Report from the Water Infrastructure Summit

Linda Hanifin-Bonner

By Linda Hanifin-Bonner, Water-Design Build Council

This past week, presentations sponsored by numerous national organizations at the Water Infrastructure Summit (Reinvest/Rebuild/Revive) focused on the role that the water infrastructure industry has in the jobs market. In fact, the Water Environment Federation (WEF), catalyst for this forum, has established a “Waterforjobs” website (www.waterforjobs.org) that advocates messages for creating jobs, innovation, and safeguarding public health. The business case presented is, “Federal investment in water and wastewater leverages enormous benefits nationally and for our local economies. Each public dollar invested in water infrastructure increases private long-term Gross Domestic Product output by $6.35. It is estimated that a $1 billion invested in water and wastewater infrastructure can create over 26,000 jobs.”

Speakers at the Summit included representatives from four major water/wastewater utilities, together with presentations from Navigant Economics and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), an organization that annually produces a “Report Card on the Status of the Nation’s Infrastructure.” While the speakers’ messages were well presented with a somewhat new tone, one core topic that still exists is, how do municipalities and utilities obtain the vitally needed financial resources to repair and advance their water and wastewater systems?A second topic, that was not mentioned in any of the presentations, is the ability of municipalities and utilities to pursue a design-build delivery approach for improvements and replacements that can provide both costs and time savings.

Presenting an economic perspective, speaker George Schrink of Navigant Economics believes that 90% of the jobs within the water infrastructure are defined as “sustainable”. The challenge he noted, as many of us know all too well, is that funding shortfalls jeopardize this progress. He further cited EPA’s estimates for these shortfalls over the next decade as $288 billion for wastewater and $320 billion for the water infrastructure.

Howard Neukrug, Commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department, states that their philosophy for this complex system of providing services to the area since the 1880’s is essentially that it “cannot fail” in its responsibilities. In examining funding options, Philadelphia projects a 25 year horizon in which rate increases would be used to fund needed improvements, while examining other options. He also cites the management of storm water as a significant challenge to the area (as it is for most US cities). For this issue, Philadelphia is aggressively pursuing innovative and green options (for non-structural solutions) as compared to constructing expensive storm water sewers. Philadelphia’s message to its users is “One Water” and therefore the City has adopted an inclusive, integrated planning approach to these challenges.

General Manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Harland Kelly, stated that while he believes there is currently a good grade in the level of service and improvements within the service area, public officials cannot relax. This city took to heart the lessons learned from the 1989 earthquake, when much of its water infrastructure was seriously damaged, and immediately began a new program to continuously fund system improvements with rate increases; beginning first with $4.6 Billion for the water infrastructure and now focusing on $7 billion for wastewater.

As Commissioner of the New York City Deptartment of Environmental Protection, probably the nation’s largest purveyor, Carter Strictland emphasized the need to embrace changing the way systems are managed through innovate approaches both to storm water and creating a green environment, and by looking at the value of wastewater as a resource. In addition, he notes the work force is changing, with older generations leaving, often resulting in a skills and experience gap with new workers in their 30‘s and 40’s. But at the same time, a new diversity of thinking and ideas is emerging towards applying innovative approaches.

Eloquent as always, George Hawkins, the new General Manager for DC water, emphasized that his agency is not only one of the largest employers in the area, but also is a major economic driver. “Without water and wastewater services, businesses and industry would be unable to exist.” He views the significant value of the 360 mgd treatment facility (Blue Plains) as producing “enriched water” that needs to be used. If this product has to be clean enough to discharge into one of the nation’s largest estuaries, then it also needs to be good enough for significant reuse throughout the nation’s capital and suburban areas. As with the other speakers, Hawkins also is an advocate for the use of “green innovative strategies” such as rain gardens, and the use of grey water for golf courses and landscaping. But Hawkins also raises another point for consideration, posing a critical question on the regulations linked to innovative solutions for reducing costs. As an example, nutrient removal is a major issue for treatment facilities. However, funding being applied to agricultural practices is on a different scale.

Again a familiar theme occurred with the speakers, that the public does not value water – and that a greater understanding and becoming more knowledgeable about these issues needs to occur. One speaker also noted that within the “public sector” it is not only the average customer who takes these services for granted (because they are out of sight/out of mind), it is also many of our public officials who are responsible for making decisions on financial options for the infrastructure. These comments, while highlighting the challenges currently occurring, also raised other questions.

If there is validity to the message (stated at the Summit) that the “Rate of Return on Investment” in the water infrastructure is greater than that of transportation infrastructure, then a more serious issue is how we are going to be able to convince those decision-makers to support innovative funding strategies such as the WIFIA proposal? In addition, if changes to the tax codes occur, with resulting impacts on the bond market, that affect the ability of municipalities and utilities to gain financing for their system, then we have to ask, how will these basic needs be met? The question that then emerges is, where and who are the decision-makers that are the champions for our water infrastructure?

In the past two decades, numerous organizations have dedicated serious financial resources to producing educational materials focusing on the value of water and the need for new methods of financing needed improvements and repairs to our nation’s infrastructure. As a result, there has been a change in the public’s attitude about water. But we are still not where we were in the 1980’s, when there were vocal advocates championing for a change in regulations and financing options. Where are these advocates today?

In her closing message to the audience of water infrastructure supporters, Karen Pallansch, Chief Executive Officer of the Alexandria Renew Enterprises (formerly the Alexandria Sanitation Authority), challenged us to keep the narrative fresh, compelling and constant in order to make a difference, not only with agency customers but with public officials as well. She also cited that other tools to survive are partnerships with economic development. Not only does a reliable and safe water infrastructure system relate directly to good health and sanitation; it also has a significant impact on jobs.

Perhaps the takeaway message from the Summit is that Jobs for Water may offer a new approach to capturing the attention of public officials who have a decision-making role when it comes to infrastructure financing options. But is this message strong enough to galvanize the changes needed to get policy officials to adopt and provide the financial resources for our water and wastewater infrastructure? And, isn’t there a missing piece to this message – that the use of design-build delivery is an important financial component to achieving the intended goals of a reliable water infrastructure and effectively managing those resources?

The Call to Action

We need your voice! Help educate decision makers that Water Puts America to Work – Investment in Water Infrastructure Creates Jobs, Drives Innovation, and Safeguards Public Health.  Ask elected officials what they intend to do to address our nation’s water infrastructure crisis. Ask them to put America to work by making water a top priority. Use social media to deliver the campaign message and visit WaterForJobs.org for more information on how you can support this effort.

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Topics: WDBC Admin.

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