Contrary to many perceptions, water is a finite thing, and as the world’s population continues to grow and urbanize, the strain on existing water resources intensifies. More frequent extreme weather events — and the major droughts and floods that result — further emphasize the criticality of sustainable water management strategies.
It’s a global concern, exemplified by the central theme of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference: “Securing a Resilient and Sustainable Future for All.” The key focus: water’s role in achieving the U.N.’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).
So where are water utilities in their journey towards sustainability? And how can water utilities deploy sustainable strategies amidst multiple and competing priorities?
Relying on expert analyses of survey data gathered from roughly 450 U.S. water sector stakeholders, Black & Veatch’s 2023 Water Report found that while most respondents agree that sustainability is important, utilities big and small are battling cost escalation and competing priorities.
Sustainability means different things to different people. But regardless of how it’s defined, most agree that we must meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the needs of future generations. And according to the survey, water utilities are taking the matter seriously.
When polled about the importance of sustainability within the water utility industry, two-thirds of respondents — 66 percent — agree it is a critical strategic focus, a response virtually unchanged from last year’s feedback. When these results were broken down by utility size, three-quarters of larger utilities (for purposes of this report, those serving a population of more than half a million) considered sustainability to be a critical strategic focus for the sector (Figure 1).
Disconnect Between Utilities, Municipalities
When it comes to sustainability planning, one survey question revealed a disconnect between water utilities and their local municipalities. A combined 41 percent of respondents stated that both the utility and the municipality share the same sustainability plan or that the municipality’s plan included the utility; the remaining 59 percent stated that they are unaligned with unrelated plans or no plans at all (Figure 2).
These percentages were slightly higher when considering just the larger utilities; for example, 21 percent say they share the same sustainability plan with their local municipality. That makes sense, considering that larger utilities typically have more robust budgets to put towards sustainability initiatives.
While it’s great that most utilities and municipalities seem to have some sort of sustainability plan, the lack of coordination means cost-saving and process optimization opportunities are being missed. Notably, roughly one-fifth of respondents — 21 percent — have not yet gotten started on their sustainability plans, either through their utility or municipality. Given that the water industry increasingly is pressed about — and focusing on — its environmental impact and water stewardship, it’s critical to create clear plans that demonstrate commitment and alignment.
Obstacles to Sustainability
Water utilities continue to juggle many competing demands, needing capital investments to address chronic aging infrastructure while also being under pressure to keep rates low for their customers.
While it’s encouraging to see most of those surveyed believe they have public support, two-thirds — 67 percent — cited affordability as their biggest hurdle in achieving sustainability strategies (Figure 3). Most respondents separately said their organizations are very willing to take advantage of funding programs, though nearly half — 46 percent — view the process as too administratively burdensome. The upshot: while most utilities are aware of the existence of funding options — and by extension, opportunity — they’re challenged by the complexity and cautious about what kind of strings are attached. A deeper analysis is outlined in the funding section of this report.
No ‘One-Size-Fits-All’ Approach
An organization’s sustainability goals differ depending on region, regulatory requirements, finances and a myriad of other factors, making their approach to achieving these goals relatively unique. Fortunately, there is a wide range of strategies available with other innovations emerging on the horizon.
When it comes to the top sustainability efforts that utilities are implementing, operational efficiency (67 percent) and asset management programs (64 percent) lead the way, followed by energy efficiency initiatives (58 percent), proactive replacement of infrastructure (55 percent) and water conservation (42 percent) (Figure 4). These results are understandable from a financial standpoint — infrastructure replacements often are covered by funding programs, and the other four practices double as cost-saving optimizations in addition to achieving sustainability objectives.
An Integrated Approach to Sustainable Infrastructure
The complex and interconnected nature of challenges facing water resource management requires integrated solutions that involve various stakeholders including government, utilities and the private sector. A well-aligned strategy combined with the right engineering philosophy and approach can accelerate progress toward sustainability.
As highlighted in our corporate 2022 Sustainability Report, Black & Veatch adheres to the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure’s Envision rating system (highlighted below) that uses a proactive, quantifiable approach to evaluate civil infrastructure projects. Utilizing Envision and/or LEED sustainability frameworks was identified as a top priority for survey respondents, with more than six in 10 — 62 percent — planning to implement these frameworks in the next one to two years. For utilities, finding synergies with private sector players who are also declaring corporate water stewardship goals provides opportunities to share costs, find efficiencies and achieve goals collectively.
Without question, finding the right approaches and funding sources for each water utility is a highly individualized effort; what works for “Utility A” won’t necessarily work for “Utility B.” And while most agree that sustainability is important, utilities big and small are battling cost escalation and competing priorities.
Correctable missed opportunities abound, from the lack of collaboration between utilities and municipalities to confusion about funding alternatives and misconceptions about the lifestyle impacts of adopting sustainable strategies.
The path to sustainability is a journey, and it’s essential to acknowledge complexity when seeking solutions that integrate strategy, technology and stakeholder management. Utilities must evaluate all facets of their organization including capital planning, operations, construction, supply chain, disaster response, climate adaptation and community engagement to develop a roadmap for sustained, incremental improvements to achieve their goals. Even baby steps are progress in the right direction.