Q&A: An Interview with Water Policy Institute Co-Founder Kathy Robb

PennWell editor David Mogollon had an opportunity to speak with Water Policy Institute co-founder Kathy Robb, a New York attorney and Environmental Law Institute board member, two weeks after the announcement of the institute's creation in June...

Sep 6th, 2008

By Carlos David Mogollon,
Managing Editor - Industrial WaterWorld/Water & Wastewater International


The following interview corresponds with a short article that appeared in the September/October issue of Water Utility Management, a supplement of the PennWell Water Group, which publishes WaterWorld, Industrial WaterWorld and Water & Wastewater International magazines:

New Water Brain Trust Targets Top Minds: Former EPA administrator and NY environmental lawyer team to create Water Policy Institute - members welcome...

We had an opportunity to speak with Kathy Robb and Christine Todd Whitman, the former NJ governor and EPA administrator during Pres. George W. Bush's first term, on June 19, two weeks after the announcement of the institute's creation.

The following is our interview with Kathy Robb:

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PennWell: I'm with Kathy Robb. She's the director of the Water Policy Institute at Hunton & Williams LLP and also has an extensive history with environmental law issues. I believe you're a member of the Environmental Law Institute as well?

Robb: Yes, I'm on the board.

PennWell: We're talking because of the recent formation of the Water Policy Institute. Tell me a bit about that first off and why the institute has been formed.

Robb: Sure. The Water Policy Institute is being put together to create a one of a kind forum across different sectors and bringing together different diverse points of view to talk about water challenges and to consider innovative and sustainable solutions to those challenges. I started thinking about this last year. I've been working on a lot of cases out West and, as a lawyer...

PennWell: We could also mention that you're a native of Dallas, so you're more familiar with that region's water issues.

Robb: Yes, and, of course, as a kid you're aware of water if you live in the Southwest and in the West in a different way I think than you might otherwise. I do, of course, as a lawyer, see the issues when they come to a head and people are on two sides of a very specific problem. And, in the course of my work, it just struck me that the water issues are complex and getting people together across sectors rather than in their own individual sector is a lot of how people gather to discuss water issues might be helpful in thinking through and coming up with some new thoughts on water approaches and problem-solving. I explored this a little bit last fall and talked with Gov. Whitman about whether she might be interested in participating and she was immediately enthusiastic.

PennWell: How did you know Gov. Whitman at that point?

Robb: We have mutual friends in my organization and hers, the Whitman Strategy Group, and so I made the connection through my friends. And it's hard to find someone who's been governor of the state and the EPA administrator. That kind of experience is unique really. And her leadership and passion about the issue really enhances our effort. Then, we talked a bit about how we can best affect putting together the group and put together a fantastic advisory panel also from diverse points of view and have been speaking with lots and lots of sectors, companies, industries, individuals about membership, which we're deep into now.

PennWell: I noticed a long list of people who've signed up on the website.

Robb: Yes, and every single one of them is a thought leader in the water area and they each bring a different perspective. In fact, we just had our inaugural meeting yesterday. And, coming away from the discussions that we had, it was just great.

PennWell: Talk to me about some of the people who are members of the organization and their different strengths that they bring to what you're hoping to accomplish.

Robb: On the advisory panel, we have several academics. We have an economist. We have a representative from NGOs.

PennWell: Anyone in particular we should be aware of... such as?

Robb: Do you have the list?

PennWell: I'm looking at what's posted on the website.

Robb: Yes, they're all right there.

PennWell: Of course, I was hoping you might highlight a few for our readers.

Robb: Well, David Freestone is a international lawyer of great experience.

PennWell: He's associated with the World Bank, I see. Tracy Mehan has spoken at Water & Wastewater Equipment Manufacturer Association meetings and is well known with the engineering consultant Cadmus.

Robb: Every single one of them has great experience. Tracy was the former acting administrator of water at the EPA. Leslie Carothers is the president of BLI. Rob Stavins is economics professor at Harvard and has an institute that he runs on environmental issues and economics there. And Paul Face, who heads Global Water Strategies... I mean they're all just magnificent each in their own way. And they've all just devoted a significant amount of their professional life to thinking through and focusing on water issues. So, I think that, in terms of thought leadership and as a resource to the institute and the members that it's just fantastic to have them all.

PennWell: I noticed from the initial June 4 release on the institute that other members include BP and Central Arizona Project and GE Water. CAP, obviously, is close to me since I live in Tucson, AZ. How do you see some of the industries playing a part in this as well?

Robb: Well, I think that when you get people coming together, all the members will be members of this. They'll be interested in this because water is critical to their activities. And when you get people who are all focused on water in that way but coming at it from such a diverse perspective...

PennWell: Both in terms of the users of water, those that potentially have had to deal with the issues of pollution, i.e., BP, with produced water issues and environmental rules that they have to live with to make sure the water stays clean, the GE Water which specializes in the actual technology to purify water...

Robb: Right, exactly. And those are three good examples of completely diverse viewpoints but a singleness of purpose in addressing water challenges. And when you get people of diverse activities like that together, I believe that's when innovative ideas really come out. Coming from different points of view, you tend to start focusing on patterns and bigger picture issues that you might not if you're just getting all the like-minded companies together, say from a single sector.

PennWell: Underscore that point for me if you could please, what are the bigger issues right now. I mean why now for this particular institute? I could probably ask a couple leading questions, but would rather you kind of give me your own view.

Robb: Well, I don't mind a few leading questions. I've asked a few in my day. But I will tell you, I don't know if you saw Business Week yet this week, but the cover is "Water the Next Oil." I think that from the perspective of many of us in the environmental field, that water really is the environmental challenge of the 21st century.

PennWell: It may well be a political challenge as well.

Robb: It could be a political challenge and you know the West. You live in the West. They've been dealing with some of the issues that the rest of the country and perhaps other parts of the world are now experiencing as well due to droughts and extreme weather and patterns changing in the weather -- and also just population growth and how that affects use and scarcity of water.

PennWell: You may want to underscore that today that's not just a Western issue. For instance, last summer, the reservoirs around Atlanta, which hosts the American Water Works Association conference and exhibition this year, shrank down to nothing and, suddenly, everyone is realizing that -- well, to borrow a phrase from Benjamin Franklin -- 'No one realizes the worth of water 'til the well runs dry.' You have interstate battles for water between Georgia, Alabama and Florida. The Great Lake States are forming a water compact, not to mention periodic battles over the Arkansas, Missouri and Columbia rivers...

Robb: Exactly. And it's not just domestic. Australia's been in a deep drought for a long while. There's been a lot of attention given to climate change in terms of CO2 and managing it. What is the cause of climate change and how is it going to be managed. But the real effects of the water scarcity issue is you don't really need to get to what's causing the scarcity. Even just use and population growth alone is suggesting that we are going to have a lot less at our disposal and peoples' way of thinking about water is going to have to change.

PennWell: And, at times, we're also going to be experiencing a lot more water than what's expected, such as what's going on this spring along the Mississippi River.

Robb: And other places too. Yes, there's that nifty map in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report that shows the wetter areas and the dryer areas and who is going to end up where as a projection.

PennWell: There also was a recent report out of Europe looking at the potential impact on coastal regions around the world. A lot of people I know here in the United States wonder why is it such a big issue in Europe, where you hear a lot about climate change and global warming and related regulatory issues coming out regarding the EU Water Directive and River Basin Management Plans, etc. If you look at the amount of coastline that Europe has you can understand it a bit better. It's like why would Florida be concerned. Why would California be concerned?

Robb: Yeah, it's very easy to see from that perspective. There are those that just think that water is so personal to everyone. We all, each of us as humans, has a relationship with water. And, so people have a lot of differing views about it because they drink it, they bath in it and they use it everyday in a number of ways. In our country, most of us are very lucky in that we just turn the tap on and there it is. The amount of thought that we've given as individuals toward water -- all of that is changing.

PennWell: True. And one of the things we might discuss is that, in the USA, the issue hasn't really approached the issue say as in other countries where that relationship to water suddenly becomes a political hot point -- say as what occurred in Bolivia when Bechtel was involved with the water concession there. Those folks never had to pay for their water before (and may have had poor service until then) and, suddenly, the people rose up and drove Bechtel basically out of the country. In any case, that raises the issue of tariffs and cost of water and public right to water and all of those different social issues that boil down to the fact that it costs money to clean water to a potable or sanitary level -- and someone has to pay for that. And oftentimes, some of the industry groups that we associate with (for instance, the Water & Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association) are continually debating: "How do we express to people what the true worth of water is in order to make the amount that's being spent to treat and deliver water and the amount that's charged for that more compatible?"

Robb: Yes, I agree. Rob Stavins has done some work on this and I think he's got papers on pricing and scarcity and studied it from an economics perspective. I believe we posted his papers on our website and they're definitely on his Harvard website. It's a very complicated issue and you rightfully point out that there are social concerns as well as dollar concerns. Cost concerns, economic concerns and both need to be considered. That's why the solutions need to be sustainable in the full meaning of that word. They have to work for the environment. They need to work for us all socially. And they need to work economically.

PennWell: Yesterday you said was the first meeting of the advisory group on this. What are some of the goals that you are sort of looking at now and have you kind of sketched in some of the action points that you plan on pursuing.

Robb: Yes, we did. And we had a wonderful meeting and there was a lot of interaction as well as lively discussion as you can well imagine among all of the people that attended. We are going to be doing two white papers this year. One of the things that we're working through now is what are the interests in the group and the topics for those papers. We'll be defining those very soon. And we talked a lot about that yesterday.

PennWell: Was there any indication what direction the group was anticipating that these two white papers might go? In terms of themes, I mean...

Robb: No. Well, we've narrowed our themes down, but the group hasn't chosen the particular themes yet. I'd have to get back to you after that decision was made.

PennWell: Can you discuss what some of those themes are, albeit not necessarily what direction they may be approached from?

Robb: Sure. Generally, the issue that we were just talking about regarding scarcity and pricing and use and the connections among those and how you can encourage people to conserve in their use. Those are all things we're all focused on. Recycling and reclamation are aspects that everyone is very interested in. The interconnection between energy and water, which you know this probably more than anybody, you just can't separate those two.

PennWell: And that's because both water and wastewater treatment are very energy intensive functions, if only due to the pumps required to move the water.

Robb: Exactly. And so the issues surrounding energy and water are some of the things we're considering as well as the intersection increasingly of water quality and water quantity issues. These are things we've been talking about as well. What data collection is available? What's out there now? Is it the kind of information that informs appropriately policy decisions? Should there be different kind of information? Should there be more? What's the access to it? All of those things are considerations that we're discussing.

PennWell: After you get to this, you've developed a few white papers, and then what sort of functions will the institute be involved with. What things will it do? Will it be sort of a convener of things? Will it take specific actions on other things?

Robb: It's going to be completely member driven. And so any action that the group wants to take will be defined by the members. And, obviously, want to make a difference. Just sitting around and talking to each other would not further making a difference in a way that's meaningful. We do anticipate that, at the appropriate point, we would decide to either convene or express views about or provide information that we hope will further the debate on a particular issue -- but that will all be driven by the members decisions.

PennWell: A lot of these issues are ones that cross multiple borders geographically, if not being de facto global issues. What sort of international perspective or role do you anticipate the institute having?

Robb: You know you have to look at water issues locally and globally. And I think at the same time, we all agree that, to address water challenges, we have to consider a local, national and international level and really consider it all across geographic borders. I think one of the reasons we've tried to put together such a diverse perspective on the advisory panel is so that we do have the international perspective as well a very local perspective in our discussions and our deliberation.

PennWell: GE Water I'm very familiar with in a lot of the different projects they do not just in the states, but internationally. I'm assuming that there are some other major players in the water solutions industry, let's call it, that may be key organizations to get involved with this institute as well. How do you anticipate membership to grow? What do you look for in new members and what type of individuals or organizations you'd like to see get involved?

Robb: Well, now membership is by invitation and we are talking to a number of companies. And I think that essentially the companies we're in discussion with are companies whose focus on water is critical to their operations, to their interests and who have a very high level of interest in water. And that too would be enriching our dialogue at the institute and also who would be interested in devoting the time and resources to the institute. Those are the kinds of companies we are looking for and they could be from the chemical sector, the pharmaceutical sector -- we're very interested in involving NGO representatives.

PennWell: Academic I'm assuming as well...

Robb: Absolutely. The energy sector... pretty much anyone who is really focused on water and a particular way in which it's used in their day to day activities.

PennWell: Okay, we've got a few minutes left, so tell me why this is such a personal issue for you.

Robb: For me? You know I've thought about that a lot because I really do love water. On a fairly granular level, I mean I enjoy swimming, I enjoy being on rivers, I love the ocean and even as a kid I always loved it. I think that now professionally I see such an opportunity to address some of the issues that are facing everyone and that litigating them is just not the way that we're ever going to develop a comprehensive policy for dealing with some of our water challenges.

PennWell: Also, it would seem that in the past several years, or even couple decades, the political discussion has been somewhat at loggerheads rather than at working toward a valued compromise, oftentimes.

Robb: Yes, and I think as scarcity continues and grows and the changes in wet and dry areas grow that that may just intensify. You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation the Georgia situation, which is just a classic example of virtually intractable forces. Well, by getting different factions involved in that debate together in a different setting like this we may have a better hope of achieving something long lasting and sustainable in terms of managing those resources better in the future.

PennWell: Well, Kathy, thank you so much for your time, good luck with this endeavor and keep us informed on the progress you make, please.

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CONTACTS:
Kathy Robb
Director, Water Policy Institute
Hunton & Williams LLP
200 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10166-0091
Tel: 212-309-1128
Web: www.hunton.com

Christine Todd Whitman
Whitman Strategy Group
888 16th Street, N.W., Suite 800
Washington, D.C. 20006
Tel: 202-355-1374
Web: www.whitmanstrategygroup.com

For more on the Water Policy Institute, click here.

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