Feb 14, 2012

Full Faith & Public Credit

With all the debate over money, profit, and the future, here’s a reminder not to lose sight of today’s public servants behind the scenes and bar screens at our nation’s water and wastewater systems: support them and their missions, locally and nationally, but don’t stop seeking new efficiencies and public-private partnerships that fit local needs best.

One of Clean Water America Alliance’s goals is to change the way citizens and policy-makers view and value water–shifting our perception of water from “invisible” to “invaluable”. And one way to do that is to highlight the “silent servants” as Andy Richardson would call them–the team of utility leaders driven by public interest more than profit making–behind every good system.

Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District comes to mind. Chief Engineer & Director Michael Mucha is leading the District forward with operating and capital budgets that respond to tough financial times and tightening environmental requirements. In 2011, the District was one of the first public agencies in the state to adopt employee insurance and retirement co-pay provisions in the Governor’s budget bill before the legislature enacted it. The agency also made strategic investments with farmers so as to reduce or eliminate the need for a new $4 million biosolids storage tank and worked on a framework with the state clean water agency for potential trading to find the most cost effective means to control nutrient pollution.

For 2012, the District is stepping up efforts “beyond the fence line” to prevent pollution and save dollars. The agency is partnering with others to embrace adaptive management and water quality trading in the Yahara watershed. If successful, they will not only meet phosphorus pollution limits but save ratepayers $55 million (by avoiding the need for a costly $90 million plant upgrade).

The District is also focusing on its 50 Year Master Plan, exploring the potential for reuse of treated effluent and for source reduction. According to Mucha, the Plan is setting the stage for building partnerships, prioritizing business investments, and building internal capacity in their workforce. They’ll need to do all of that and more to meet challenges involving chloride and pharmaceuticals as well as mercury and phosphorus. They’ll also need to develop a long range financial strategy to deal with tough issues such as the quadrupling of annual costs for debt service for future capital needs.

Outside of Madison and other well-run utilities in Wisconsin, such as Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, there’s a whole country of all-star utilities facing business competition and fiscal/political pressures, and responding with innovation to save more and waste less.

Efficiency improvements come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from workforce changes to new financing, better water monitoring (for stopping leaks and spills), and upstream water conservation and efficiency that can reduce chemical and energy treatment costs due to lower volumes. The more numbers and statistics we have to drive home the point, the better.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), a leading voice for clean water and lean management, is working to build the numbers and statistics. They’ve been touting, teaching, and training at the nation’s largest municipal “wastewater” treatment plants for decades, through thick and thin, managed competition and privatization, water security and climate change.

They’ve also been at the cutting edge in educating and advocating for not cutting federal investment in water infrastructure. NACWA urges Congress to fund state revolving funds (SRFs) and come up with new mechanisms, as well, to boost water infrastructure investments. Proposals for national trust funds remain controversial but they also raise awareness about the growing crisis and prompt a good debate on ways and means to meet national and local needs.

While groups disagree over specifics, most agree on the need for a strong role for national investment and support. CSIS’s 2005 report, “Public Works, Public Wealth” underscored the need for investing in water and transportation infrastructure as well as focusing more on management of existing, rather than just new, assets.

Water and wastewater systems are community assets. Local citizens must be involved in answering questions of ownership, structure, operation, and funding and the system that oversees the particular community asset has to be accountable to the public. Citizens and ratepayers need to know the water and sanitation services will be there and they’ll get a fair shake. If faith in the system is lacking, even the best managers will ultimately fail.

The best water professionals, whether employed by public or private outfits, know they are, at heart, public servants duty-bound to deliver the elixir we all need to survive and thrive.

To read all of Ben Grumbles' Pipeline blog entries, visit the Clean Water America Alliance website.

Benjamin H. Grumbles is president of the U.S. Water Alliance. Views expressed in this column may not necessarily reflect those of the Alliance or its members. Grumbles can be reached at [email protected].