"Who runs our water?" is a legitimate question to ask ourselves in the Age of Replacement with a $1 trillion price tag. The quick answer: 72,000 water utilities run by thousands of workers. The long answer includes variables such as water utilities following a traditional business model to meet tightening requirements, staggering infrastructure costs and the resistance to pay increases. Not to mention, as the earth continues to heat up, utilities will need to structure themselves accordingly to meet the occurrence of weather-related disasters.
Some utilities have been assembling research teams and collaborating on new ideas with external resources such as research centers, universities and consultants to help with cost of service and trigger new revenue outlets.
The American Water Works Association (AWWA) “State of the Water Industry” report indicates that “one in ten utilities are either considering or beginning to implement projects in which wastewater undergoes a series of treatments and is reintroduced to drinking water systems. This process involves advanced technologies such as reverse osmosis, membrane treatment and advanced oxidation.”
One in ten is not even close to enough. Many utilities still are in need of clearer guidance for developing and leading teams. As shown in Flint, Michigan, utilities that are not properly invested in will have a hard time meeting increasing monetary and environmental demands. Many of them are understaffed and underfunded, and have begun to ask themselves how they will be able to compete with privatization. What’s more, with most of our nation’s water utilities, they are unequally distributed. According to the EPA, only 8 percent of the nation’s water utilities serve 82 percent of the population.
By bringing our utilities into the eye of the public and working with them on sustainable, safe, cost-effective solutions, we will be able to better address America’s water infrastructure. This is what pump manufacturer Grundfos had in mind when it created its “Who Runs The Water That Runs America” campaign to help water and wastewater utilities raise public awareness of the water sector and the challenges it faces.
“Our goal is to bring the heroes of the water and wastewater utilities to the forefront and help them with their public communication,” says Robert Montenegro, executive vice president of Water Utility/Municipal at Grundfos. “In a recent consumer research survey, only 38 percent of respondents said they are knowledgeable or highly knowledgeable on the condition of their local water supply. Grundfos hopes water utilities can reach the remaining 62 percent that may not fully realize or appreciate what goes into providing them water and who is responsible.”
Grundfos recently launched websites, one directed at the public and the other for water utility professionals. The site for consumers provides information on water cycles and usage, pricing and global implications. It also offers a utility locator and a quiz to measure water consumption. This interactive site is how the company hopes to provide some outreach to the public, which has been a huge challenge for utilities.
I took the online quiz to test my own footprint. It turns out, I’m a water waster. I take 25-minute showers, eat meat at least three days a week and drive a car. Though there are more obvious ways I can cut back on my day-to-day use, like cutting down my showers to 10 minutes or less, many wasteful water practices are “indirect.”
“That means you aren’t the one actually using the water, but are still taking part in an activity made possible by someone else’s use of it. For example, it takes 634 gallons of water to produce a hamburger. If you eat one less burger a week, it has the same water-saving effects of line-drying your clothes half the time. Another example — it costs around 2,900 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. If you cut down on how many jeans you buy in a year, you are cutting down on water use,” Montenegro says. Ninety percent of our total water footprint is taken up by indirect use.
The website directed at water utility professionals offers free resources they can use to educate consumers about America’s water and wastewater infrastructure. It shares templates for social media posting, as well as a short movie that utilities can customize with their own information and download to their websites. This site provides professional resources that “many smaller and midsize utilities don’t have at the ready.” It also provides access to a consumer survey, detailing consumer attitudes around water utilities and water usage.
Grundfos’ consumer survey results are based on an online survey conducted by Kunde & Co (Copenhagen, Denmark), using a web survey panel to interview 2,000 individuals, 18 and older, living in the continental United States. The sample was nationally representative in terms of age, gender and state to ensure that the distribution mirrors that of the U.S. population, based on Census data. The survey was conducted March 6-13.
One of the most startling findings listed on the websites is that 49 percent of people don’t think they will be affected by a water shortage.
“That 49 percent number reveals a stark disconnect between consumers and water utility managers, who overwhelmingly expect a water shortage within the next 10 years, spurred by factors such as climate change and population growth. These two groups need to get on the same page for us to have a chance at solving some of our greatest environmental challenges,” Montenegro says.
Another disconnect pertains to the cost of water. “Only 2 percent of Americans said they felt they should pay more when asked to evaluate their water bill. It’s understandable — no one likes to pay more. However, more than 70 percent of water utilities surveyed in 2016 said they are not generating enough revenue to cover their costs while also funding infrastructure improvements. Left unsolved, this disconnect could lead to water supply issues in the future,” Montenegro explains.
Advocating for change
Water utilities across the U.S. operate under a pricing model in which customer usage of water influences utilities’ revenue and financial performance. Many utilities use pricing tools for impacting use. However, changes in water use has left many to question if it’s necessary to restructure this model to allow for greater uncertainties.
The Water Research Foundation study, “Defining a Resilient Business Model for Water Utilities” articulates: “Without constant attention to pricing levels and structures, consistent decreases in water use from year to year can lead to significant revenue shortfalls for utilities. While many utilities have an expressed goal of reducing water usage, excessive declines in water use over recent years have caught many utilities off-guard, as revenues have fallen below predicted levels. As a significant driver of water use, weather can compound the relationship and its predictability, particularly in a time of climate extremities.”
National trends continue to point to lower use and financial challenges for utilities. The 2014 study concludes: “Data indicate that water use declines have been occurring for several years. In the long-run, these reductions are beneficial to the utility and to the environment, putting less stress on existing water resources, lowering power and chemical uses and costs, delaying the need for expanding water resource supplies, freeing current supplies for future customers, and preserving water resources for environmental uses. However, because demand is closely linked to utility revenue, low levels of water use in the short-run are likely to create the largest financial challenge facing water and sewer utilities in the coming decades.”
Another consumer survey finding states that 60 percent of people surveyed are satisfied with services provided by their water utility, but 35 percent of them don’t know enough about their water or its services. If everyone’s happy or ignorant, why should utilities be pushed into the spotlight? Why is this consumers’ problem?
“It ultimately goes back to the aging infrastructure of America’s water and wastewater systems. If consumers don’t know about their water utility or its services, they won’t understand the increasing need to improve pipes, sewers, pumps and other water-related components, most of which date back to the 1940s or earlier,” Montenegro explains. “Americans oftentimes don’t focus on a problem until it impacts them directly, but we must be more proactive. Regarding the learning, that’s the whole point of this initiative. Through the resources we offer, our hope is that water utilities will be better equipped to educate the consumers they serve about the importance of maintaining America’s water infrastructure.”
Change begins with the advocates for said change. And if advocates have information on their utilities readily available that they can use to reach decision-makers, we will be that much closer to pushing the cause of infrastructure funding. Behavioral change — how much water we consume and how we consume — also will be essential to the change equation.
Montenegro explains, “Educated consumers make vocal advocates for change. The more people who care about this issue, the more people who are willing to talk to their congresspersons about pushing the cause of infrastructure funding on Capitol Hill. Or maybe it’s a behavioral change, like eating one less burger here and there, or reducing the length of a shower. It all comes down to providing the facts so that consumers can act — even in small ways. When consumers are on the same page as water utilities, there’s power in that as well —more understanding around what water costs, and how much more will be needed to correct issues before they become problems.”