As we reflect on its success, we must remember that the Clean Water Act is a symbol of innovation. Political and environmental leaders, with public support, boldly challenged the status quo. Perhaps such decisions are easier to make when rivers are on fire, which was actually the case on the Cuyahoga River in 1969, but the water sector needs more innovation like that right now.
Through my work in Asia, South America, Europe and the US, I have seen a wide range of water management issues and regulatory approaches across different geographies, watersheds and political environments. In my experiences, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend: the slow and often stifling rate at which cities and countries adopt innovative water management practices.
In developed economies, water is easily taken for granted. Water comes out when we turn on the tap, and it’s been that way for as long as most remember. But America’s infrastructure needs repair and major aquifers are being depleted. Today, more than half the world’s population lives in cities. This increases pressure on ecosystems and water treatment systems. New or updated infrastructure must be built to serve a growing population while ensuring a reliable water supply.
Yet, the timing for infrastructure investment couldn’t be worse – most communities are still reeling from a financial crunch and high unemployment, making it difficult for local mayors and city managers to argue the case for new technology and infrastructure upgrades. While this situation is clearly a problem, it can also be viewed as an opportunity to build upon the Clean Water Act and implement innovative systems and planning methods that transition us from a society of “water users” to a society of water stewards.
As water is essential to community well-being, energy production and all economic activity, best practices must be shared and innovation in technology and organization should be welcomed. But where do we begin?
We should start by resisting the urge to avoid innovation at the cost of reliability. Some believe that innovation can disrupt reliable water delivery and treatment. But one doesn’t come at the cost of the other.
In New York City, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is leveraging a new approach for working with the private sector that secures expertise while maintaining local control. As a result, DEP is expected to deliver annual financial benefits representing up to 10 percent of its operating budget by 2016 – more than $100 million in benefits each year.
On a simpler scale, innovation has occurred since the Clean Water Act’s onset. Burlingame, California recently marked a very important anniversary in the history of water treatment. In 1972, it launched the first and longest-running public-private partnership in the U.S. water industry, pioneering an entirely new model for providing environmental services to cities. In the past 40 years, Burlingame has benefited from improved services, millions of dollars in savings, and multiple operational and safety awards.
And for the first time, researchers in Europe have developed a process to produce biodegradable “bioplastics” from wastewater. This “biorefinery” can now use wastewater to produce plastic – a truly amazing example of generating value from waste.
There is tremendous potential right now to solve our water issues and ensure the continuous competitiveness of our cities. We can be the next great generation of water managers, just like the leaders who created the Clean Water Act. Getting there requires leadership and the courage to innovate.
As public interest in water is met with an understanding of the connection between water and economic growth, I believe we’ll be better positioned to integrate and develop solutions that will help future generations, just like the Clean Water Act is continuing to help us today.
Laurent Auguste is president and CEO of Veolia Water Americas, leading Veolia Water’s municipal and industrial business activities in both North and South America. He is an active board member of the US Water Alliance, the Milwaukee Water Council and the innovator behind www.growingblue.com. You can follow Veolia Water North America on Twitter here.