Charting New Waters: An Initiative by the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – November 3, 2014 – Comment

In previous blog posts, I discussed how saving water and can positively affect our environment, our economy and our health. Some of my more recent posts have covered water conservation in the household and using tap water instead of bottled water. Now, the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread has come up with an even bigger initiative to address the nation’s water challenges.

After six years of researching and conversing with 600 experts (including Dr. Water!) representing diverse sectors and perspectives, The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread created the Charting New Waters initiative. The initiative takes simple methods of saving water and amplifies them into important ideas and innovations that can make a difference.

Navigating to New Shores: Seizing the Future for Sustainable to Resilient U.S. Freshwater Resources” is the culmination of the work done for this initiative. It is a report that offers five recommendations to help guide the efforts of leaders in various sectors as they continue to address water resource and infrastructure challenges, as follows:

1. Optimize the use of available water supplies. Communities and utility companies can implement a mix of strategies to optimize the use of available water and increase resilience to chronic water scarcity. One strategy involves establishing policies and programs that create water conservation and efficiency. Another strategy is to diversify water supply by tapping into underused water resources such as wastewater reuse, desalination, and stormwater capture.

2. Transition to next-generation wastewater systems. Between rising operating costs and climate variability, 20th century wastewater systems are struggling to cope. Leaders must invest in forward-looking solutions and bring legacy wastewater systems into the 21st century to be more than just plants that treat a waste, but to be resource recovery facilities than can capture valuable products like nitrogen and phosphorus for fertilizers, bioenergy, and water reuse.

3. Integrate the management of water, energy and food production. Many industrial water-supply solutions transfer water away from farms, ranches and rural communities. Water, energy and food production working together can eliminate this issue. For example, food producers can borrow from water and power sectors to create sustainable nutrient and energy practices.

4. Institutionalize the value of water. Most Americans assume that water delivery and wastewater treatment are and will always remain inexpensive, which is not the case. It’s time to rethink how we value water and adopt new strategies that show water’s true worth. Utility companies need to institute sustainable pricing for water services so they are able to recoup operating costs, pay off long-term debt, replace aging infrastructure, and have funds to invest in innovation. Only then will communities realize the true value of their water.

5. Create integrated utilities. The best solution to the nation’s water challenges is to collaborate with agencies and authorities that oversee water, energy, solid waste, land and air resources. Leaders need to reinvent in the infrastructure and utility services Americans depends on and create a system that optimizes resource use and minimizes waste.  At the end of the day, our problems are not just technical, but political and social as well.  Solving the technical issues won’t solve all of the issues.

These recommendations are particularly interesting because they are paint an expansive vision of water and provide long-term solutions.  This vision fits well with what we’re already addressing related to the water/energy nexus. Although taking shorter showers and being mindful of leaks around the house contribute to saving water, it’s time to begin a broader dialog about nation’s struggle with long-term management of our water resources.