These days, the innovation occurring in the public clean water utility sector is both exciting and breathtaking. Not long ago clean water agencies were content to do their job, out of sight and out of mind, using traditional operational techniques. But now, they seek to be more active participants in building long-term economic and environmental sustainability in their communities by pursing new business models, advancing creative ideas to challenging problems, and producing valuable products.
At a time when a whole new set of environmental issues never envisioned by the Clean Water Act (CWA) – such as the impacts of climate change, drought, and growing nutrient impairments – are combining with unprecedented economic and infrastructure pressures to squeeze utilities from all sides, many clean water agencies are finding that innovation is the only way to address these challenges.
Nothing embodies this new spirit of innovation more cogently than the “Utility of the Future (UOTF)” concept. At its heart, the UOTF movement is about utilities moving beyond just complying with the CWA, to embracing innovative approaches and technologies related to energy production – e.g., water reuse, green infrastructure, non-traditional partnerships, and more – that improve environmental performance, while lowering costs and increasing revenue. NACWA is proud to have spearheaded the UOTF movement and worked with other organizations in the water sector to advance the effort.
But the UOTF concept is just part of the innovation that will be critical to helping municipal clean water utilities meet the environmental and economic challenges of the 21st century. NACWA is advancing and fostering this innovation, both through advocacy of smarter legislative, regulatory and enforcement approaches, but also by ensuring that certain areas remain free of regulation where appropriate, to allow for experimentation and new thinking. The following areas exemplify this:
- Climate Change & Resiliency – There may be no greater challenge facing the municipal clean water community over the coming decades than climate change. Changing precipitation patterns and more extreme weather events are already upending years of planning and infrastructure investment based on historical data. These changes are impacting different communities in different ways, but all utilities are now putting more thought into resiliency planning to ensure they are prepared to address these unpredictable conditions. NACWA is advocating for utilities to have the space and flexibility they need to adapt to these changes in innovative ways.
- Green Infrastructure (GI) – Communities nationwide have found GI to be cost-effective in reducing wet weather overflows, while also providing a host of other ancillary community benefits. GI will continue to be an important tool as communities address increasing precipitation and intensity of storm events that result from climate change. NACWA helped make GI an acceptable regulatory approach and continues to advocate for its use when communities believe it appropriate.
- Water Reuse & Recycling – Climate change and drought have made water an even more precious resource, especially in the West and Southeast regions of the country. And the role of water reuse will only grow in importance. NACWA and its members play a leading role in advancing the discussion of water reuse to a higher level in national policy discussions, reinforcing the important link between clean water utilities and sustainable drinking water supplies for the future
- Energy – Utilities are doing incredible work to improve energy efficiency and produce energy. This helps the utility’s bottom line, but it also minimizes a community’s carbon footprint and even helps advance national energy independence goals.
- Resource Recovery – Utilities are more frequently recovering materials from the treatment process to sell as valuable products. This is particularly true of “nutrients,” with some utilities installing struvite recovery technologies to create a reusable phosphorus-based fertilizer. NACWA is working with EPA to ensure that products such as struvite are not inappropriately regulated in a way that would otherwise limit their use. NACWA will continue advocacy to remove barriers around resource-recovery opportunities that were never considered by the CWA.
- Watershed Approaches – While the CWA has been successful in controlling impairments from point sources, its severe limitations on addressing non-point sources has become more and more glaring. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the context of nutrients issues. NACWA has been at the forefront of addressing these issues through collaborative approaches that account for all sources of impairment in a watershed. NACWA is pursuing these collaborations within an innovative watershed context, to achieve maximum water quality improvement.
- Technology & Big Data – The explosion of computing power, increases in the number and type of sensors/monitoring devices, and a growing sophistication of analytical tools are providing utilities with an abundance of data, as well as an opportunity to improve operational and management efficiencies; at lower costs than ever before. This new analytical power holds tremendous promise in enhancing environmental performance, improving water quality, and lowering costs for ratepayers. NACWA is working to facilitate utility deployment of this technology, while ensuring that national policies reflect the best uses of these new advances.
New Funding Sources – In the absence of any new meaningful funding sources from federal or state governments, more and more utilities are exploring innovative financing projects with the private finance sector to help shrink the funding gap. These “public-private partnerships” (P3s) are an important new tool in the funding tool box for utilities. NACWA is advancing these partnerships -- where they seem sensible for utilities -- both by broadening the conversation between the public utility and private finance sector, and by pursuing advocacy to facilitate additional use of private finance in a manner that does not undercut more traditional financing tools.