Seeing What is Already There…But Not Necessarily Obvious

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I recently attended The Ohio State University’s Community Engagement Conference and the launch of the University’s new Sustainability Institute. The conference theme, no surprise, centered on sustainability and I was invited to share some thoughts on the challenges we face managing our water resources.

The panel was moderated by Linda Weavers, who directs Ohio’s Water Resources Center, and included Bob Davis, from the Cleveland Department of Public Utilities, and Ken Heigel, the Assistant Executive Director at the Ohio Water Development Authority, and me.

As I told the audience, these people are my heroes.

They (and many in similar roles) design, operate, and finance the systems that each day provide our homes with three-quarters of a ton of the world’s cleanest water, take it away when we’re done with it, and return it—treated—to the environment. And they do this for less than the cost of a cup of coffee at your favorite café. Wow!

As a group, we explored the challenges of doing that work well and sustainably. By sustainably, I mean free of negative impacts in perpetuity, so of course there are challenges. There are affordability issues—even at these low rates, some people can’t afford this service.  Many, perhaps most, small systems struggle to provide service at a reasonable cost—4,500 of the nation’s 50,000 systems are in Ohio and most of them are small.

Moreover, our infrastructure is old and in need of attention. And that older infrastructure was built for a vastly different set of conditions than we are experiencing today—much more rain falls in more frequent big storms now; we have more prolonged dry periods; our communities have changed, many have lost population, others have gained; and the economy in both urban and rural areas is entirely different than it was when our current systems were built decades ago.

So our panel got me thinking.

Most of our water infrastructure is invisible—buried underground, in walls, or in treatment plants tucked out of view. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. I’d like to challenge that in two ways.

First, I urge you to look around and see the role that all of our built environment plays as water infrastructure. Streets are the water infrastructure to prevent driving, biking, and bussing in the mud. Sidewalks do the same for walking. Roofs keep water out of our living spaces. Water infrastructure is everywhere, in plain sight.

We in the Great Lakes region luckily live in a moderately wet place. Our built environment is about drying it out for our convenience. The question is less “Do we have enough infrastructure,” (we do) and more “Do we have too much,” (maybe) or “Do we have too much at cross purposes,” (yep).

To solve our problems, we need to see the proverbial whole board. This, of course, includes the natural environment. Take trees—they function as water infrastructure: they store a bit of water, and they pump it back into the air as vapor. No road or sidewalk can do that. Trees, grasses, and wetlands are all part of our water future.

We need to break out of comfortable silos of grey vs. green infrastructure and design integrated solutions, not engage in an infrastructure arms race at public expense.

The second challenge is to think differently about the ownership and financing of water infrastructure. Our conventional language and habits have blinded us to the actual ownership structures of, and capital investments in, our water systems.

If you think about water systems in terms of the lineal miles of sewers, distribution mains, and connections to homes and businesses, in a typical “public” utility, about half of those miles are public assets (public pipes in the public right-of-way) and half are privately owned (the private pipes under our private property).

Think about that. The private component of the public utility is not reflected well in our conversations about water infrastructure, at least not in the vast majority of conversations I have heard. What new possibilities might we imagine if we start seeing the system as it actually is?

In terms of financing, when municipalities go to the capital markets for bonds, private parties (generally) end up owning them. Even the most vanilla public finance deals are public-private partnerships. We often think of those partnerships in polarizing ways. The specter of private ownership of water, or loss of control, can paralyze us.

On the other hand, failing to see the hand of private financiers in even the most vanilla bond issuances can cause us to miss overly restrictive covenants. By doing so, we limit the future options available to our local units of government in managing their water futures.

We need to see the capital structure of our water infrastructure more clearly, recognize the joint public and private sector roles, and, most importantly, engage better with the people that are served—treating them more as owners of the assets, not “customers” or rate-payers.

If people considered themselves owners and were treated that way, there would be a mindset shift. Owners need to know the condition of their assets, especially how much they’ve depreciated. Owners need to understand how the enterprise ensures its revenue matches current and future expenses. Owners should take an active role in assuring that management is taking the steps required for the enterprise to sustain itself going forward.

Imagine how different our water systems could act if we, as owners, acted on our stake in the future of those systems, and were not treated as customers primarily concerned about the cost of service.

Now I have a challenge for you.

Engage in a conversation that emphasizes the infrastructure in plain sight, or that acknowledges the private component to what we usually imagine as a public utility. I’m curious to know how people might change if they consider themselves and are treated as owners instead of customers.

I’m in the solutions business and my instinct says if we can better see what our water system is, we can build better strategies for a sustainable water future.

So, what do you think? And whether you find the above useful or not, please share what might we do to more sustainably manage our water? What do solutions look like to you?

–David Rankin, Executive Director

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