In its 2017 State of the Water Industry Report, the American Water Works Assn. said the current health of the industry is at its lowest recorded level since it started surveying the water sector in 2004. The association said water leaders should take the trend as a call to action to address the country’s water infrastructure and resource management challenges. If they fail to do so, the association warns, “the reliability and resiliency of our water systems, the health of our environment, the prosperity of our economy and the safety of our water will be increasingly at risk.”
Ensuring a safe and sustainable water supply is one of the biggest challenges currently facing the U.S. amid declining water quality and increased water stress and scarcity. Rising urban populations, shrinking reserves and mounting demand were the top three water risks identified by hundreds of cities in a 2017 study into their water-related activities carried out by CDP, a not-for-profit charity running a global disclosure system helping investors, companies, cities, states and regions manage their environmental impacts.
The threats posed by failing to address water efficiency have been spotlighted by events in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency in January 2015 to combat one of the most severe droughts on record. On the upside, municipal authorities, businesses and ordinary citizens have been joining forces to find solutions to help overcome the challenges. In one example cited by CDP, the city of Benicia, Calif., conducted a thorough search of its water pipes to identify leaks. By doing so, it made a sizeable cut to water waste—one of the ways it was able to reduce its water consumption by 46% in just two years.
City leaders across the U.S. should pay heed to the example set by Benicia if they want help staying creditworthy. As if water scarcity, crumbling infrastructure and climate change were not providing sufficient impetus for change, a stark warning was issued in December by Moody’s, a credit-rating agency, that cities ignoring climate change-related risks could see their creditworthiness coming under scrutiny.
“A key takeaway from California’s drought is the need to put water at the very heart of creating a sustainable economy at every level, national, regional and local,” said Bengt Rittri, founder and executive chairman of Blue AB and Bluewater. “Over the next decade, cities everywhere will need to invest heavily in the way they efficiently use their available water reserves, boosting water recycling and safe reuse.” Rittri, who sold his Blueair air purification company in December 2016 to Unilever, has now focused his energy on water, with the aim of growing Bluewater into a global drinking water solutions provider that shows absolute responsibility towards the environment by disrupting the industry’s reliance on throwaway plastic bottles and packaging.
Water bottle refill stations help cut down on bottled water consumption and reduce plastic waste.
The U.K.’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment has said decoupling economic growth from water use needs to be placed at the heart of innovation strategies for sustainable consumption and production, and ultimately for resource efficiency. The institute believes that there already are many opportunities to enhance water efficiency and management with, more than 50,000 water technology patents filed worldwide between 1990 and 2010.
“Human ingenuity is imperative to invest in water infrastructure, innovative technologies and new approaches,” Rittri said. He said the water industry must address water efficiency challenges in order to create a sustainable future, which will demand more collaboration with urban authorities and customers, as well as embracing innovation and new alternative structures.
Other trends about how to secure reliable, safe and affordable access to water are emerging. One trend is the effort to make existing technologies—such as industrial-scale energy-intensive seawater desalination—cheaper and more efficient. Water utilities also are fast-tracking new business models based on smart metering solutions, allowing them to alert customers to problems ranging from leaks to pollution and helping users to proactively monitor their water consumption.
Smart technology already helps farmers make better use of their water with precision irrigation methods that use sensors and water flow controllers to pinpoint where and when to irrigate. New wastewater management technologies using sensor and data-driven solutions enable cities to detect issues in real-time and respond rapidly to any failures in the system, such as sewage overflows that may threaten human and environmental health or the rising lead levels that struck Flint, Mich. Automation also is changing the water sector, leading to the deployment of technologies such as drones to collect data and inspect operations.
What will the future look like for U.S. consumers, many unnerved by years of headlines about dubious water safety, availability and rising costs?
A Bluewater survey in December revealed that more than half of Americans (56%) worry their drinking water contains harmful contaminants, such as lead, bacteria, carcinogens and microplastics. Further, the survey found nearly 70% of Americans are relying on bottled water in some capacity, with 33% drinking more than five bottles per week. This not only ignores the water supply issue, but also further compounds it with unfathomable quantities of single-use plastic waste.
“Our culture has created a vicious cycle, where, rather than addressing water treatment and infrastructure, we’ve normalized the use of single-use plastic bottled water for much of our water intake, while creating a massive waste stream that further pollutes the compromised water supply,” Rittri said.
Customer experience in the water industry is set for fundamental change and improvement as utilities speed their adoption of the new water management technologies. As smart water management becomes an integral part of the connected home, smart meters will allow customers to manage devices and appliances in their homes, and maybe even switch between suppliers, while data collected about the consumer will help water utilities generate new offers and services and communicate them dynamically to customers.
So while global demand for water will continue to rise, perhaps by as much as 55% by 2050 according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and while water quality will remain threatened by agricultural runoff, domestic sewage and industrial effluent for the immediate future, human ingenuity already is focused on lowering the level of risk. Israel, the Gulf states and Australia have created world-leading approaches to efficiently reusing water. Membrane technologies, such as reverse osmosis, have seen dramatic advances in recent years in treating and reusing water efficiently and at a lower cost.