The realities of water services today and into the future include staffing issues, antiquated water and wastewater infrastructure, rising water costs, increased public health concerns over lead, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and other chemical contaminants in drinking water, and a changing climate that creates mega droughts and devastating floods. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbates these challenges, vividly illustrating the essential nature of water services and the role these services provide to protect public health and support the well-being of health care, first responders, and other front line employees. The pandemic also imposes further stressors on outdated clean water and drinking water infrastructure due to the dramatic decline in revenues that parallel the overall economy’s decline. As a nation, we must implement effective and efficient responses to protect our water resources. The pandemic can serve as an opportunity to achieve these goals by investing in smart technologies that will respond to these and other challenges and ensure reliable and affordable water during times of normalcy and crisis.
The challenge facing the water sector today is similar to the one faced by the electric utility sector during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Effective grant programs authorized in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 forever transformed the electric industry’s resilience, productivity, and quality of service by advancing the adoption of smart grid technologies. They also created a significant number of jobs and increased the competitiveness of American industry. A similar historic opportunity now exists to modernize the nation’s water infrastructure through a Smart Water Infrastructure stimulus program that would complement other investments in the nation’s water resources.
Since the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and through the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996, the nation has invested billions of dollars into improving its drinking water and water quality. This has been achieved through direct grants to local utilities and, in the past four decades, through highly subsidized State Revolving Fund (SRF) loan assistance and other innovative financing approaches, including the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA).
Unfortunately, this federal investment, along with local governmental financing has failed to meet the needs of the water and wastewater industries in our country, as documented over several years by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card. Such needs continue to outpace financing capacity because of antiquated infrastructure, new mandates to address water supply protection and water quality impairments, growing demand to address disadvantaged communities’ needs, and the increasing challenges associated with resiliency and its impacts to water infrastructure.
The challenge for the U.S. today is how best can public policy advance the next generation of critical public health infrastructure, while reducing the costs of providing such services? We are entering a period of economic and technological transition that offers the chance to exploit the capabilities and benefits of the immense advances in, and accessibility to, computing power and capacity, allowing our drinking water and wastewater utilities to leapfrog decades of underinvestment in these areas.
We can leverage this capability and deliver a new and improved way of conducting the water sector’s business and ensure affordability, public health, and resiliency. Incorporating smart water technologies with the next generation of water infrastructure can improve the efficiency of operations and deliver safe and reliable water supplies for generations. The time to act is now. WW
About the Author: Mark W. Handzel is vice president, product regulatory & government affairs at Xylem Inc. He is also a board member of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA), a non-profit trade association that has been representing water and wastewater technology and service providers since 1908. WWEMA’s members supply the most sophisticated leading-edge technologies and services, offering solutions to every water-related environmental problem and need facing today’s society. For more information about WWEMA, visit www.wwema.org.