Excerpted from the report, Charting New Waters: Financing Sustainable Water Infrastructure:
Our water infrastructure, designed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, no longer meets today’s needs and challenges. Water management agencies have focused for over 100 years on the hardware of water and wastewater management: the pipes, pumps and reservoirs needed to move the drinking water, waste and stormwater through the system or store it until needed. These rigid systems were designed and operated based on the assumption of stationarity in our natural systems. Those assumptions are now seen as short-sighted and no longer match our understanding of nature.
We need to transition from systems built around managing water under historical conditions of “certainty” to those built around flexibility to respond to unpredictable or rapidly changing conditions. First, we need to conceptualize our water infrastructure as an integrated system of natural water resource systems (green), and built/engineered pipes and treatment plants. We also need to move from an emphasis on centralized infrastructure to decentralized systems that are more resource and energy efficient, and scalable from the site to city level. We have to integrate all water systems to use the “right water for the right need” (e.g. watering landscapes with rainwater or non-potable water), reducing treatment costs and the length of pipe needed to fulfill specific water needs. We must start extracting the significant resources (nutrients and energy) found in wastewater rather than discarding them as waste. And finally, every dollar spent on water infrastructure must provide multiple benefits, such as lowering urban temperatures, increasing green space and parks, or creating local jobs. These are the realities of our fiscally-constrained and climate-altered world. We are at a turning point with our water infrastructure investment. We can either continue to build the equivalent of 1960s-era mainframe computers or move to laptops, tablets and cloud storage.