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Water Infrastructure and Conservation Issues Discussed at Urban Water Summit

By Rich Anderson
May 10, 2004

Trenton (NJ) Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and Sugar Land (TX) Mayor David G. Wallace, co-chairmen of the Urban Water Council (UWC), convened the annual Urban Water Summit in Washington, DC on April 27-28. The Summit covered four major issue areas: water system security, infrastructure financing and management, water conservation, and watershed management.

Water Infrastructure Financing and Management

Palmer chaired a panel that discussed federal trends in infrastructure, public-private partnerships, and case studies dealing with asset management approaches. The mayor made the case for local government action on water infrastructure needs because water quality and supply are essential to public health, the quality of life, and the local economy.

Palmer noted that investment in water infrastructure is good for cities because clean water and sanitation technology is one of the twentieth century's great public health achievements. Water infrastructure is also among the 20 engineering achievements that has had the greatest impact on quality-of-life in the twentieth century.

James Hanlon, Director of the EPA's Office of Wastewater, provided updates on the Agency's efforts on a number of projects and programs. He said that the agency was continuing to make progress in the implementation of the Storm Water Phase II Regulations and General Permitting. He also stated that the Agency was continuing to work on the storm water blending and by-pass policy clarification that was featured in an earlier edition of U.S.Mayor.

The EPA estimates that the American public has spent over $1 trillion in the last 20 years on drinking water technology and supply, and wastewater treatment and disposal. The investment is significant and represents from 10 to 15 percent of total infrastructure value in the U.S.

Dan McCarthy, President of Black & Veatch's America Water Division, talked about public-private partnerships as one approach to maintaining, operating and constructing water infrastructure. Mr. McCarthy declared that partnerships may not be the right approach for all cities, but some can derive significant benefits if partnerships are structured correctly. He identified characteristics of partnerships that are successes. They include: a set of well-defined expectations for each party a full vetting of the balance of risks and rewards for each party, risks are assigned to those best capable of managing them, local elected officials who seek community support for the approach and encourage "willing partners."

Augusta (GA) Mayor Bob Young and Valentino Bates, President of Khafra Engineering, commented on their partnership to implement a computerized maintenance management system for Augusta's water infrastructure. The computerized system addresses water assets. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are used to collect location information on valves, hydrants, and nodes. Waterlines (underground infrastructure) are estimated by connecting nodes and assets. The system also computerizes information on sewer assets: manhole covers are added using GPS location, and field crews connect manholes to delineate sewer lines. This inventory is necessary to provide an accurate benchmark to help plan for rehabilitation and budgeting.

David Sklar and Brian Birk of TAG, The Asset Group of Montgomery Watson Harza, reinforced the message that asset management tools are critical to performance and service provision. Sklar stated that sound asset management strategies require that city managers know all the assets they have, their location, condition, and expected life span. It also requires that they know what service levels customers want, what processes are in place to establish funding priorities, and they have a documented asset management plan.

Water Conservation

Albuquerque (NM) Mayor Martin Chavez chaired a panel devoted to the issue of the critical need for improving water conservation. The mayor described efforts in Albuquerque to become "the most water conscious city in the West." He stated that efforts to conserve water took a major turn when the city learned that recent estimates of the local groundwater supply suggest that it could run out much earlier than expected.

Albuquerque adopted a new plan in 1997 to ensure the continued supply of high-quality water. It took seven years of study by many experts to come up with a new aquifer model with 32 alternatives evaluated. The plan includes a provision for active ratepayer participation, a Customer Advisory Committee, public forums and outreach, support of environmental, business, and civic groups, and interaction with regulators and neighbors.

The mayor said that water conservation efforts began in earnest in 1994 with a goal of 30 percent water consumption reduction in 10 years. Current results (year 9) indicate a 28 percent reduction. A new goal has been set to achieve 40 percent conservation by 2014.

Chicago Mayor Assistant Carol Brown discussed the city's efforts to reduce water consumption. The key action items identified by Chicago to achieve water conservation include repairing and upgrading water infrastructure, installing custodian caps on fire hydrants, retrofitting drinking fountains, conducting water efficiency audits for large industrial water users, and developing a comprehensive metering system to promote responsible water use.

Brown emphasized that public education is important to achieve water conservation success. Chicago has implemented an educational program to ensure that citizens understand the importance of the waterways, their role in protecting water resources, and changing their behavior to help improve stewardship. Several programs for families and schools have been developed with useful tools for educating people such as Issues to Action brochures, municipal cable videos and Internet tools.

EPA Water Efficiency Program Manager John Flowers provided comments on some of EPA's goals and programs for water efficiency. Goal 1 is to reduce water and wastewater infrastructure costs. This can be done, according to the EPA, through better management, full-cost pricing, more efficient water use and implementing watershed-wide approaches to protecting water resources. Goal 2 is to conserve water supplies. Simple efforts such as installing water efficient plumbing fixtures can save over $7.5 billion in water supply costs by 2020.

Palmer and Wallace ended the Summit on April 28 with an invitation to join the UWC meeting in conjunction with the annual Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston the week of June 25.