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‘And Not A Drop To Drink:’ Is There a Looming Water Supply Crisis?

Richard Levick Forbes.com Signs abound that we are finally beginning to understand what Bedouins have known from time immemorial: that water, far from a commodity that can be taken for granted, is, in fact, a resource so precious that nation states are eminently capable of launching preemptive military strikes if ready access to supply is ever denied them. From a geopolitical perspective, water could turn out to be the oil of the 21st century. To be sure, we in the United States are far from such exigency. (Our tendency is to still reserve expeditionary forces for securing black gold.) That said, we may already be facing a water infrastructure crisis, as many Californians can easily confirm. At issue is our ability to continue to adequately source, treat, and distribute this life-essential fuel even as pressures on utility rates and misunderstandings about realistic cost alternatives obviate ready solutions. Two very different recent events underscore the growing urgency. In September, Participant Media – the same production company that gave us Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – released Last Call at the Oasis. The film introduces us to communities struggling with the impact of inadequate water provisioning and offers some bold solutions. Promotional materials favor consumers with water conservation tips, from fixing leaks to eating less red meat (as 1,800 gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of beef). Apparently, we may be at the cusp of another major environmental communications initiative, a push for water conservation not so different from the recycling campaigns that have had extraordinarily positive environmental impact. Considering the collective behavior change that those past campaigns effected, I wouldn’t sneeze at these efforts to alter U.S. water consumption habits. A second event reflects the concerted initiatives of the industry itself. This Saturday (October 15-19) in Los Angeles begins the Water Environment Federation’s Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC®), the largest conference of its kind in North America gathering thousands of water quality professionals from around the world. This industry event has been held every year for decades but a tangibly new sense of mission surrounds next week’s discussions. “In the past, WEFTEC focused on wastewater and related clean-up and compliance issues,” explains Dan McCarthy, President and CEO, Black & Veatch’s Global Water Business. “Now the discussion has moved toward generating energy and recovering nutrients such as phosphorous from wastewater, and moving the industry beyond purely environmental protection. “Equally important, it’s no longer just a wastewater conference. The agenda has expanded to integrate all facets of the water industry,” adds McCarthy. The expanded purview suggests a growing realization that the entire industry must now think, act, and speak as one in order to address the water resource challenges confronting the world. Such a broader focus seems happily compatible with the public concerns about water in Last Call at the Oasis and other instances of environmental advocacy. There have long been signs of an increasingly collaborative mood. “The environmentalists have become more agreeable to consensus-building in developing solutions,” observes McCarthy. “For example, they know, just as we know, that full compliance with the Clean Water Act is impossible, but that, if we can reduce overflow events from, say, 100s per year to just a few, we’ve achieved a great collective success.” The difference, of course, is that, for the producers, cost and rate structures are more immediately practical issues of importance. Actually, it’s these relatively unglamorous business issues – the parsing of rate hikes, the search for new revenue streams, the decision to rebuild plants or hold off on new capital outlays – that best explain society’s larger challenges with respect to water. These challenges are all about public perception, especially the common misconception that, unless we choose to pay a premium for “natural spring water,” we should be able to turn on our taps and drink for free or at de minimis rates. By contrast, the industry knows that entitlement carries a real cost. For example, you need to figure in the capital requirements for treatment plants and transportation facilities. The entire process of providing clean water likewise requires electricity, and electricity isn’t cheap. No wonder industry leaders are understandably preoccupied with how to fit public expectations to marketplace realities in a persistently burdensome economy. It’s no coincidence that, in a recent Black & Veatch White Paper summarizing the viewpoints of water industry leaders from seventeen countries, public education about water was one of a half-dozen top priorities. If the environmentalists are past masters of effective public communications, the water industry must match their effectiveness – not in a dueling war of opposed opinions, but rather with a separate campaign that can educate consumers about the pressures that drive its decisions and the conflicting economic goals that it is trying to resolve for the common good. Such communications should candidly elucidate the business realities with which the water industry must grapple; credible messages, for example, about how private investment can alleviate the burden on municipalities to support water infrastructures. (Some industry leaders estimate the current potential for private investment in water to be as much as a billion dollars.) Public-Private Partnerships are another issue on the table. In light of the public’s distrust of Wall Street, this messaging should certainly emphasize how private sector involvement may be part of the solution-set that we need to consider to solve the challenges we’re facing. At the same time, effective industry communications should tackle vexatious issues head-on: the fact, for example, that conservation often results in shortages, which, in turn, exert upward pressure on rates. Again, there’s no need to pick a fight with the environmentalists. If anything, the fact that the release of Last Call at the Oasis and the WEFTEC conference so closely coincide in time has a reassuring symbolic value: that the priorities of the activists and the industrialists are indeed fundamentally compatible. Both sides agree on what the world needs. The problem – of how to best provide it – can and must be solved. http://www.forbes.com/sites/richardlevick/2011/10/13/and-not-a-drop-to-drink-is-there-a-looming-water-supply-crisis/2/