We are in the midst of this year’s Water Week, which includes a marathon four-day affair in Washington, DC that brings water wonks from across the country together to discuss trending water issues with lawmakers and regulators. The week kicked off with a presentation by Robert Glennon, author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It. Glennon’s message of how to build a sustainable water future resonated with many in town from the arid west, especially those from California, which is facing the worst drought in 1200 years. As an additional challenge, as illustrated by this map from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),the nation’s fastest growing areas also have some of the highest per capita water use, which will further strain water resources throughout the country. Strain placed on the nation’s aging water infrastructure, graded a “D” in the ASCE Report Card for Americas Infrastructure, can lead to serious measures, including rationing or higher service rates.
Water Week attracts a diverse group of stakeholders, including the most well represented industry clean water agencies (utilities that treat wastewater). With higher demand on aging systems, strict regulatory mandates, financially stretched rate-payers and the threat of extreme weather, clean water utilities across the country are grappling with major demand, financing, capital upgrade and operations and maintenance issues. These obstacles are pushing utilities to find cost-effective and efficient solutions for treatment and to look for sound ways to best use their end product. For the first time in the history of Water Week, the Water Reuse Association was a major sponsor. The organization is the primary trade group for reclaimed water, which with minimal purification can be used for irrigation or with special purification can be placed back into service.
As is almost always the case, much of the discussion this week came back to one theme: how to pay for needed infrastructure upgrades. Utilities can increase rates, rely on federal government loans, issue bonds or seek private funds. While rate increases are unpopular, many argue that we under value and under pay for water services in the U.S., a concept that the Value of Water Coalition is trying to change. For traditional finaicincing, the State Revolving Fund (SRF) program remains popular, but new eligible activities approved in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) means the competition for dollars will be greater than ever. Competition for SRF funds may be exacerbated if projects rely on the fund to round out project financing due to the current prohibition on tax-exempt bonds in WIFIA.
It’s encouraging to see that when the water industry comes to DC to make the case for more federal support, they do so by showcasing a plethora of new technologies for water efficiency and plans to make their communities water cleaner and better for the environment.