Forum Discusses Innovative Responses for Water Infrastructure
On January 31st, the Environmental Protection Agency hosted a forum in Washington, D.C., whose purpose was to exchange thoughts and ideas related to management and funding issues
By Bill Acton
On January 31st, the Environmental Protection Agency hosted a forum in Washington, D.C., whose purpose was to exchange thoughts and ideas related to management and funding issues regarding the financing of the investments universally recognized as critical to both the sustainability of the wastewater and water infrastructure in the United States. Nearly 300 industry, municipal, and government officials were on hand.
Christine Todd Whitman, Administrator of the EPA, opened the meeting. Her comments focused on the need for creative responses to meet the funding challenges faced by this country and the requirement for multiple inputs from all stakeholders in the process. She offered her thoughts that a combination of funding sources primarily through the continued use and leveraging of State Revolving Funds and embracing innovations should be the foundations of any solution.
G. Tracy Mehan, Assistant Administrator of Water for the EPA, presented ideas which acted as a foundation for the day's meeting. He suggested four broad areas that all needed to be evaluated as a means to addressing and solving the infrastructure needs.
1) Better Management: Improved management tools such as asset management programs, innovative environmental management systems, and system consolidation (including public-private partnerships) need to be implemented throughout the system. These methods should be targeted at cost reduction.
2) Smart Water Use: Efficient use of water on the demand side of the equation needs to be implemented. Conservation, recycling, reuse and improved water use efficiency are all tools that can effectively reduce the infrastructure needs.
3) Full Cost Pricing: Water users in the U.S. are going to have to pay more of the actual costs of maintaining water systems over time. The most direct route for funds to flow is straight from the ratepayer to the utility. The U.S. is 18th of developed countries in percent of income used for water. At the same time as full cost pricing was advocated, a mechanism for assisting those who cannot afford higher rates was highlighted as a need.
4) Watershed Approach: The EPA views watersheds as the basic unit to define and gauge the nation's water quality. This approach can utilize techniques such as targeting, watershed-based permitting, and watershed trading as elements that can effectively address our needs.
The balance of the forum consisted of facilitated panel discussions focused on specific issues. These panels were made of up industry and municipal leaders from both the private and public sectors that offered a variety of opinions and perspectives on the issues.
The morning session focused on managing water and infrastructure assets. Ideas presented included specific examples of how utilities and industry used asset based management systems to improve their efficiency, reduce costs and allocate investments.
The afternoon session dealt with how to build sustainable water infrastructure financing. Ideas discussed included the role of the federal government in the process either through grants or increased contributions to the SRF programs, implications of full cost pricing, and the role private entities can play in the process.
The key message from the forum was that the only way to successfully address the funding gap needs of the water and wastewater industry was to implement a variety of solutions. The federal government will not be the sole solution. As Tracy Mehan stated, "if sustainability comes down to federal subsidies, that's not sustainable over time."
About the author: Bill Acton is president of Parkson Corp. (Fort Lauderdale, FL), a WWEMA member company which provides technology for water and wastewater treatment to municipal and industrial markets.