The National Council on Public-Private Partnerships (NCPPP) is working to highlight the need for increased investment in the United States’ aging and decaying water infrastructure. Communities across the country are struggling, due to tight budgets and other resource constraints, to protect their water resources. This challenge represents an increasingly dire threat to public health and safety.
To draw attention to and educate policy makers and the public on the importance of maintaining and improving communities’ water infrastructure, NCPPP, with funding from the Chesapeake Bay Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns Grant Program, convened the Integrated Water and Stormwater Infrastructure Symposium in Washington, D.C. this fall. The Symposium was led by NCPPP’s Water Institute, consisting of members who focused on developing and supporting public-private partnership (P3) approaches to address deteriorating water infrastructure across the nation. The Symposium brought together policy makers,practitioners and water experts from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to highlight the challenges to building and modernizing water infrastructure (a complete list of participants is available on the event website at waterinfrastructure.org). They also discussed best practices and innovative solutions with a focus on integrated development,community-based public-private partnerships, and other alternative delivery models that emphasize community development and participation. This meeting reflected and expanded on topics, challenges and potential location-specific solutions that had been discussed during a series of regional roundtables with water experts leading up to the Symposium.
Throughout the Symposium, participants identified a variety of barriers to addressing the nation’s growing water management and protection needs. Some causes are obvious, such as the lack of funding at the state and municipal levels in the face of other pressing infrastructure priorities. Other obstacles, however, are more subtle or complex. They include:
-The time-consuming process involved in testing, obtaining government approvals for and introducing new water treatment and conservation technology.
-A lack of coordination between federal and state environmental protection agencies.
-The very different levels and types of pollution large industrial and smaller, family-owned agriculture enterprises inflict on both land and water.
-The need for more data collection and research on conservation and remediation efforts to gauge success and develop best practices.
-The widespread tendency to fund and in other ways deal with drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems separately—and therefore unevenly and inefficiently—rather than adopting an integrated water approach.
-A lack of clear and consistent metrics that can be used to gauge regulatory compliance.
Spearheading the effort, Dominique Lueckenhoff, senior advisor on public-private partnerships, technologies and market-based solutions to the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, kicked off the forum by pointing out that deteriorating drinking water, wastewater and stormwater management systems are major threats to the U.S. economy and public health .
“Our water and wastewater infrastructure needs $1.7 trillion and that probably goes up every time we have a storm. That creates significant impacts: 240,000 water main breaks per year, 75,000 yearly sanitary sewer overflows that discharge three to 10 billion gallons of untreated wastewater and more than 5,000 illnesses due to exposure to contaminated recreational waters,” as well as other sources of water-borne diseases and bacteria,” she explained.
Causes ranged from flooding from hurricanes and other severe weather events, which cause wastewater treatment plants and septic systems to overflow to deteriorating pipes, the pollution of rainfall as it flows across impervious surfaces (roads, buildings, construction sites) in industrial and residential areas and agricultural runoff.
This well-attended and highly informative symposium was the first in a series of initiatives NCPPP’s Water Institute will undertake to highlight the nation’s water infrastructure challenges and propose effective solutions that the public, private and nonprofit sectors can pursue collectively. If you are interested in joining the Water Institute, contact NCPPP Executive Director Jason Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org and check the NCPPP website at ncppp.org to learn about future events and activities.
Forum participants offered a variety of potential ways to break down these barriers; one of the most notable was the call to develop water infrastructure development, improvement and maintenance projects that provide other types of benefits to communities. These benefits could include job creation, landscape revitalization, property preservation and enhancement and economic savings. The EPA and several local communities have worked together to launch community-based public-private partnerships through which private developers work with government agencies to fund, build and maintain stormwater management projects while training and employing local residents to conduct them and focusing on improving residential areas and parkland. Other solutions include:
-Develop certification programs such as the Water Environment Foundation’s (WEF) National Green Infrastructure Certification Program to help ensure the availability of a workforce that is qualified to conduct all aspects of wastewater and stormwater system development, operations and management.
-Advocate for the introduction of impervious surface ordinances to encourage the development of previous surface alternatives (rooftop and street-scape rain gardens, for example) and help, through a rate-paying structure, to finance water conservation and protection initiatives.
-Educate from the bottom up: convey to voters how effective water management projects can improve their quality of life and property values so that they will advocate for such projects to legislators and pressure large agricultural meat producers to address the pollution their operations generate.
-Streamline third-party validation/certification processes—which can vary widely from state to state—for newly developed or improved products and technologies by identifying a specific entity to validate and certify them for use nationally. For example, WEF is considering establishing a national evaluation program for stormwater technology and procedures.
-Government agencies, private companies and nonprofits should establish cooperative relationships to develop innovative, cost-effective, efficient projects that offer training and employment opportunities for residents, which will benefit the local economy, grow the local workforce and potentially recruit new residents along with project investors. To this end, stress, not the provision of engineering or construction assets, but services water projects provide (e.g., workforce development/capacity, economic development, land reclamation, property and public land enhancements) and other benefits that water quality improvement projects offer.
-Integrate water management system budgets to ensure that stormwater projects, which are often underfunded, receive the necessary financial support.
-Track the scope and extent of the challenges communities face on a state-to-state basis. The American Society of Civil Engineers is considering launching a“stormwater report card” modeled after the report card it issues every four years that assigns a grade to the nation’s and states’ transportation infrastructure. Meanwhile, WEF is developing a national needs assessment survey of Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4) to determine and quantify the challenges regulated municipal storm systems face and the types of resources that can be directed to them. These assessments identify needs, encourage solutions and publicize key challenges to success and safety risks that need to be addressed.
-Consider imposing a “polluter pays” fee system whereby the major sources of pollution—which,in the agriculture sector are the large industrial farming companies, for example—pay higher fees to mitigate and remediate the pollution their operations cause.
-Bring together professionals who are working separately on similar problems to collaborate in finding solutions. This was a key objective of this symposium and was the principle behind the founding of NCPPP’s Water Institute, which seeks to bring a public-private partnership approach toward improving water infrastructure. The Water Environment Federation also has a Stormwater Institute, which will serve as a center for excellence and a resource for the stormwater practitioner and regulator communities.
-Work with federal and state and county governments to encourage private companies to enter into collaborative projects with state agencies to increase investment and speed the introduction of cutting-edge technology and expertise into the water quality improvement sector.