September 2, 2015 | By Michael Tiboris

A Unified View of Urban Water

The Carter Harrison crib, shot from the Dever crib circa 1990. Lake Michigan, off Chicago. Photo by Richard C. Drew.

A city’s ability to effectively manage its primary resources define its ability to thrive. This is especially true of water resources, which are a precondition for every public and private function. It is important, then, to reflect on where city water managers from across the US think their utilities are going, and what the major obstacles are to their improvement. The US Water Alliance’s One Water Leadership Summit brings together leaders in municipal water management to collaborate on these issues. Here are some of the important takeaways from their August meeting in San Francisco:

View the urban water environment as a systemic whole. The concept of “one water” is meant to expose the ways in which the various aspects of water resources and management are connected. We know, for example, that treating water sources as entirely independent and not co-influential causes serious problems. But one water also includes taking a unified view of the urban water environment by treating a city’s drinking water management, wastewater, stormwater, and green spaces as a systemic whole.  Such rethinking is crucial given the variety of challenges. 

Share the costs for maintaining and improving water management. While some problems are unique to regions—managing a scarce supply is more important in the Southwestern United States, while flooding is more important in the East—many of them are shared. All regions face the prospect of adjusting their systems to the realities of climate change and protecting the quality of natural resources. And while there is wide variability in the way that municipalities charge rate payers for providing drinking water and handling wastewater, the consensus is that rates will have to rise to cover the costs of maintaining and improving efficiency as a component of the estimated $3.6 trillion necessary for infrastructure modernization in the US. Part of the case for this might be made by increasing the visibility of what water utilities actually do for ratepayers, or more to the point where ratepayers would find themselves on alternative systems.

Invest in innovations in the absence of a silver bullet. Many advocate an “all in” strategy of improving conservation, expanding green infrastructure, experimenting with on-site gray water systems, direct potable reuse, and desalination. Some of these are much more complex and expensive than others, however, and picking the right mix, let alone funding it, is a challenge. In the absence of major changes in funding, the cost of experimenting and piloting innovative solutions will have to be borne somehow by private businesses. This poses challenges for distributing these systems widely and equitably, as investment will be driven by profitability rather than need.
Managing increasingly stressed water resources presents a serious challenge. Global cities can begin to meet these challenges and serve as models for other municipalities by insisting on building regulations which treat urban water as a holistic system, and by encouraging a culture enthusiastic for change and prepared to pay for it.


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