Last week, the U.S. Water Alliance, of which ASCE is a member, held their annual One Water Summit in New Orleans, Louisiana. The summit’s themes included collaborating across and beyond water by leveraging effective partnerships across the water industry; financing and delivering water projects that maximize economic, environmental, and community benefits; communicating the value of water and engaging stakeholders; and building supportive water policies to create institutional change for “one water” projects to thrive. Attendees heard from a wide range of leaders and were given robust sharing, learning, and discussion opportunities. ASCE’s President Norma Jean Mattei gave remarks during the opening plenary session and moderated a panel of leaders from the New Orleans community to talk about the strides that have been made in integrating resilience into the rebuilding of their infrastructure post-Hurricane Katrina. Norma Jean summarized New Orleans’ efforts by saying that “…the city has changed the way we think about, manage, and enjoy water. We are learning to live with it, not against it.”
As a city that has rebuilt and transformed itself in the wake of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, New Orleans was uniquely situated to host the One Water Summit. The summit included a series of site visits for attendees to see in-depth, first-hand views of some of the innovative water work being done throughout Greater New Orleans. The “Building Resilience Through Green Infrastructure” site visit included stops at green infrastructure and large-scale innovative urban water management projects. One such project was the Mirabeau Water Garden, a 25-acre site of a former convent that is being designed to store up to 10 million gallons of stormwater while simultaneously serving as a space for community recreation and environmental learning. The city was awarded a $141 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) National Disaster Resilience Competition to fund the implementation of a series of integrated urban water infrastructure, energy resilience, community adaptation, and workforce development projects and programs, including the Mirabeau Water Garden. ASCE supports initiatives that increase resilience of infrastructure against man-made and natural hazards, as well as the creation of green infrastructure, which provides advantages such as water and air quality improvement, aesthetic value to communities, and cost competitiveness.
Throughout the summit, there were a wide variety of strategic dialogues meant to facilitate the discussion of critical questions for America’s water future and produce actionable items and recommendations. One such dialogue was focused on discussing the gains that could be realized from collaboration between the energy and water sectors and featured DC Water’s CEO George Hawkins, Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Vice President of Corporate Strategy Mallik Angalakudati, and American Water Works’ President and CEO Susan Story. For the past several decades, both the energy and water sectors have been pursuing strategies to increase efficiencies, though often on parallel tracks. The speakers discussed the potential benefits of cooperation between the two industries, including the possibility of working together to invest in large infrastructure projects that could produce efficiencies for both sectors.
According to ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, municipal drinking water consumption and total freshwater withdrawals in the United states have declined in recent years due to increased efficiencies and water conservation efforts. Likewise, the energy industry has recently undergone a transformation as the result of a reduction in electric demand, changing delivery costs, and new regulations focused on reducing environmental impacts. However, the infrastructure that supports these sectors continues to age.
The nation’s drinking water is delivered via one million miles of pipes, many of which were laid in the early to mid-20th century with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years. The American Water Works Association estimates that $1 trillion will be needed to upgrade existing water systems and to meet the drinking water infrastructure needs over the next 25 years. Similarly, some parts of the U.S. electric grid predate the turn of the 20th century. Most transmission and distribution (T&D) lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1906s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the lower 48 states’ power grid is at full capacity, with many lines operating well beyond their design. The cumulative investment gap for the electricity industry between 2016 and 2025 is estimated to be $177 billion. Investments in the energy sector lag because of private ownership, national security concerns, costs of service, and limited public visibility. In the drinking water sector, utility managers in cities with declining populations struggle to raise funds for capital infrastructure investments due to fewer rate payers, while those utility managers in cities with booming populations have a difficult task of conveying the need for rate increases to meet demand.
The summit concluded with a closing plenary session focused on how we can work together across the water chain to create the public and political will for investments in sustainable water infrastructure.
As the nation’s drinking water, wastewater, and energy infrastructure ages, the cost to repair and replace our drinking water pipes, wastewater treatment systems, and T&D grids will continue to increase. ASCE urges Congress to reauthorize the minimum federal funding of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and Clean Water State Revolving Fund at $20 billion over five years and $15 billion over five years, respectively, and encourages adoption and implementation of a federal energy policy that carefully assesses needed changes to provide clear direction for meeting current and future demands.