Changes in climate, over pumping of groundwater and channeling our waterways, have fundamentally altered our hydrology. Lack of investment has aged our infrastructure to the breaking point of public trust, and economic pressures have allowed over allocation of water while undervaluing the limited resource of fresh water. Within this context, utilities are now faced with absorbing additional environmental, social and economic responsibilities to address the critical issues of our time:
- Access to fresh water
- Provision of clean and trusted fresh water
Although utilities are building additional functional capacities and skillsets to solve these issues, water governance remains the hardest and most significant barrier to utility transformation.
These issues are regional, and cannot be solved without a holistic watershed perspective (watersheds are the land area draining into a waterbody, and defined by natural borders such as topography). However, our water governance structure has little to no alignment with the hydrology of a watershed. For example, ~90% of the US population is served by municipal waste/water utilities. These municipal jurisdictions were formed to serve populations within boundaries of convenience without watershed perspective. This has resulted in municipal jurisdictions with little control of the watershed providing their source water.
This fundamental misalignment of jurisdictional boundaries hinders a water utility’s response to solving fresh water access, flooding, and protecting water quality. Below is an example of each to highlight the concern.
- There is overarching watershed authority (some states have drought plans — typically for agriculture) to coordinate and allocate water under drought or scarce water conditions
- Solutions to river flooding often lay upstream and outside the jurisdiction of afflicted municipalities. It is very difficult for a downstream utility to invest in logical upstream flood protection outside their jurisdictional beauty
- Finally, a municipal utility does not have the authority to implement toxicity/water security planning throughout the watershed
In essence, even as water utilities prepare to address these issues, they will find themselves with very limited influence over the management of water within their source-water watersheds. Therefore, we advocate that utilities shift to a combination of the below options to better collaborate and gain a holistic influence over their water sources:
- Increase the shared services between water and wastewater utilities
- Form formal coalitions, collaborations, and joint authorities
- Develop a trusted data platform to share and analyze information across utilities
- Politically or financially merge water utilities and wastewater utilities with a watershed
Utilities can transform and adopt the functions, skill sets and governance needed to solve these problems, providing the influence and common sense leadership role given to them since the Clean Water Act (CWA) and Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of the 1970s. Managing water is the core issue of our time. Let’s design and set forth the governance structure that will sustain our societies for the long term. The technology is available, the resources are available, the will is there, let’s get out of our own way and allow utility leadership to evolve and take the responsibility inherent in the CWA and SDWA.
If we fail to transform our governance, other entities will fill the gap, and utilities will remain…well…utilitarian, continuing to be highly responsive yet undervalued.