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.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.

Archive



| By Dasl Yoon

Deep Dish Special Edition: COVID-19 Lessons from South Korea

The Wall Street Journal’s Dasl Yoon, reporting from Seoul, joins us to explain what other countries can learn from South Korea’s innovative approaches to successfully flatten the curve of new infections – without shutting down the economy.



| By Karin Larson

A Future for the European Union After the Pandemic?

With borders now closed and countries like Italy in an increasingly restrictive nation-wide lockdown under the threat of the novel coronavirus, Europe is facing a crisis likely unparalleled since the end of World War II. This compounds an already disruptive year, following the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and increasingly calls into question the continued relevance of the political and economic bloc.



| By Richard C. Longworth

Midwestern Voters Aren't Ready for Revolution

The Midwest is caught in the painful shift from one economy to another, and its divided fortunes show this. It is a split between winners and losers, between well-educated city dwellers and the left behind, angry denizens of the old economy. All this has big impacts that are economic and social – and political. 





| By Xuefei Ren

‘The People’s War’ on Coronavirus in China

It is too early to conclude that the epidemic will shake the Communist Party’s grip. Once the “people’s war” has defeated the epidemic, the authoritarian regime may turn out to have become even more powerful. But this crisis has made a few things clear. It illustrates how cities are increasingly important actors in addressing pressing global challenges. It also exemplifies how central-local government relations can shape a country’s response to major epidemic outbreaks.