It can be easy to take water for granted. When water infrastructure is working well, we expect clean water to flow from our taps, sewage to be treated out of sight, and heavy rain to drain from our streets and away from our homes.
Our expectations of water infrastructure are starting to change due to a confluence of two factors: Firstly, infrastructure constructed more than a hundred years ago is showing signs of age at a time when the true scale of the challenges presented by climate change are being realized. Secondly, demand for water is also increasing. Cities are racing to keep up with increasing urban populations, address social inequities, attract new businesses, and compete globally for economic investment. To avoid stretching water-related infrastructure to breaking point, new thinking is required.
Four areas are ripe for change
We must plan for the need for ongoing investment in water infrastructure. While considerable uncertainty surrounds the exact extent and timing of sea level rise impacts and flooding from future storms, the question is not if but when. Generally, as the models improve, they are showing that impacts are occurring more quickly than previously predicted (in line with current observations). This means we need to constantly update our approach and reinvest in our water infrastructure, whether in our flood protection systems or in our clean water supply.
Individual municipal budgets are stretched, so cities must collaborate across jurisdictions and agencies. Joint powers authorities and other cross-jurisdictional forms of governance can take the lead in solving water infrastructure problems that affect multiple cities and communities at once. After all, flooding does not respect physical, political, or socio-economic boundaries.
New financing methods are needed. Traditionally, infrastructure projects have been funded by raising taxes or through insurance premiums, and utility fees. These sources are insufficient given the scale of investment needed. Initiatives like the Milken Institute’s Financial Innovations Labs series brings together key experts and decision makers to identify new ideas and develop proposed solutions for raising money and tapping into new combinations of financial sources to tackle our most pressing economic development challenges.
The business case for infrastructure projects should take into account social and environmental benefits. Rallying support for these projects is easier if the community understands not only the dangers that these projects seek to prevent, but also the additional benefits from combining infrastructure enhancements with other benefits they can enjoy.