Water Infrastructure Redefined

Over the course of the last year I had the opportunity to participate in the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Sustainable Water Infrastructure. Participants included representatives from public and private utilities, consulting firms, academia, government and the nonprofit sector. The final report “Sustainable Water Systems: Step One – Redefining the Nation’s Infrastructure Challenge” includes a number of strong recommendations including:

  • Redefining water infrastructure to integrate built infrastructure with protection and restoration of the natural water infrastructure;
  • Working to remove barriers to water management to allow federal, state, and local governments to address all sources of pollution, degradation, and depletion; and
  • Targeting federal investment toward important 21st century priorities including green infrastructure, water and energy efficiency, climate change adaptation, research, and demonstration of integrated water management, and targeted assistance to economically distressed households

What was interesting about the Dialogue was that the charge to participants was initially much more focused on how to fund water infrastructure, rather than what to fund. However, a number of participants, American Rivers among them, recognized the need to step back and build agreement on the vision for the future of water infrastructure in the face of population growth, climate change and other factors. As a result, we ended up focusing on the what rather than the how. Having broad support for an integrated definition of infrastructure that includes the built and natural environment, including the use of emerging small scale technologies, and recognizes the need to break the silos between drinking water, wastewater and stormwater management is a good step forward.

While there was much discussion on the role of the federal government there was no agreement and thus no position on any specific funding tools or legislation. The federal role was defined in many ways including prioritizing investments, setting and enforcing standards, and removing current funding incentives that automatically favor big fixed ventures, such as supply side projects instead of decentralized efficiency options.

As the Report’s title indicates, this is just Step One of many steps that will be needed to achieve sustainable infrastructure and clean water. At American Rivers, here are a few of our suggestions for next steps:

  • Protect small streams and wetlands by restoring clean water safeguards under the Clean Water Act;
  • Pass a climate bill that includes funding for natural resources adaptation and for utilities to take steps for adaptation similar to legislation introduced by Representative Lois Capps;
  • Ensure that all federal water infrastructure money is prioritized for the highest quality innovative and green projects – for example, the State Revolving Fund can be broadly used for the priorities outlined in the Aspen Report, but states rarely use the money for these purposes…. change needed here!