Where Would You Invest?

Researchers asked: What would you do with $100 billion for US infrastructure? Maybe more to the point, what would you do with $1 million more in your budget?

What would you do if you had $100 billion to spend on the nation’s water infrastructure?

Last June, the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread posed that question to five water infrastructure experts.

The question matters because citizens, ratepayers and policymakers face significant challenges around water. The U.S. EPA has estimated that it will take an additional $384 billion of infrastructure investment over the next 20 years to ensure safe drinking water for Americans.

What leaders said

The exact question the researchers asked was: Looking at the intersection of water and climate change, where do you see the biggest opportunities to reimagine, rethink and recalibrate our approach to water infrastructure? How would you spend the next $100 billion?

The answers were thought-provoking. For example, John Dickert, mayor of Racine, Wis., stated, “I believe that it’s critical we identify approaches and actions to prepare ourselves for what comes next. In the area of water infrastructure, just like other climate challenges, we must thoughtfully plan for the future, not simply react as it happens.”

Paul Fleming, manager of the Climate Resiliency Group with Seattle Public Utilities, observed, “The challenges of a changing climate require us to cultivate a deep, vertical understanding of how climate will exacerbate existing — and create new — risks for our water systems. At the same time, we must look horizontally across multiple systems ­— energy, transportation, agriculture — to understand and assess the interconnections between those systems and water systems and prepare for, and manage, any shared risks that arise.”

And this from Edwin Piñero, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer with Veolia Water, North America: “When most people think about water infrastructure, the immediate image is of pipes, valves, pumps and treatment plants — in short, traditional, man-made infrastructure. To transform the future course of infrastructure resilience and reliability, this type of thinking has to change. We need to think broadly of how to leverage our ecosystem — the natural world’s integrated processes and mechanisms — with water resource management.”

But what about you?

Of course, thinking nationally, globally, is fine — but most water utilities have more immediate concerns, like staying in regulatory compliance and continuing to produce a reliable supply of high-quality water in the face of unending budget pressure.

In that light, what would you do if given not $100 billion, not $1 billion, but a $1 million windfall to invest in your operations? Or if you prefer, pick a dollar figure that represents, say, 10 percent beyond your annual operations budget. Where would you invest it?

To be sure there are priorities. Aging pumps that need replacement or rebuilding. Renewable energy to reduce reliance on utility power and fuel. More energy efficient buildings. A new and more effective chlorination system. A new compensation plan that more properly provides incentives for excellence.

I doubt there are many water utility leaders who feel they have all the financial resources they need to operate at optimal quality and maximum efficiency. In fact, far from costing money, many of these investments would actually save money in the medium to long term. So much could be done if only the purse strings could be loosened.

Share your wish list

So, what are your investment priorities? If the water fairy godmother came and bestowed an extra million dollars on you, how would you invest it to improve your facilities? Please share your thoughts by sending a note to editor@wsomag.com. I promise to respond, and we’ll report on the comments in a future issue.

Meantime, if you want to read the full answers to the Johnson Foundation’s $100 billion question, visit www.johnsonfdn.org/aboutus/inspiringsolutions.


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