How Would You Spend $100 Billion on Water Infrastructure?

What would you do with $100 billion to spend on water infrastructure? That’s the question the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread posed to key water infrastructure experts recently. 

Citizens, ratepayers and policymakers are facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity around water. Just a few weeks ago the U.S. EPA announced that assuring safe drinking water for Americans in 20 years time will require a $384 billion investment in infrastructure advancement. Meanwhile, scientists and engineers are identifying new technologies, many of which look to replicate and harness nature’s tricks of the trade to bring us a more resilient and adaptable way to use, and reuse, water and other natural resources. 

So, to advance the conversation, the foundation posed this question to five water experts across sectors: 

From Hurricane Sandy to drought-ravaged Texas, extreme weather events and their aftermath are bringing into sharp focus the vulnerability of our nation’s aging infrastructure. Looking at the intersection of water and climate change, where do you see the biggest opportunities to re-imagine, rethink and recalibrate our approach to water infrastructure? How would you spend the next $100 billion? 

The dialogue is part of Charting New Waters, a Johnson Foundation at Wingspread initiative dedicated to catalyzing new solutions to U.S. freshwater challenges. Charting New Waters brings together experts from across the public, private, NGO sectors and other stakeholders to focus on the operational, institutional and market-related challenges that our water and wastewater utilities need to overcome. 

Inspiring Solutions, the platform for this dialogue, is a new Web feature that advances conversations about the most pressing issues of the day. The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread believes in the wisdom that comes from bringing together partners and practitioners from a broad variety of disciplines and geographies.   

Respondents included government and municipal officials, drinking water industry experts, educators and water technology manufacturers. 

“As a leader of a community preparing for a future impacted by climate change, I believe that it’s critical we identify approaches and actions to prepare ourselves for what comes next,” said John Dickert, Mayor of Racine, Wis. “In the area of water infrastructure, just like other climate challenges, we must thoughtfully plan for the future, not simply react as it happens.” 

Katherine Baer, senior director, Clean Water and Water Supply Programs, American Rivers, said, “ By 2030, almost half of our urban land will be redeveloped, presenting a major opportunity to retrofit cities and infrastructure to become more resilient. We must invest in the future of water infrastructure, and not in outdated infrastructure that is often financially and environmentally ruinous, leading to drier and dirtier rivers and more vulnerable communities. Continuing to create these new systems, often with more decentralized components, as well as seizing opportunities to align policies, funding, and financing mechanisms, is critical for people and rivers.” 

Paul Fleming, manager, Climate Resiliency Group, Seattle Public Utilities, said, “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.” 

Edwin Piñero, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer of Veolia Water, North America, responded, “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.” 

Click here to view the complete responses. 

The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread is dedicated to serving as a catalyst for change by bringing together leading thinkers and inspiring new solutions on major environmental and regional issues. For more information, visit www.johnsonfdn.org.



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