Localized Water Infrastructure: Next Generation Water Management Solutions


  • Melissa Kelly
  • Caroline Koch
July 7, 2022 - (7 min read)

In urban settings, water infrastructure needs to perform three basic functions:

  1. Provide clean, safe, and reliable drinking water supplies for homes, businesses, institutions, and industry;
  2. Move wastewater away from these properties, treat it to meet water quality requirements, and safely reclaim or discharge it without contaminating water bodies; and
  3. Manage stormwater to limit flooding and related damage and ensure that it is safely reclaimed or discharged without harm to public health, water bodies, and ecosystems.

Centralized water infrastructure has been the conventional approach for the past 150 years. Yet, centralized systems leave communities with little flexibility and are thus limited in their capacity to meet 21st century water management needs. Communities across the country looking for ways to supplement and extend the life of centralized infrastructure have begun to explore localized water infrastructure (LWI). As LWI continues to grow as a core solution, local governments must navigate how to get to scale. As explored in greater detail in the Tap into Resilience: Pathways for Localized Water Infrastructure report published by the University of California, Irvine School of Law Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources (CLEANR) and WaterNow Alliance in September 2021, getting to scale is already possible. And there are concrete actions local governments can take to accelerate LWI adoption.

What is Local Water Infrastructure?

LWI is a conceptual category referring to “dispersed facilities that extend beyond the central infrastructure and are located at or near the point of use.” LWI includes strategies aimed at indoor and outdoor water use efficiency, onsite reuse, green infrastructure (GI), and reducing lead exposure. Because they are located at the point of use, they are often on property not owned or controlled by the city or water utility and are installed through consumer incentives. 

LWI can substantially reduce demand, essentially creating new sources of local water supply. As of 2019, cities and utilities participating in EPA’s WaterSense program, which certifies water efficient appliances and fixtures, saved the equivalent of 6 months of water use by all U.S. households since 2006.

LWI can manage stormwater. Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD)—a leading GI-focused utility—aims to capture 740 million gallons of stormwater per storm with GI by 2035; 220 gallons more per storm than MMSD’s deep tunnels capture.

Protection and restoration of source watersheds, another form of LWI, is increasingly being seen as water infrastructure. For example, Central Arkansas Water uses bond proceeds to pay private land owners for conservation easements, protecting almost 3,000 acres of land in the source watershed as of 2017.

LWI also includes lead service lines, which represent a major public health threat particularly in under-resourced areas and communities of color. An estimated 6.1 million lead service lines are still in use across the country. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the federal government will invest $15 billion in lead service line replacements over the next five years. Some cities, however, did not wait for this federal funding. In 2011, Madison, Wisconsin, completed the nation’s first city-wide lead service line replacement program, saving $2.5 million as of 2018 from foregoing the need to use ongoing chemical treatment.

On top of these water services, LWI provides social equity benefits. Because LWI, by its nature, is distributed across the community, it can ensure just distribution of costs and benefits. LWI installations can be prioritized for communities that disproportionately bear the impacts of combined sewer overflows, polluted urban runoff, contaminated drinking water, flooding, and drought. For example, to help ensure equitable development of GI, the City of Atlanta’s strategic plan calls for GI that builds community empowerment, improved quality of life, and community wellness. Distributed GI can meet each of these.

Even the modest investments in LWI to date demonstrate that these distributed approaches are, indeed, water infrastructure, performing the three basic functions needed in urban settings and advancing equity and affordability.

Understanding Financing, Institutional, and Legal & Policy Barriers

Notwithstanding the feasibility, affordability, and multiple benefits of LWI, its adoption has been slow and somewhat fitful. This is largely due to financing, institutional, and legal & policy barriers and constraints, and perceptions about constraints, that unnecessarily limit flexibility and opportunity to move toward innovation.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will bring a historic infusion of $55 billion in federal funds for water infrastructure investments. But the gap between needed investments and federal funding remains significant. Closing this gap falls to local entities responsible for providing safe, healthy, and affordable water service. Because LWI are most often installed on private property, perceptions about limitations on the use of municipal bonds to pay for improvements on private property are often barriers holding local governments back from making large-scale investments in LWI. Many do, however, have the legal and accounting authority required to raise and invest capital in LWI on both public and private property.

In addition to these financial barriers, expanding the vision of water infrastructure to include LWI faces significant institutional challenges. This has predominantly beenthe compartmentalized way in which water resources have traditionally been managed and regulated, outdated business models, and the lack of appropriate decision support tools and guidance. Legal and regulatory requirements can also hinder, or effectively preclude, implementation and deployment of LWI. While this can occur at all levels of government, state and local rules, regulations, and policies represent the majority of the laws and policies that govern LWI implementation.

Fully realizing the potential of LWI will take certain shifts in financing and implementation. There are priority actions local governments can take to make this shift.

Local Government’s Priority Actions to Accelerate LWI

Local governments can navigate many of the barriers to LWI within existing financing, institutional, and legal frameworks. By taking readily achievable, concrete actions,  cities, towns, and water districts can pave the path to accelerated adoption of LWI. A path paved with permeable pavers, of course.

  • Financing
    • Establish standards and/or targets for LWI in capital and other long-range planning and institutionalize the concept that these strategies can be debt-financed in the same way as conventional water infrastructure.
    • Establish and leverage dedicated revenue streams.
  • Institutional
    • Provide LWI job training programs, which can create local jobs, garner confidence in LWI, and reduce costs associated with acquiring skilled personnel to implement, operate, and monitor LWI systems.
    • Update utilities’ institutional hierarchies and traditional roles to reflect 21st century needs by providing multiple services informed by community values.
  • Legal & Policy
    • Revise building codes and other relevant local ordinances, policies, and guidance to require use of LWI in new development.
    • Incorporate LWI objectives into comprehensive master plans and sustainability plans.

Getting to Scale Is Within Reach

It is no secret that in order to tackle its ongoing and future water challenges, the nation needs to significantly increase its investments in water infrastructure and management solutions. Communities are looking to improve sustainability, create resilience, protect water quality, and equitably secure local water supplies for everyone.

The pathways to do this at scale already exist. Southern Nevada Water Authority has bond-financed turf change-outs on private property for 20 years; Austin Water used innovative analyses to identify onsite reuse as a key source of supply; a parcel tax in Los Angeles County provides cities dedicated revenues to fund GI investments; and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s Non-potable Water Program requires onsite non-potable water system in larger, new developments. These cities show that water use efficiency, reuse, GI, and other innovative LWI investments are the One Water solutions of the next generation.

About the Authors

Melissa Kelly

About the Authors

Melissa Kelly is the Staff Director and Attorney at the University of California, Irvine School of Law Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources

Caroline Koch

Caroline Koch is the Water Policy Director for WaterNow Alliance.