Thriving Cities

Jim Schlaman, Director of Water Resources, Black & Veatch | February 23, 2017

Despite the political divide raging in Washington D.C. and across this great nation, our common interests far outweigh our differences. Regardless of political persuasion, thriving cities and vibrant communities is a vision that connects us all. It’s shared by the many mayors, decision makers, community leaders, and citizens I’ve encountered as part of my professional endeavors: communities with strong and diverse economies, varied recreational amenities and healthy living opportunities that grow in harmony with their natural environments. The question is not what we want to achieve, but how we intend to achieve it.

Two pillars that support, sustain and nurture thriving cities are access to clean water and abundant energy. Many cities face an array of budget and regulatory constraints even as their water infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life. Thus, they are turning to creative and synergistic approaches to their water resources. They are adopting an integrated systems approach, leveraging water infrastructure investments to drive revitalization within their communities. The US Water Alliance calls this approach “One Water.”

Several cities that have taken this inclusive approach to water resources management:

In Nebraska, Omaha saw an opportunity to leverage its mandated Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Program, to reinvest in the region’s water resources. As part of its wet weather program, Omaha is enhancing select stormwater detention facilities to provide more wet weather storage and drive down the frequency of and volume of untreated combined sewer overflows. Improving human health and supporting a healthy environment, the improved facilities also will feature recreational amenities including walking trails and urban fishing, complement youth activity programs, and catalyze neighborhood redevelopment. The enhanced detention facilities also minimize the amount of downstream grey infrastructure providing an overall savings to the ratepayers. These One Water solutions simultaneously reduce CSOs and flooding and support other community revitalization goals.  

Omaha is not alone. Los Angeles is investing in its urban water resources. San Diego’s Pure Water Program is focused on providing more resilient water supplies. New Orleans has invested heavily in the resilience of its water infrastructure. And Philadelphia has made a strong commitment to green infrastructure and green jobs. These are just a few examples of One Water solutions that leverage water resources to foster thriving communities.

Similarly, Memphis is in the middle of implementing a city-wide sanitary sewer overflow control program.  As part of the program, community leaders have invested in the local job force by training local job seekers on sewer inspection, condition assessment and asset management techniques. This win-win for all shows how water infrastructure investment can support the local economy.

How projects are being structured and financed also is changing. One of the more exciting infrastructure delivery models is community-based public-private partnerships. Instead of focusing on the completion of a water infrastructure project as the goal, these partnerships emphasize the realization of multiple measurable outcomes: cleaner water, job creation, community redevelopment, improved human health, sustainable habitats. The outcomes become the goal and the metrics by which project success is defined.  While public-private partnerships are relatively new to the US water industry (though well-proven globally), they show the promise of delivering One Water solutions in support of thriving cities.

Water is the life blood that supports everything we cherish. Focusing on One Water solutions can bring us together to realize our collective goals: diverse, thriving and vibrant communities that create prosperity for us and future generations. Water interconnects us and if managed universally, can sustain the thriving cites we all want.