An opportunity for sustainable investment in U.S. water infrastructure
The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report for 2021 identifies human-caused environmental damage and climate action failure as two of the most likely and highest impact risks we’ll face in the next decade.
Looking at the report, it would be easy to become discouraged. There’s no need to. While our challenges are great, our innovators and problem solvers are greater. And there’s added reason for optimism as governments and major companies take decisive action on sustainability issues and work to develop more resilient infrastructure.
In the U.S., Congress is debating competing infrastructure packages that, on the low end, call for $500 billion in spending, and could top $2 trillion. Early discussions indicate a desire to increase spending for water infrastructure including for things like municipal drinking water and wastewater plants, as well as flood control.
The momentum behind infrastructure spending is good news, because these proposals offer a chance to upgrade aging infrastructure with solutions that can increase resilience and sustainability. However, there’s also an opportunity to add new provisions that could encourage greener, more sustainable private sector business practices.
In recent years, companies have pursued environmental and sustainability initiatives with more fervor as climate change exacerbates water scarcity.
These projects aren’t performative gestures aimed at burnishing corporate credentials. These projects are being implemented because the world is waking up to the fact that doing nothing now is a recipe for future failure.
To broaden adoption of water-saving technology, government policy should support water reuse with tax incentives similar to the ones used in wind and solar projects. Investment Tax Credits (ITC) helped these industries grow and compete, but also increased the clean energy install base.
For areas where water scarcity threatens to derail economies, like southern California, a targeted ITC could make a big water security impact.
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 essential to almost every industry and business out there. Think about it - the paper used to ink contracts and the products businesses manufacture and sell wouldn’t be possible without access to water.
However, because water is relatively inexpensive in the U.S., it is often cheaper for businesses to simply pull water from a potable water source than it is to invest in the technologies and infrastructure that would enable 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 wastewater and treat it so that they can reuse it for cooling and other purposes, thereby conserving water supplies for businesses and communities alike.
Luckily, the necessary technology and expertise to implement sustainable water solutions already exists and will ultimately enable us to be better stewards of our water supply.
As environmentalists and sustainability advocates, governments and consumers align around solving our climate and water crises, the water sector stands ready with energy and excitement to solve challenges that have been long overlooked. Now is the time to think big.