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Summary of Sustainable Water Systems:
A Primer for Water Utility Decision Makers

Common Assets

Water is a public good that is essential to life. Responsible stewardship i.e., to reliably provide affordable and clean water and manage the wastewater generated through that use, is a water utility's primary responsibility.

Because the majority of American water systems are locally controlled public agencies, the enormous responsibility of protecting our water commons falls into the hands of public utility commissioners and other water policymakers. Yet these officials have little access to the training and support they need to protect our common resources and achieve critical system management and operational objectives. Keeping up with advances in our understanding of the need to protect our waters will require management expertise as well as money.

America's public water systems clearly face massive fiscal, technical, and regulatory challenges in upcoming years that will require an intense effort and sustained investment to address. Sustainable Water Systems:  A Primer for Water Utility Decision Makers represents the beginning of a long-term effort by Common Assets to build the capacity of local decision makers to be effective stewards of our water commons.

The fiscal and management challenges facing water systems are leading public agencies to look to the private sector to operate or simply buy out "privatize" their systems. The private water sector already generates more than $80 billion in revenue - about four times Microsoft's sales.  Privatization, however, puts a commonly shared resource and essential infrastructure under the control of a private institution that is inherently insulated from democratic governance.  All too often, it results in predictable bad outcomes for stakeholders.

Half of the U.S. population depends on underground aquifers.  For every five gallons we pump out, nature replaces only four. In some places the rate of depletion is much higher. In some states, all west of the Mississippi, agriculture takes more than 90 percent of the fresh water. Because it is improperly priced, fresh water is often used for low-value, water-intensive crops.  Subsidized water rates to agriculture pull scarce resources away from other uses, such as improvements in infrastructure, while enabling wasteful use and ecosystem damage.  In agricultural communities, groundwater pumping by diesel-powered pumps burdens neighbors living close to the fields with carcinogenic diesel emissions.

Because water infrastructure is essentially invisible and only thought about when it is not working, the public often overlooks it. Disengagement invariably leads to problems as unaware citizens show reluctance to pay for major system investments or measures to protect water sources.

The crumbling state of the nation's water distribution systems is contributing to countless gallons of water loss through leaks, just as supply concerns become more prevalent.  Nearly three in 10 utilities deferred maintenance of their infrastructure because of insufficient funding. Over the next 20 years, more than $1 trillion will be needed to finance the operation, maintenance, and upgrading of the nation's water infrastructure. User charges will be insufficient.

In addition to the costs of keeping up with ongoing and future needs, there remains a large backlog of investment to simply catch up with today's standards.

Waste, whether from loss through evaporation, poorly maintained infrastructure or through inefficient use, is extraordinarily expensive.

Protecting source watersheds and the integrity of the system infrastructure are cost-effective ways to ensure that water and the means to deliver and treat it are available.  Regular ongoing maintenance of utility infrastructure will mitigate the effects of normal wear-and-tear and extend the life of the system, thereby preventing expensive, catastrophic failures and the need for massive capital rebuilding programs. A commitment to continual public involvement will protect the integrity of planning processes and help to protect against cost increasing delays for necessary upgrades.

Growing demand will place greater pressure on water sources. As these fundamental stores of natural capital are degraded and depleted, the water we need will be harder to come by and more expensive.  Protecting these sources is the most effective way to preserve our natural heritage, avoid steep, future expenses, and ensure that water is available when and where it is needed.

Where ground water makes up the bulk of water sources, extra attention must be given to preventing groundwater pollution, promoting recharge and percolation, and preventing overdrafts. As more water is moved from one major watershed into another, importers of water not only need to protect their watersheds, but also ensure that the above measures apply for both source and user watersheds.

Hard limits on total water withdrawals are an indispensable component of protecting the natural capital that constitutes nature's water filtration and distribution system.  Dramatic reductions in per capita water use will be necessary for long-term stewardship of our natural capital, as well as to keep up with the population growth that will drive water demand.  Measures that include end-use efficiency, storm water harvesting, and advanced recycling must all be part of the toolbox to reduce demand by domestic, agricultural, commercial and industrial users.  Water recovered through conservation and efficiency measures is often the least expensive supply source and offers the greatest opportunity to increase the available water.  Water and wastewater treatment technology has reached the point that significant economies of scale can be realized in smaller facilities than in times past.  Achieving the goal of sustainability will, however, require cutting-edge technology, ongoing education and training, and a tenacious commitment to long-term institutional change.

Action Items

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