A “One Water” Future for America’s Cities

September 25, 2017 - (4 min read)

This is a guest post from Cynthia Koehler, Executive Director of the WaterNow Alliance and a session leader at City Summit 2017.

If there were any doubts about the central role of local decision makers in ensuring sustainable communities and resilient water infrastructure, Irma and Harvey have put them to rest. Many have observed that water — even more than rising temperatures — will be the primary mechanism through which most people will experience climate change.

Droughts will be more frequent and severe, and storms more extreme. Federal and state support in addressing these challenges is vital, of course — but the biggest opportunities to plan and be ready for them are at the local level.

Nationwide communities are shifting their thinking about water. For decades, we have siloed drinking water from stormwater from wastewater. This is mindset is giving way to experiments with integrated water planning — a sleep-inducing term for the intriguing idea that communities can achieve better resilience, affordability and environmental health by eliminating these silos.

This One Water approach posits that all water — whether tap, groundwater or the “blackwater” we flush away — should be treated as part of a consistently circulating hydrological whole.

Wastewater can be recycled for commercial and industrial purposes, golf courses and parks as well as potable use. Graywater, the soapy, more-benign cousin to blackwater, can be repurposed for outdoor irrigation. Stormwater can be captured by green infrastructure projects for groundwater recharge, improved water quality and flood control rather than being directed to the nearest drain, where it can overwhelm sewer systems.

Wetlands can serve as natural filters for pollutants entering rivers and streams, as well as opportunities for capturing and percolating storm and floodwaters. Watersheds are no longer viewed as distinct from utility infrastructure but as central features. And water technology is providing extraordinary innovation for cities and towns to use their water supplies more efficiently, often reducing the need for more expensive traditional infrastructure or enabling right-sizing.

At City Summit 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina, November 15-18, we’ll have the opportunity to talk about the communities nationwide that have been experimenting with these One Water strategies with great success. From permeable “green” streets in Tucson, Arizona, to engineered wetlands in Phoenix and Goodyear, Arizona, to tree planting programs in San Antonio, Texas, America’s cities and towns are turning increasingly to these more sustainable options to address a variety of inter-related water issues. Cities as diverse as Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, are developing comprehensive One Water plans.

Part of this shift is due to the fact that many of these innovative and greener approaches provide multiple community benefits and economic development as well as opportunities to address equity issues. Along with reduced flooding, GI can bring new life and aesthetics to disadvantaged neighborhoods and reduce heat island effects. Rain gardens capture stormwater runoff and also provide new parks and other local amenities. Recycling and other more “drought-proof” supply options can attract new business looking for water security.

One Water strategies are also often more affordable than more traditional water supply and water quality options, both to build and maintain, helping to reign in long-term debt and keep rate increases manageable.

None of this happens without local political leadership, however. WaterNow Alliance is proud to be partnering with NLC to bring these strategies, ideas and resources to local water leaders. In this new era there are no silver bullets, no answers that will always work everywhere. But One Water strategies can go a long way toward ushering in a new generation of innovation, solutions that can provide greater resilience, water security and affordability.

The time for local leadership on this issue is now. Discount registration for City Summit 2017 is available through September 30, 2017 — we’ll see you in Charlotte!

CK_headshot 2.jpgCynthia Koehler is Executive Director of the WaterNow Alliance and an environmental attorney and water policy expert with 20 years of experience working on federal and state water issues and legislation. She was previously the Environmental Defense Fund’s Legislative Director for California water issues, and the Legal Director for Save San Francisco Bay.