It is a common missive in today’s water industry that we have let our water infrastructure decay to a point of imminent failure. Nearly every article in industry magazines today features some allusion to the $250 billion to $1 trillion investment needed to maintain our access to clean, safe water for future generations. The explanations for this are many, ranging from historical under-investment, to a shift in funding streams, to a lack of adequate maintenance.
And yet, the solutions to our current problem of infrastructure failure cannot possibly be as simple as: spend more money. Why should we replace decades of mismanaged assets built by our grandparents’ generation with technology that could have been invented during our grandparents’ lifetimes? Has there ever been a time in modern history when rebuilding anything using the basic logic of 100 years previous has led to the best possible outcome for future generations? I can’t think of an adequate example.
Instead, what we in the water industry must begin to more actively develop is the most productive and resilient means to generate and distribute our water supplies. Like the fight that has been waged within the energy industry for the past two decades, the water industry is in desperate need of a ‘distributed revolution.’ This is not a call to strand trillions of dollars of water pipeline and treatment plant assets – it is a simple nudge to remember that just because we are doing something today does not mean that it can’t be evolved and modified to better fit our needs in the future. This will require innovative thinking within the highest reaches of government and private enterprise, and undoubtedly it comes with great risk to those who manage these assets. But it is also foolish to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on a metaphorical Band Aid for a problem that requires a far more profound transformation.
Rather than building centralized plants to generate and distribute our water resources, consumers must begin actively taking control of their water supplies. Rather than relying on a team of under-appreciated and overworked municipal water staff, we must develop localized and automated treatment systems that these individuals can tend to on an ‘as-needed’ basis. The technology to perform such a transition already exists, from modernized SCADA control systems, to point-source wastewater treatment for irrigation purposes, to atmospheric water generators that produce all of the drinking water families would ever need.
For those out there who claim the water industry is a generation away from the innovative technology needed to implement this distributed paradigm shift, I recommend you spend time at next year’s WEFTEC show walking the aisles and talking to the startups and early commercial products that will amaze even the most cynical amongst us. Transitioning to this model will provide greater assurance that our money is being spent with an eye towards becoming more resilient as we look around and see city upon city, from New Orleans to San Juan, with centralized water infrastructure in varying stages of disrepair.
There remains much yet to study in order to ensure that this distributed water transition is performed efficiently and economically. Many interests and concerns must, rightly, be included in this discussion if we look to follow certain assets and invest elsewhere. The point here is not to take resources or finances away from municipalities or municipal employees. Instead, the goal must be to work with water managers, communities and water entrepreneurs in order to ensure that we are using resources and existing expertise to best prepare for the future. Decreased flows to treatment plants will lead to decreased revenues and further stretching of maintenance budgets. But this is not a zero-sum game. If traditional revenues decrease as individuals invest on a distributed basis, municipalities must work to provide operations and maintenance services for these new resources. If budgets for water and wastewater operators are decreased, communities should be tasked with helping find opportunities to utilize the knowledge and expertise of these unsung heroes.
Paradigmatic shifts are never easy, but when stakeholders are engaged and encouraged to adopt new and innovative ways of thinking, they tend to do so readily. In turn, there is no doubt we can develop a new generation of water infrastructure and resources that are in line with our current capabilities as a society. That is the distributed generation that we need.