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Future of Water Infrastructure

I have just returned from a three-day expert workshop on Financing Sustainable Water Infrastructure sponsored by the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread. This is one of the best and most useful gatherings I’ve attended on the future of water, wastewater, drainage and other “utilities.” Financiers, C-suite executives, entrepreneurs, ngo leaders, and regulators explored what the “utility” of the future would do, how it might be capitalized, and how ongoing services would be paid for. This discussion is closely allied with two workshops that the Fund recently hosted exploring similar issues.

Reports on all three will be forthcoming shortly– watch this space for updates.

Based on the energy and enthusiasm in these sessions, it seems like the utility space is not only ripe for innovation, but that we are already in the early days of transforming what we now call water “utilities.” A few common themes: distributed technologies (think green infrastructure, rainwater harvesting, and agricultural BMPs) are disrupting the natural monopoly of utilities—opening up new ownership structures and access to different capital sources; revenues, currently from rates (based on cost recovery) can move toward prices (based on creating shared value)—think about on-bill financing of efficiency technologies, point-of-use services (like carbonation or filtration), and buying a share of equity in the utility; integration and consolidation makes financial and performance sense—there is one hydrologic cycle, but our services are fragmented, myopically optimized, and often operate at cross purposes; and last, change is happening—Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Cleveland are fundamentally rethinking how they deliver services. Some of these things will work, other won’t, but there is much learning underway. What is exciting is the chance to embed positive ecological change in the center of whatever water “utilities” become.

For another attendee’s take on the Wingspread meeting, read Peter Malik’s post here. Thanks to the Johnson Foundation, American Rivers and CERES for planning this event.

We welcome ideas for projects that try a specific action which will catalyze the changes underway in this industry. Have one of those ideas? Let’s start a conversation.