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Rethinking Our Water Systems

David Rankin, Program Director

This week, a report titled Restoring Flows: Financing the Next Generation of Water Systems was released by Ceres and American Rivers. Innovators from around the country, including Fund-supported teams, are testing a variety of financing scenarios to set an early foundation for the critical work to come in the water systems space. Thanks to the Russell Family Foundation for sponsoring this work.

Building on the Johnson Foundation’s Charting New Waters convening, and by analyzing work already underway by those who have a head start, this report charts the pathways of cooperation that will be required to forge innovative thinking about our freshwater systems.

We are pleased that the report identifies several Fund-supported teams as leaders in the financing space. These teams are gaining traction and we hope to expand our impact with future investments. We have been working to promote these teams’ work—visiting with environmental groups, trade associations, and charitable foundations—to build shared-expertise on how we can pay for our infrastructure gap, how we can build the next generation business models to deliver what we need, and how we can work together on an issue that is nationally—if not globally—critical, even though the answers must work locally. If you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly recommend the Johnson Foundation report on financing sustainable water infrastructure.

Along those lines, the Fund hosted a recent workshop that explored how the next generation of water utilities can lead in ecosystem management innovations. You can read a summary report here. Some of the insights from this workshop have already been incorporated in our programming.

The Fund has invested in three teams to test some of the ideas discussed at the workshop. One team is exploring how distributed technologies can be bundled, managed and financed. While this work is at an early stage, it could well be a very positive disruptive force in the utility space. Another project is looking at new ways to target, finance and deliver conservation impacts in the rural environment. This work too, might catalyze new business models in the region’s food and fiber belt. A third effort is looking at how to facilitate water conservation in industrial customers of water utilities (including creative efforts in stormwater management), to drive positive ecological change, and navigate the many challenges (rates, disappearing user savings, and roi requirements).

We are looking for efforts to fill out this portfolio of work.

We would be interested in projects that test technologies, novel insights, new products, new revenue or financing models, or new combinations of services that have the promise of catalyzing change in the institutions that currently “manage” some aspect of freshwater.

Ideally, each would be a fairly substantial effort, work in a number of strategically important places, and be true collaborations (rather than large teams of a prime contractor with many subcontractors).

Here’s how you can help. In the comments below, or via e-mail, give us your advice on any of the following:

What ideas should we test?
Who is ready to lead such a project?
Where should we signal our interest in supporting such work?
What if anything has changed on the landscape that should alter our course?

– David Rankin, Program Director