What Exactly is a Sustainable Water System?

An article for this quarter’s Rural Water magazine. To read other articles from this issue, please click here. 

By Kirk Stinchcombe, Waterworth CEO

What exactly is a “sustainable” water or wastewater system? This term gets thrown around a lot, and it seems like everyone has a slightly different idea of what it means. I tend to think about sustainability in a very broad sense, which is how it is rooted in history.

The concept of sustainability has been around since at least the 1970s, but it really started to come into vogue in the late 1980s. In 1987, the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development released a landmark report called Our Common Future. The authors coined the term “sustainable development,” which they defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

People often think about sustainability quite narrowly to be just about the environment, but the authors of Our Common Future had a much more holistic view. Certainly, protecting the natural environment was at the front of their minds, but for them that was just one part of it. Social and financial sustainability were viewed as equally important. Together, these three pillars—caring for the environment, society and our financial health—are what sustain our communities and ecosystems.

Let’s think briefly about how these three pillars apply to the water and wastewater systems that we are the custodians of. When it comes to environment, the first thing that comes to mind is water conservation—using the resource efficiently so we can leave more in streams and aquifers for fish and other species. But we positively and negatively affect the environment in lots of other ways too—minimizing energy use for pumping and treating, maximizing the life of infrastructure to avoid impacts of manufacturing and installing new pipe and other gear, adequately treating wastewater before we dispose it back into the environment. These and many other things we do have a significant impact on local and global ecosystems.

The biggest impact we have on social sustainability is actually hugely positive—the fact that we consistently deliver safe and reliable water right to the tap. This is something that we do really, really well. So much so, in fact, that our customers often seem to take it for granted. But one does not have to travel far in the world to see the devastating impact that unsafe drinking water has on communities. Another key way we affect social sustainability is by keeping rates affordable, particularly for lower income families. Also important is whether our rates are fair by charging different residents and businesses proportionate to the costs they impose on the system based on the way they use water.

Financial sustainability is mainly about whether we are collecting enough revenue to keep the system running year after year. Crucially, this includes planning for infrastructure replacement as system components wear out over time. Recall that the concept of sustainable development includes ensuring that future generations can meet their needs. When we fail to plan for infrastructure replacement, effectively this means we intend to pass these costs on to the future, which raises some big questions about inter-generational fairness.

When everything comes together, we deliver water safely and reliably; our finances are in order and are considerate of the costs we will pass on to future generations; our impacts on the natural environment are well managed, and we have strong support from our residents and elected officials. That, in a nutshell, is a sustainable water or wastewater system.

Of course, pursuing all of these things in parallel takes time, perseverance and resources—including money. Sometimes it can seem overwhelming, particularly when we have already fallen behind in one or more of these areas.

Sustainability is never easy, but there are a few things that keep me going. First, I try to take a holistic outlook. Take, for example, water rate setting. On the one hand, we need to keep rates affordable. On the other, we need to collect enough money to continue to operate the system, including managing our environmental impacts. These goals may seem at odds, but I think that misses a holistic view of sustainability. Rather than thinking about rate management as trading off between competing goals, I think of it as a delicate balancing act between the three equally important pillars. The goal is to ask what is going to move us forward most with sustainability broadly defined.

Second is the fact that there are so many partners out there to help with the journey. There are colleagues from other water service providers who share what they have learned at conferences and industry events. There are federal and state agency partners who can offer knowledge, resources and, in a pinch, grant programs. And, of course, we have the National Rural Water Association and state level RWAs. The breadth of programs that NRWA and state associations offer amazes me. In that vein, my company, Waterworth, recently commenced a pilot project with NRWA to provide software and support services to members focused on bolstering financial sustainability (see www.waterworth.net/NRWA). I feel very privileged to be part of this project, knowing the vital role that NRWA plays in helping water service providers across the country with planning their sustainability road maps.

Third is taking the long view. Way back when I was in university, not long after Our Common Future first came out, a wise professor told me that sustainability is not a place you arrive at, but rather an ongoing journey. That’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Your water or wastewater system is never going to “become” sustainable. This is something you just have to continuously work towards. But the journey is important, and in taking it, we make our communities and the environment better. Regardless of where you are on your sustainability journey, the key is to keep the end goals in sight, even if they will always be on the distant horizon.