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In 1993, I was at my aunt’s house in Milwaukee. It was a pretty normal day except I remember noticing my aunt and mom boiling gallons and gallons of water for drinking because the water was making people sick. In a two-week period, an estimated 400,000 people fell ill in the city. I’ll never forget it because it was the first time in my life that water wasn’t taken for granted.
It took a massive investigation from Milwaukee’s Department of Health to determine that cryptosporidium had contaminated the city’s water supply. Cryptosporidium is a parasite that causes diarrheal disease. I wish that had been the only time in my life experiencing any massive public health scare, but we all know that’s not true.
To date, the Milwaukee event is the largest epidemic of a waterborne disease reported in the United States. Years later, with the advent of DNA, it was determined that the source of the parasite was from human or cattle waste getting into the water distribution system.
Throughout my career, I have been fascinated with the water utilities that make up our country. Something that is so essential to life has somewhat of a Wild West mentality when you uncover the organization of it all. For this column, I wanted to learn more about what is going on “before the meter” and what the current state of our water and wastewater utilities is.
Fun fact: My cousin, Emily Simonson, is the director of strategic initiatives at the US Water Alliance. Seemed like a great resource, and I think there’s an unwritten rule about helping family if they ask nicely. The insight she gives inspired me to check out the US Water Alliance and the great work they are doing. I hope you do, too.
Cory: So, there are a lot of ties with what we are doing in the industry as plumbing engineers to the work you are doing with water and wastewater utilities across the country. The individuals designing these systems are increasingly interested in the source of the domestic water that we are designing for our clients’ domestic water needs — I would say starting in the last 10 years with the situation in Flint, Mich. Would you say you’re seeing that as well?
Emily: Yes! Very much so.
CP: Can you give us some insight in what your role is and where you derived your passion for your work?
ES: I am the director of strategic initiatives at a national nonprofit called the US Water Alliance. I never imagined that I would be in the water sector but got a passion for it from my very first job out of college.
I thought I wanted to do international development work and wound up working for a small nonprofit outfit in Central Ghana in West Africa building rainwater harvesters for these communities that were getting completely bypassed by these big pipeline projects. It was really there where I got hit in the face with how critical water is to every sort of human thriving.
Whether it’s your public health, your community’s ability to have certain types of businesses and enterprises, or how resilient your farming operations can be without this basic infrastructure. This is where I realized that no other development can happen without this basic infrastructure.
After grad school, I landed at the EPA as a research fellow in Washington where I worked in the only environmental justice outfit in the office of water. It was called the Urban Waters program.
CP: What is the Urban Waters Program?
ES: It’s a program focused on revitalizing the waterways to produce community benefits such as access to nature, fishing, recreation and community growth. These core experiences really helped me come full circle when I think about what we do at the US Water Alliance because our whole mantra and our reason for existing links back to some of the dynamics that you pointed to when you introduced your own process of discovery about how water infrastructure is kind of the Wild West.
We have an incredibly fragmented system of how we manage water in this country. We like to divide up the pie [I think this is Emily’s nice way of saying everyone wants a cut]. We have the drinking water people over here, the wastewater people over there, water for fish, for farmers, water for cities.
Not to mention the more than 30 federal agencies that touch some aspect of water regulation. On a local level, many different authorities — regional and city-level authorities — touch water. And it’s really inefficient.
[Brief pause as Emily’s dog sees a deer at Emily’s cottage.]
Sorry, but if we take a lesson from elementary school science, we know it’s the same water. The water cycle is a closed system. We drink the same water today as the dinosaurs drank millions of years ago, and yet we have fragmented our process and how to deal with it. We’ve completely disrupted this natural process and divided it into all these little niche markets.
CP: [Shocked I have a relative more interested in water than I am.] Can you describe the role of the US Water Alliance?
ES: We try to advance a way of thinking and managing our water that reflects more of a systems mindset. Ultimately, we think it will be more inclusive, more sustainable and more integrated so that the different pieces of the sector can see how they’re affecting the other pieces. If we’re managing it from a holistic perspective, we believe we can get some better outcomes. We call that mantra, that philosophy of how to approach water management decisions, One Water.
We also want to be encompassing of the many different social movements as well, not just the engineering of how you think about drinking, stormwater, waste and groundwater management in a united fashion. We reflect a diverse member base — so not just utilities, but also environmental groups, social justice groups, agriculture sector groups, labor unions, and others.
They all come together under this banner of One Water and are leaders trying to be on the bleeding edge of how we might reimagine solutions to the really scary water challenges that we’re facing.
CP: What is the feedback that you’re getting from people who are selling water? I’m trying to piece this all together, but I’m guessing that you would envision a world where the water cycle is managed, where infrastructure, the distribution of it, the wastewater management of it is managed by one entity? Is that the perfect world, in your mind?
ES: I would just be happy if they coordinated.
I think the reality is water is a hyper-local issue, so there’s not one governance structure that is going to be a silver bullet in every community.
What you we need is a broader planning project implementation and management mindset that makes integrating and working together easier.
Since you did bring up governance, it can get tricky. In this country, the way that we fund the provision of water service relies on us treating water as a commodity. I pay for how much I use at my house and I’m charged, as if I were buying any other good by how much I issue, which determines how much I pay. One of the things that we have been thinking about is if can you actually put a cost on water as a good when it provides such a critical public health function.
In society, if you think about things such as fire services, we do not charge people when their house is on fire, for that fire being put out. We pay for that system as a public good rather than an individual commodity. I believe a lot of the frictions that we’re seeing in the field comes from the fact that we’re quickly running up against a limit in people’s ability to pay an increasing amount for something that they need.
It’s actually a more interesting exercise to think about how we can break the commodity paradigm and think about new ways to fund water that reflects the fact that water is life. Many groups talk about water as a human right, but we also need to acknowledge the fact that it’s expensive to treat drinking water, to treat wastewater, and to transport water through our infrastructure. So how do we balance those two realities?
Governance is part of it. Is it right that investors are making money off of water systems? Knowing how much investment our infrastructure needs writ large and that we rely on individual rate payers to cover those costs, there’s going to be a point where — without a lot of government investment and a different way of redistributing funding — this isn’t a sustainable funding model for something this critical.
CP: I’ve never heard that perspective before. Free water for everyone. It makes me think about people that would maybe take advantage of it and leave their sprinkler system on in the backyard or maybe running the shower 10 minutes longer so you probably still would need to regulate it, to some degree. However, but it’s an interesting concept when you think about how important it is to life and survival; you need water to the live and the fact that we sell that is sort of shocking when you hear it.
A water organization in Milwaukee called The Water Council held some conferences I attended; I was interested in this utility stuff on this project.
One of the sections I attended was on the sustainability side and how manufacturers were trying to reduce water as an organization. However, several water utilities were at the conference, and their stance on water reduction was interesting.
You think they would have been happy that these companies were reducing the amount of water they used in their manufacturing process, but now the water utility budgets were all thrown off because that was their business model for infrastructure investment. Is that an anomaly or is that the norm?
ES: Absolutely the norm. It begs the question of what market forces, market tools and interventions are available for us if we care about things such as sustainability and conservation, whether it’s on the water side or the energy side?
What we’re seeing is if a manufacturer uses 50 percent less water while paying reduced industrial rates, there goes a huge chunk of our budget to fix the water main in a community. That’s really a downstream problem of the more macro issue of how we fund this essential service, starting at the top right.
When the Clean Water Act was written into law, the federal government had a massive construction grants program (not loans) that built the wastewater systems. At the time, every community needed these funds to meet these new regulations that were passed but there was no long-term plan for how these communities were to keep their wastewater systems up.
Places with large rate-bases with a higher ability to pay fare much better, so we see these massive disparities in infrastructure quality across communities. It’s basically a system that is incapable of producing equal, let alone equitable, results.
CP: Wow, that is sad to think about. I’m grateful that we have people thinking about this and acting on these disparities. What would you say is the next step? What are you trying to accomplish in the next five years?
ES: Great question. Not to focus so much on the negative, I actually think water is having a moment right now from a policy perspective. The American Jobs plan, even though not all is getting passed, it would have been laughable just two years ago for an opening presidential ask to come in at $111 billion in water investments.
Even though current bills have that figure down to around $50 billion and most of it is going to be to remove lead service lines (for good reasons), it is still quite the shift and is giving us all hope. We have to keep raising the profile of these issues. That is a huge part of the work, to keep the pressure on to fund the infrastructure that we need.
If you’re thinking broadly about what the water sector needs, the US Water Alliance is working through a suite of projects under the banner of what it will take for the water sector to recover stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic. We thought of this project because of all the ways COVID illuminated the fundamental flaws in the design of how our systems work and how we’re set up when it comes to water. We thought of five things:
1. How do we price water to reflect its true value in a way that’s more sustainable?
2. How do we solve for universal and affordable access to water and wastewater service? My organization has done some research in the past that shows that more than 2 million Americans don’t have running water or a flushing toilet in their homes.
3. What are we doing about consolidation and regionalization? There are more than 50,000 drinking water systems alone and more than 15,000 wastewater systems. If you’re talking about change on a massive scale, you would have to replicate the same amount of change tens of thousands of times.
So, what are we doing about regionalization, what are we doing about consolidating this incredibly fragmented landscape, and how are we catalyzing those agreements to regionalize and consolidate?
4. Digital transformation of our water and wastewater networks. The pandemic showed us that your water operators can now operate from their kitchens.
This was critical during the cyber security hack on Super Bowl Sunday in Florida where a hacker released chemicals in the system. Digital technology alerted the operator, who was able to stop the attack quickly and remotely. However, the truth is that so many operators are using simple pen and paper and other analog systems that limit their ability to keep their systems safe and operating reliably.
5. How do we think about the water sector’s role in mitigating the climate crisis? What are our wastewater systems’ contributions to greenhouse gases? The water sector will bear a lot of the consequences of climate change, so how do we think about mitigation as an adaptation strategy for water utilities?
CP: One word that you keep saying is perspective. In the building world, we design based on code, which is usually based on fluid dynamics and, unfortunately, also tragedies such as what happened in Miami with the condo collapsing and Legionella outbreaks. Then we develop rules and regulations to protect our building occupants. So, the perspective comes in play.
What have you experienced or lived that is going to inform your decisions? When you go over to the sink, most people in our country expect the water to turn on and be clean. How do we mass-replicate the perspective so that our communities begin to appreciate these issues?
ES: A similar classic question that comes up is how you get inland states to care about sea-level rise? A “not my problem” attitude is what we’re talking about here.
The one thing I try to remind people who have an abundant source of water is that the same fundamental pressures that are leading to drought and wildfires far away are the same pressures that are leading to lake-level rise, erosion and massive flooding — which are wiping out our crops, destroying our sewer lines and ruining the nearby nature that we love.
On this broader issue of building will to act for infrastructure and close the access gap, I think we are naturally already seeing a lot of high-profile crises that are salient in people’s minds; obviously, the most salient one was the tragedy in Flint.
Whenever we conduct focus groups and talk to folks about what are the messages that would persuade them to support a bond increase to pay for better water infrastructure upgrades, we see the fundamental public health message rise to the top. That comes with the perspective of what it means to have water or to lose access to a water system it is always the most salient. Whether you are educated, noneducated, Republican or Democrat, across the board, this is the most salient message we get response from and I think we have to lean into that.
That’s a data-driven message. In the wave of crises hitting us — from Hurricane Katrina, to the algae blooms in Toledo that caused a massive boil water advisory, to winter storm Uri across Texas and much of the South — we are noticing that the cadence of these crises is increasing.
I also see trends in the news media where reporters are talking about these events as connected and symptomatic of a broader national infrastructure challenge and that gives me hope. Hope about how people will slowly be moved to have a perspective where they are willing to support what needs to be done, no matter their original corner or starting point.
I hope that these issues remain bipartisan. The polling that we are doing is showing us that infrastructure is one issue where we can come across the aisle. Can that support translate into policy? I hope it can but, unfortunately, I expect policies to continue being made reactively rather than proactively. I wish I could fix that, but I’m not sure anyone has the silver bullet.
CP: That’s really good. Very thought-provoking. I think the building engineers need to open their eyes on what is happening before the meter. Is there any cool content to gain this perspective?
ES: Yes, our website, www.uswateralliance.org, is probably the best place to start. For the initiative with the five interlocking solutions, that information can be found at https://bit.ly/3iFiZ1l. Those wishing to check out the results of our public polling on infrastructure attitudes can also visit www.thevalueofwater.org.
So, that’s the conversation. The information Emily shared really has me thinking more about our water and wastewater utilities and what is happening in our country. I want to thank her for assisting with this piece and carrying the passion for a One Water vision that can take us from the reactive mindset to a proactive public behavior. The conversation hopefully has you leaving curious about this topic of what is really happening before the meter.