Overcoming Barriers to Water Innovation

The American Water Works Association gets serious about fixing the culture of resistance that kills smart change in U.S.

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Taking an existing process and doing it better is nothing new; in fact, you could argue that this is the defining characteristic of human intelligence. Unfortunately, inventions that shape our daily lives are usually taken for granted. New technology is introduced and scrutinized, questioned, and even purposefully avoided until advocates break the barrier of skepticism and overcome public indifference. The water industry is no exception. 

Water systems seem to be low on the list of public works projects to receive attention in the way of upgrades. It is becoming increasingly difficult to attract young people to water trade careers. Operators, engineers and entrepreneurs in the water industry are aware of the potential benefits that would follow a genuine and timely effort to integrate currently available innovations. It is not for lack of ingenuity, but rather for a host of obstructing factors that potentially revolutionary changes in the U.S. water industry are being stymied. 

The American Water Works Association and other organizations are fighting back. This summer the AWWA announced the formation of a committee of experts and concerned citizens to identify, analyze and ultimately overcome the chief obstacles to innovation. They started by identifying the top five barriers and then elected subcommittee chairs to oversee each area. 

“It was an industry-wide convergence,” says Randy Moore, vice president of market development at Utility Service Group and AWWA Manufacturers/Associates Council member. “We all converged on the same five barriers.” 

The AWWA subcommittees and their chairs include:

  • The risk-averse nature of the water sector, Mike Simpson
  • The low economic value placed on water, Jeff Zdrojewski
  • “Or equal” bidding/procurement requirements, Jason Seubert
  • Complicated regulatory requirements, Randy Moore
  • Trade restrictions and barriers, Gary Bryant 

The “Innovation Initiative” mission statement guiding their collective efforts is as follows: “Create a coalition from within the water industry to develop and implement strategies to overcome the top five barriers to the acceptance of innovation and new technology.” 

Tough industry 

Peter Fiske, CEO of PAX Water Technologies, says there are very few decision-makers and state actors willing to be the first to try something new, even with strong scientific evidence to support it. “There’s a great race in this industry to come in second,” he says. “Innovation is never easy. It is a disruptive process. It always involves risk and cost.” 

And, he points out, the water industry is particularly tough. “It’s a conservative industry that is fundamentally driven by regulation.” Exhaustive testing, longer and more extensive trial periods, and highly regimented pilot programs mean a lot more red tape. 

This is necessary to a degree, but is also harmful to development that would keep the U.S. competitive with other first-world nations, Fiske notes. “The economic payoff of innovation in the water sector is probably bigger than in other industries,” he says. “The water industry is a huge industry; it’s a huge user of energy; it’s a huge resource constraint of economic growth. Innovation would have a bigger bang for the buck, but we’re just stuck in this conservative regulatory world.” 

Consequently, there is little state or federal funding available to explore innovation, which is not the case in other countries such as Canada or Australia. “Water has never been seen to be an issue worthy of science,” Fiske says. 

The AWWA is willing to take on this complex challenge because participants believe the solution lies with the passion of those in the know with the perseverance to advocate alternatives and experiment with new strategies. 

And as with all change, much hope lies with future generations. “The water industry does not have a strong tradition of research collaboration with academia,” Fiske says. “One of the most catalytic ways to stimulate innovation is by having students physically spend time in water treatment plants. It could change very quickly if utilities and universities focused on building bridges.” 

Increased costs 

Additionally, increasing the cost of water and focusing more on educating the public might advance the committees’ cause by helping average Americans properly understand just how precious water resources are and how important it is to conserve and protect them. Improving infrastructure is impossible to do without the available funds, and that money must come from the citizens enjoying clean water. Raising utility rates is always a sensitive topic. Nobody likes paying more for what they are already getting for less. But there is no arguing that instantly available potable water is essential to our way of life. 

“I find it ridiculously inexpensive,” says Jeff Zdrojewski, who chairs the subcommittee examining the low cost of water. “My cable bill is nearly twice that.” He believes it is a matter of perception. Water ought to be viewed as a valuable utility, not as a tax. 

“We constantly deal with politicians who don’t want taxes raised,” he says. “But the reality is that you’re paying for this service because you’re using a certain amount of water. I can’t think of any operator who wouldn’t want to raise rates.”

Fiske agrees that what Americans pay for water is becoming outrageous. “The U.S. has some of the cheapest water for its quality worldwide,” he says. “The problem is that utilities are not recovering the full cost of delivering safe, clean drinking water. We are scarred as an industry for infrastructural upgrades and new technological developments. The sad irony is that if you think of all the technologies that humankind has developed to improve, help, and lengthen life, nothing comes close to the simple discovery of disinfecting drinking water. There should be an all out push to raise water rates across the board.” 

These and other topics are the focus of the subcommittees where open discussion and a free exchange of ideas are actively encouraged among participants. The efforts and public policy advocacy of the AWWA’s teams is a pivotal step towards industry-wide collaboration to develop strategies to generate the awareness and political capital to bring water science into the 21st century. 

It is the passionate public campaigns such as this one by the AWWA that are going to spark the flame of transformation and to increase the respect and attention the entire water industry and its professionals deserve.


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