Atlantic Cities

Why Is There So Little Innovation in Water Infrastructure?

Why Is There So Little Innovation in Water Infrastructure?
Flickr/Mircea2011

On its 2013 report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. water infrastructure a D. Even the nation’s best water systems are ancient -- we have over 240,000 water main breaks each year -- and unprepared for a mix of current challenges that includes climate change, tightening budgets, growing urban populations, and pharmaceutical contaminants. This spring, after record-setting rains, Detroit had no choice but to pour several hundred million gallons of raw sewage into the Great Lakes. 

What's the problem with American water infrastructure? In part, it's the same old story: federal infrastructure spending in the U.S. continues to fall and cash-strapped cities, choked by the sequester and the economic crisis, can't afford to fill in the gaps.

But water infrastructure may be harder to change than most. That's the argument put forth in a recent paper by researchers at Stanford University's Center for Reinventing the Nation's Urban Water Infrastructure (handily abbreviated ReNUWIt). In "The Innovation Deficit in Urban Water" [PDF], the authors argue that water infrastructure is systemically resistant to innovation -- and put forth some ideas for what we can do about it. 

"The water industry by nature is conservative," says David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley and a co-author of the paper. "It's focused on public health, reliable service, and compliance with regulations. Those three things add up to create a system that's resistant to change."

Some of this inertia is endemic to the public sector. Water authorities are slow to adapt, and officials are not rewarded for taking the risks required for innovation as much as they are punished for failure. Like roads and rails, water infrastructure lasts a long time, so opportunities for systemic overhaul do not often arise.

Other issues are specific to water management. Since water is a tightly regulated market, venture capital firms and other investors are reluctant to get involved. Despite a growing sense that water will be as important a global issue as energy in the coming century, capital deployed for water resources "pales in comparison to that for renewable energy," according to the authors. Only 5 percent of the $4.3 billion in VC money invested in the clean tech industry goes to water technologies. 

Federal support is also on the decline. The membranes that today enable desalinization and water reuse, for example, were the fruits of R&D undertaken during the Kennedy administration. We now spend ten times less on that research.

"There's a long lead time from discovery to practice, but if you don't invest there's nothing in the pipeline," Sedlak says. "Where we are now with our federal investments in water, there's nothing in the pipeline."

In an ideal world, water's crucial importance to public health would provide a powerful reason to perfect its delivery and disposal. Instead, it makes officials wary of experimentation. Few Americans have ever experienced a water outage, let alone a mistake that causes people to get sick.

Not surprisingly, much of the innovation in water management is driven by a fear of running out. Singapore, which has traditionally drawn much of its potable water from across international lines in Malaysia, has been a pioneer in storm water harvesting and desalinization. In thirsty Southern California, Orange County's widely imitated system has recycled wastewater back into the drinking water supply for decades. 

Occasionally, the political stars align. In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has turned a green infrastructure initiative designed to reduce combined sewer overflow -- the same phenomenon that has plagued Detroit -- into a quality-of-life issue and one of his signature achievements

Other times, water companies find that innovations can offer short-term benefits and immediate savings. The East Bay Municipal Utility District, in the Oakland area, is essentially powered by a giant compost heap. London's Thames Water has plans for a power plant to run on fat, oil and grease deposits from restaurants. 

The sooner such successful systems take root in the developed world, the sooner they can be imitated by the quickly growing megacities of Africa, Asia and South America. Researchers at the United Nations University anticipate that wastewater treatment will be a crucial technology in water-scarce regions in the coming years, and have found that only one-third of the world's countries have the relevant expertise on the subject. 

Even in North America, where 75 percent of wastewater is treated, only 3.8 percent is put to reuse.

Photo: Flickr user Mircea2011.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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