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Hope for the Water Projects We Desperately Need

Date: May 06, 2021

By Jon Freedman

The World Economic Forum recently released its Global Risks Report for 2021, and climate-related matters ranked high and heavy on the list. But even with this global challenge, I see hope on the horizon.

Our challenges are great, but our innovators and problem solvers are greater.

Last year I saw European nations banding together to work toward a green recovery from the impacts of the pandemic.

From a virtual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) I heard about how innovators are working to help tackle the water crisis – from in home water recycling to creating drinkable water from air at the individual and community scale.

Now, in the U.S., as we’ve welcomed a new administration, I am hopeful that the next four years will bring opportunities in which visionaries and innovators can put solutions to work to provide a more sustainable and resilient future.

Having closely monitored the Biden campaign, and now the 117th Congress’ positions on water infrastructure issues, I want to discuss some of what we can expect in the coming years, and ways in which policy can spur further environmental initiatives in the private sector.

Investing in the Future of Our Communities

While access to clean water in the U.S. has largely been achieved, there is more work to be done. Rural areas and Native American reservations in particular have inadequate water and wastewater facilities.

Climate change stands as a looming threat, exacerbating water scarcity and flooding in places least equipped to deal with its impacts. In fact, one survey shows that seven in 10 Americans believe they will have to move at some point in their lifetime.

Municipalities and water authorities, battered by the economic effects of the pandemic, will likely see increased regulation on micro-pollutants such as PFAS. Regulation of these so-called “forever chemicals” – found in firefighting foam and dry cleaning chemicals – sits high on the agenda of many clean water activists, but utility companies may require financial assistance to meet these goals.

The Biden Administration is likely to pursue a sweeping infrastructure package to stimulate the post-pandemic economy, and that will almost certainly include a massive funding boost for water infrastructure projects.

Early discussions indicate that the Biden Administration and the 117th Congress, will seek to increase spending for water infrastructure by a multiple of five for things like municipal drinking water and wastewater plants, as well as flood control. It’s my hope that these projects draw inspiration from places like Los Angeles, which has embarked on an ambitious plan to recycle 100% of its wastewater by 2035 to ensure that the city has access to a sustainable water supply for decades to come.

Encouraging Sustainable Investment in Industry

While community level spending is a necessity, there’s also a real opportunity to encourage greener, more sustainable private sector business practices. In recent years, companies have pursued environmental and sustainability initiatives with more fervor. Just look at initiatives that have already been adopted by Ikea, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft.

Some of these initiatives have been bolstered by tax incentives for renewable energy projects like wind and solar power generation. These Investment Tax Credits (ITC) helped these industries grow and compete, but also increased clean energy adoption.

As the transition to clean energy continues, we should expand our focus to impactful ways we can promote more sustainable use of our water supply. About one-third of the public, municipal water supply in the U.S. is used for business. But this accounts for only a fraction of the water used in the U.S. Power plants, mining operations, and industrial facilities use nearly four times the amount of water generated by municipalities.

Water is the lifeblood of business. Just about any large industry including the pharmaceutical companies that play a critical role in developing COVID-19 vaccines, would need to shut their doors without access to water.

However, because water is relatively inexpensive in the U.S., it can be difficult to recoup investments on infrastructure projects that allow companies to reuse water and in turn, reduce their water footprints.

For example, the data centers that stream our favorite shows and connect us to friends on social media use water to cool their servers. Many rely on increasingly scarce fresh surface water or municipal-supplied drinking water to cool those servers. But instead of drawing on stressed municipal supplies, the industry could take municipal or industrial wastewater and treat it so that they can reuse it on cooling and other purposes, thereby sustainability increasing water supplies for businesses and communities alike.

The new administration could spur investment in sustainable water technology, putting it on equal footing with other green infrastructure initiatives. An ITC could specifically be used to encourage investment in water reuse and other sustainable water projects in private businesses.

Fortunately, we already have the technology and people who can create sustainable water solutions for industries and businesses that will enable us, as a whole, to be better stewards of our water supply.

Among environmentalists and sustainability advocates, climate change is the singular focus of the moment. The link between climate change and water is rising in the public’s consciousness. The water sector is filled with energy and excitement right now about the possibilities of solving challenges that have been long overlooked. It’s time to think big.

Jon Freedman is a passionate evangelist for water sustainability and a recognized leader in the field. Jon has authored numerous articles and is a frequent speaker on the future of water, water reuse, and policy best practices. He leads global government affairs for SUEZ’s Water Technologies & Solutions (WTS) business unit, serves on the U.S. EPA’s Environmental Financial Advisory Board, as well as the board of directors for the WateReuse Association and the International Desalination Association. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia, a law degree from William & Mary, and an MBA in finance from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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