SUSTAINABILITY OF UTILITIES – PART 1


Pipe wears out.  Concrete deteriorates, Steel rusts.  Aluminum pits. Mines play out.  Wells run dry.  But we strive for sustainability.  How do these disparate facts coexist simultaneously?  And if they don’t, how does this impact our long term prospects for our utility systems and communities.  And how do the decisions impact our understanding of sustainability.

An AWWA publication from 2010 was a compendium of thoughts on the meaning of sustainability form the perspective of water utilities.  One of the findings of the publication was that the understanding of sustainability had more to do with the perspective of the person being asked about sustainability than an overall comprehension of the inter-relationships of the concept of sustainability among different sectors.  For water supply entities, the economic sustainability of the community is not really their primary concern.  Instead they focus more on impacts to customers.  But water is a driver for economic development in a community. 

The message is that water utilities may need to look at the broader picture of sustainability in their community and extend the definitions to a wider range because no one else is and the community is looking for leadership.  The first paragraph focuses on infrastructure issues, which are commonly ignored in dealing with the concept of sustainability, but they are the ones traditionally focused on water supply issues.  The utility needs to look at infrastructure and financial outlook as a part of an overall sustainability strategy. 

There are certain assumptions that we make on many of our systems, and perhaps we need to revisit some of these assumptions in light of potential future realities.  For example, what happens to communities that do not grow?  Our current assumptions generally assume that there will be an ongoing increase in population or water use that will drive increases in revenues without specific increases on customers.  However what if you are Detroit where the populations has dropped in half in the past 50 years.  How do we deal with aging infrastructure and demands for increased water quality and reliability while maintaining fees at affordable levels for customers?  This is a particular problem when there are economic disruptions that create a large group of disenfranchised people who become more economically disadvantaged than they might otherwise already be.  The competition for sustaining water rates, infrastructure condition and water supplies can be a difficult conundrum.

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