Swimming in Different Circles: Challenges Facing the Water Industry
By Austin Melcher
Austin Melcher is a Master of Environmental Science and Management candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School who is working as a Clean Water Fellow at Willamette Partnership. We are thrilled to have him for the summer. We asked that he share his perspective on trends in the water world. Welcome, Austin!
Over the past seven years, across multiple countries, as an environmental consultant and a student, I’ve been a part of the water world–sometimes as a fly on the wall, other times deeply immersed. It is clear that there are difficult challenges facing the water industry. It is equally clear, at least to me, that the solutions we’ve used to solve water issues in the past are not always the best fit for the current setting, and rarely right for a changing future.
A frequent elephant in the room during discussions of water infrastructure is the mounting scale and cost of infrastructure repair and replacement. Many communities have been patching the same delivery and treatment systems for decades, adding on more pipes, pumps, and filters to meet each increase in demand for drinking water delivery, wastewater treatment, or stormwater management. The price tag is staggering. Compounding this problem is the loss of revenue from declining water use and greater water efficiency, and dealing with the effects of a changing climate will add yet another challenge for our water systems.
Bridging the gap to fund and finance resilient water systems will take many strategies. For example, the Value of Water Campaign provides communication resources for water utilities to better connect with and convince their ratepayers to invest in water. The EPA’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center provides a number of tools for planning and implementing a variety of innovative water infrastructure financing strategies. Willamette Partnership recognizes that working with nature, using our natural infrastructure, is another way to support affordable, resilient water infrastructure systems while providing multiple benefits to people and the environment. I’m excited to be a part of their work to make natural infrastructure business as usual for cost-effectively meeting these infrastructure needs.
Another topic that consistently comes up in discussions is the pending turnover of the water workforce. A wave of retirements is currently occurring and anticipated to continue into the near future. Willamette Partnership is working on this very issue through a water workforce needs assessment for the Pacific Northwest. This type of work is vital to ensuring that the vast institutional knowledge about to leave the workforce is passed along to the next generation. It also offers a valuable opportunity to infuse innovation and new ways of problem-solving into the water industry. This large turnover will create a number of living wage jobs that can be an anchor for broader economic and social prosperity in the communities that these utilities serve. People are often the best “infrastructure” an organization has and investing in the future of this workforce is crucial to addressing the present and future challenges with innovative and effective solutions.
I have also learned that even seemingly simple problems involving water usually require context-specific solutions to be effective. I had the opportunity to learn this lesson first-hand while working for a summer with a non-governmental organization in rural Kenya. My first task there was to help collect water. In the U.S., we just turn the tap. In rural Kenya, collecting water required walking 100 meters to a hand-dug well, repetitively throwing a rusted bucket 20 feet down the well, and hoisting it up by a frayed plastic rope and carrying it back again. It’s the hardest I have ever worked to get water. I later learned that a mechanical groundwater pump was previously installed at the NGO by a group of philanthropic, European engineers, but that it was no longer used. The engineers had left without transferring any knowledge about how to fix the pump and with no nearby locations to buy the European parts required to fix the pump, it was never used after it broke down. This experience helped me realize that to effectively address our water challenges we need solutions that fit the local context we are working in–be it economic, social, or environmental–no matter how simple the answers may seem.
Swimming in these different circles has given me an intimate perspective on the complex challenges and the varied solutions that are involved with water. Those experiences are the reason I am pursuing a career working with water, and they shaped the perspective that I will bring to my summer fellowship at Willamette Partnership. I am thrilled to be spending my summer at Willamette Partnership and using this experience to work collaboratively with other organizations to turn these challenges into opportunities that fit the local context, benefit the communities they serve and improve the environment we all depend on.