Water Infrastructure

Johnson Foundation's Broaddus discusses sustainability challenges facing U.S.

In a new report, the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread argues diminishing water supplies in many regions of the United States pose a threat to the country's economic and social security. What are the primary infrastructure and water use challenges facing the U.S., and how can these challenges be addressed by industry and policymakers? During today's OnPoint, Lynn Broaddus, director of the environment program at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, discusses her group's recommendations for developing the next generation of water infrastructure.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Lynn Broaddus, director of the environment program at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread. Lynn, thank you so much for coming back on the show.

Lynn Broaddus: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Lynn, we often think about water supply issues as a problem that other countries are facing, but in a new report, you're contending that diminished water supply poses a threat to economic and social security in many regions of the country. How close are we to a time when our economy could start to see some major impacts from a lack of freshwater resources here in the U.S.?

Lynn Broaddus: I think we're already starting to see, and maybe sort of more episodic, but if you lived in Toledo when they lost their water for two days and, of course, lost their confidence perhaps for a longer time, you know that the economy is impacted. If you lived through Sandy or Katrina and lost sewage treatment for weeks at a time, you know that your quality of life was impacted, as were your businesses. Everything about that community came to a grinding halt for that time period.

In California, where there's concern about the future of their water supply, this is not just a one-year problem that they're facing, where we're seeing growing and growing concerns. So when you put all that together, there's some real -- it's more than just a canary in the coal mine starting to have trouble breathing. We're really facing some challenges, here.

Monica Trauzzi: So when we talk about the sustainability issue, is water use or a lack of water infrastructure the greater issue?

Lynn Broaddus: Well, the two kind of go hand in hand, but we -- no, we've heard for years now about the challenges around the quality of our water infrastructure. From a water supply side, it can range anywhere from 10 percent to even up to 40 percent of water is lost out of these systems. So, when you talk about water challenges -- I mean, even in arid places, there are high water losses. Heck, in Los Angeles, we're seeing these pipe breaks routinely. So, by fixing that water infrastructure, that goes hand in hand with not only saving water, but also saving energy, because there's a lot of energy used in moving and treating that water.

Monica Trauzzi: So what does the next generation of water infrastructure look like?

Lynn Broaddus: Well, in our report -- remember, this is based on roughly 600 people from all different sectors that come together, and so part of the water infrastructure challenges that we think need to be addressed are really basic stuff, like tightening up the system, fixing leaks both in collection of sewage and in disbursement of water supply.

But there are a lot of other interesting and exciting opportunities in our water infrastructure. One -- and they kind of go hand in hand with some of the challenges around climate change and concerns about energy and greenhouse gas emissions. Certainly we're going to be seeing more and more distributed water infrastructure, being able to collect rainwater more locally, collect stormwater for use on-site, even on-site sewage treatment -- we've seen it for years in the Battery Park area of New York City. The city of San Francisco is really actively encouraging this.

These are still connected into our centralized systems, but they start to pull some of the pressure off and give communities additional opportunities and really resilience for -- against challenges and storms that might come and other sort of unexpected events. But another piece of infrastructure that we can't forget is natural infrastructure. I mean, sometimes we think of infrastructure as human-made, but our streams, rivers, wetlands, groundwater, aquifers -- these are all part of our water infrastructure. And frequently, they do the treatment and absorption in a zero-carbon way, in a way that actually absorbs carbon and can help us mitigate climate change.

Monica Trauzzi: So that ties into some regulatory and policy discussions that are happening. What recommendations are you making on those fronts, on regulation and policy?

Lynn Broaddus: Well, certainly in terms of green infrastructure, being able to make that more routine and easier for communities to use. There are a lot of challenges there. Just because it's -- while Mother Nature certainly isn't new, figuring out how to harness her for, and re-create or restore her for our purposes is new for us. So what kind of maintenance, how you finance it, how you -- who has responsibility for it, those are all new challenges that tie in, certainly, with policy.

We're seeing a number of policy challenges and opportunities and kind of new, interesting attempts and efforts around distributed water infrastructure. Again, there are some public health concerns around that -- who's monitoring it, who has responsibility to take care of it. Those are all -- again, the city of San Francisco is doing some phenomenal work in that area.

And then, interestingly, I think that there's a lot of opportunity for marriage between water infrastructure and those who have responsibility for water, and departments of transportation, departments of energy. There's so much crossover and impact back-and-forth, and we can do things together better than we can separately.

Monica Trauzzi: You've mentioned energy a couple of times. What impact does energy and production and development have on water issues? I mean, we hear this come up a lot in the fracking discussion, that so much water is being used. That becomes a greater issue as time goes on. How do we address that?

Lynn Broaddus: Yeah. Well, there's one way to address it, which is sort of an arms race, you know? Because energy takes so much water; at least traditionally, the way we've done energy, whether it's fracking and extraction processes, or hydropower, or thermonuclear power plants and all the cooling needed there -- those things take a lot of water. And water has taken a lot of energy. In most municipalities, water treatment and movement is the single biggest user of energy.

So there's a lot of opportunity to bring, kind of de-escalate both sides. The wastewater sector has the ability to go energy-neutral. They can generate so much energy from both the heat that's inherent in wastewater and the chemical energy that's in the bonds of the solids that are in the carbon material in that sewage that they -- it's estimated that there's 10 times the amount of energy available in sewage than what is needed to treat that sewage.

So, our wastewater treatment plants have the ability to go from being a major energy user and greenhouse gas emitter and a methane emitter -- methane is a major greenhouse gas -- to being a source of renewable energy for our communities.

Monica Trauzzi: What are the next steps for the report and recommendations, and who are you hoping to get this in front of?

Lynn Broaddus: Well, we were really excited to be able to release it at WEFTEC with our partners at the Water Environment Federation in front of 20,000 people at WEFTEC, so that was a good opportunity for us. We will be meeting shortly with a number of our partners who are coming to Washington, D.C., to think about how they can use this, and new, sort of cross-sector opportunities there. I think that we're looking to see where the next set of legs are for these recommendations.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, very good. Thank you for coming on the show.

Lynn Broaddus: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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