Utilities Come Together to Discuss Sustainability in the Water Sector

Lisa Daniels, Chief of the Bureau of Safe Drinking Water within the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, participated earlier this week during a two day EPA Office of Waste Management hosted workshop on sustainability. ASDWA also sat in as an observer.  This dialogue, entitled “Water Sector Utility Sustainability:  The Path Forward” focused on what the utility community around the table saw as existing effective sustainability practices; where and what types of gaps exist; and what opportunities can be capitalized upon to enhance sustainability — both internally for the utility and externally for the community.  The agreed upon goal was to ensure an increasing rate of sustainably managed systems.  Collaboration and communication were key themes that ran throughout the session.

Nancy Stoner, EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Water, spoke to the group about some of the challenges facing the water sector in the 21st century and the.  Among several, she highlighted population growth (an anticipated 55% increase by 2050), increased development, escalating financial needs to support existing infrastructure, and anticipated climate change impacts on the finite availability of  water resources.  She also recognized some of the opportunities being presented to the sector:  green infrastructure, innovative technologies, more sophisticated identification of the economic benefits derived from a robust water infrastructure, and the continuing emergence of interest in the water-energy nexus as a means to success.

Over the course of the workshop, participants explored effective sustainability practices across key organizational dimensions – technology and infrastructure; operations and management; workforce; leadership and culture; and customer and community.  Building on this framework, participants then considered how practices within these dimensions applied to both conventional and emergent business models for sustainability.

While much of the discussion centered around more sophisticated wastewater practices, there is much that can be applied to drinking water as well.  The need to coordinate conservation strategies between water and wastewater utilities to avoid unintended consequences; the need to bring greater media attention to the value of water; the need to include “sustainable practices” as part of any utility’s budget discussions with boards or councils to bring greater awareness of sustainability as a positive factor in financial decision making; and the need to incorporate sustainability considerations into the regulatory development risk impact analysis practice all resonate across water and wastewater utilities.  State drinking water programs are encouraged to begin to consider and identify their own role in sustainability practices and programs and work in tandem with their water utilities to encourage better and more efficient programs in support of water sector sustainability.