By Elisa M. Speranza, CH2M

July 12, 2016

One of my many hats at my company is serving as our Executive Sponsor for Sustainability & Corporate Citizenship. The release last week of our 2016 Sustainability & Corporate Citizenship Report made me pause to reflect on the evolution of how we, and our clients, have approached sustainability as a driving force in everything we do, and how we can identify what “Uber-like” changes might be just over the horizon for water managers.

In the water business, “sustainability” has taken on many meanings, morphing from simple, common sense stewardship to sophisticated approaches to energy management and water reuse to natural infrastructure as a strategy for everything from stormwater management to coastal protection. The role of water managers, whether they serve in public agencies or private companies, has also evolved from a mostly straight technical focus back in the day to a demand for a broader skill set today. Over the last several decades, we’ve seen an acceleration of capital spending to comply with regulatory requirements, a need to understand and deploy increasingly complex technology, and increased public awareness of management and environmental issues. With increased public awareness has come a demand for transparency and a demonstrated return on investment.

As a result, water managers are increasingly looking for sustainable solutions with low life-cycle costs. The most effective among them have figured out how to involve everyone who plays in their particular water management ecosystem, including local utilities, regulators, planners, state and federal regulatory agencies, federal water managers, economic and environmental justice groups, academic and research organizations and other non-profits. Although issues differ from region to region (too much water one place, too little another), these players almost always share a common objective: to make decisions based on what’s best for people and natural resources over the long haul. To me, that’s a pretty simple definition of sustainability.

As consultants and project managers, we’re never more excited than when we get to work with visionary water managers and their teams, transforming their organizations into catalysts for sustainable economic growth in our communities, and laboratories of innovation. On the horizon: the pace of change will only accelerate, as we tackle some important questions:

  • How can we use big data and sophisticated analytics to help prioritize the investment of scarce resources and build more resilient companies and communities?
  • How will we operate our systems with fewer, more tech-savvy people?
  • How will we finally bring together the huge amounts of private capital begging to get involved in the water market with communities’ huge unfunded needs for infrastructure investment?
  • Where will the next wave of innovation come from, and will we be open enough to it to capitalize? Or will we end up like the taxi drivers, fighting Uber (and losing)?
  • And of course, how can we train and mentor our replacements quickly and effectively, including making investments in STEM education?

Our industry’s recent emphasis on a “one water” approach, and the campaign for a clear and compelling case for the value of water, has helped form a new framework for these discussions. Many of our water/wastewater utility clients are now considered key policy advisors to mayors, city managers and other policy-makers, participating in economic development, resilience planning and neighborhood revitalization plans, because water infrastructure underpins everything. They are managing through demographic changes in their workforces, and must be articulate public spokespeople to explain the need for infrastructure investment to ratepayers in terms they can not only understand but support. It’s a lot to ask, but from what we are seeing, they are up to the challenge.

Elisa M. Speranza serves on the Board of the US Water Alliance. A veteran leader in the water industry, Elisa is a Senior Vice President and Corporate Director for CH2M. She lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. @ElisaSperanza