may support integrated and sustainable infrastructure approaches, such as green infrastructure and protecting drinking water sources. Today, we are co-releasing a report [PDF] illustrating the challenges that undermine financing for cost-effective, resilient and environmentally sustainable infrastructure.

Not surprisingly, the financing structures that channel investment into inflexible and expensive sewer and water systems are still pervasive, despite the fact that money available for financing water infrastructure is increasingly scarce. Progress towards more sustainable, resilient and cost-effective systems is attainable, particularly but will require changes to private and public financing methods. While there is no silver bullet, the report outlines pathways that will improve chances of success.

A new approach to more affordable, effective and sustainable water systems will require wider embrace of smart, green infrastructure. Sustainable infrastructure approaches, including green roofs, rain gardens and water efficiency, have far-reaching and multiple benefits – reducing stormwater runoff and sewage overflows, recharging drinking water supplies, and creating green space.

Infrastructures with dual benefits are all the more valuable in this current fiscal climate because they provide multiple benefits for communities and ratepayers. Prioritizing these approaches will lead to better integration of water resources management – and cleaner water in our rivers. Protecting drinking water sources and other ecosystem services, as New York City, San Francisco and Seattle have done, is another way to provide communities with clean drinking water at often a lower cost than building large, inflexible traditional gray infrastructure.

The release of our new report lays out a framework that will help to create change within our current water infrastructure, helping utilities to move from an inflexible, gray system to a more flexible, sustainable and cost effective infrastructure. Constructing new and innovative ways to pay for green infrastructure and ecosystem services will ensure that President Obama’s commitment is met, for current and future generations of Americans.