A Sustainable Water Solution for the City of Tomorrow

November 20, 2012

Americans are generally unaware of the looming water infrastructure failures right beneath their feet and have yet to put water resources high on their list of concerns. They are more concerned about the recovery of the economy, job stability, and providing for their families—and rightly so. But make no mistake: The declining state of the U.S. water infrastructure directly affects cities’ ability to grow and prosper.

Research shows that there is a need for greater investment in our deteriorating water infrastructure. A study by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates that the cost of repairing and expanding buried U.S. drinking water infrastructure will top $1 trillion in the next 25 years, an expense AWWA predicts will be met primarily through higher water bills and local fees. And that is just for underground water infrastructure such as water pipes—not for drinking water facilities or wastewater collection systems and facilities. In its most recent infrastructure report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave both water and wastewater infrastructure in the U.S. a D-minus and estimated a combined five-year spending gap of $108 billion.

The U.S. Geological Survey has noted that leaky pipes account for the loss of 6 billion gallons of clean drinking water each day—enough to supply approximately 60 million people with their daily needs. Despite the dire picture painted by these studies, city and water managers are struggling to convince lawmakers and the general public that these investments are necessary. Without billions of dollars readily available for projects, many cities are being forced to make difficult budgetary decisions.

But there is good news. There are approaches that cities can take to better manage their water systems now and smartly invest in their communities. These approaches include leveraging the link between water and economic vitality, sharing best practices, and using public-private partnerships.As many local and regional water managers operate in relative isolation, they value opportunities to tap into the experiences of others to make better informed decisions.

In recent years, the strain on budgets has resulted in infrastructure that is less than ideal in terms of integrity, resilience, and efficiency. Although all realize that something needs to be done to secure and improve aging systems, there is just not enough funding to cover the assessments, let alone the actual improvements.

Veolia Water, the largest and most experienced water technology and services company on the planet, birthed the water services industry more than 150 years ago. Drawing on this experience, Veolia has developed its new Peer Performance Solutions model, which preserves a public workforce and public governance but infuses private sector expertise. The two parties work together to evaluate the infrastructure—in this case, water systems—to identify opportunities for efficiency improvements. The partnership works because it brings together the public entity’s depth of knowledge of its own system with Veolia’s experience as the water industry’s global leader. As an operator and not a consultant, Veolia can offer municipalities a unique perspective of how systems can be enhanced.

Veolia offers a series of tools to help city decision makers evaluate the relative water resource impacts of their decisions. Through the Water Impact Index (WIIX), for example, a municipality or authority can evaluate impacts on the local water resource in terms of quantity, quality, and local availability stress factors. By applying the WIIX analysis to multiple scenarios, the leadership can evaluate decisions on the basis of not only carbon and energy footprints, but also the water footprint.

Another resource for cities to use in their decision-making process is the Growing Blue website (www.growingblue.com). Growing Blue provides both raw data and interpretive insight on how water and growth are inextricably linked. Decision makers can use this water-growth nexus information and analysis to inform actions that will shape their city's future.

While Veolia Water was the main underwriter of the site, we collaborated with Global Water Intelligence and consulted with industry colleagues, scientists, academia, and nongovernmental organizations, such as Clean Water America Alliance and the International Food Policy Research Institute. The result is that the information in Growing Blue is informed by the perspectives of many sectors and stakeholders relevant to the city’s future.

Veolia is constantly working to stay a step ahead, by answering questions of the future: Namely, which technologies and partnership models will be needed to meet the challenges of a planet occupied by eight billion human beings, half of them living in urban environments? Most people don’t spend their days thinking about people, water, and wastewater. But we do. We are proud to help the communities we serve address the challenges of the 21st century.


The Water Impact Index (WIIX) provides a quantitative evaluation of the impact of a project or action on the local water resources in terms of quantity, quality, and stress factor. It allows decision makers to assess options in terms of their relative impacts on water resources.


Using the WIIX results, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District (MMSD) can now integrate water with other factors such as carbon, energy, cost, and risk to make more informed decisions on a variety of projects.

WIIX results can be independently validated. The calculation method is transparent and publicly available so public sector decision makers can use the results to rationalize choices regarding water.

Lessons Learned

The WIIX MMSD project is an example of the importance of strong partnerships between Veolia and the sewer authority when it came to making informed decisions regarding water-related projects. MMSD was an enthusiastic partner with an environmentally innovative approach to water management. The relationship is mutually beneficial, with streamlined decision making and operations. A good partner results in an effective evaluation. For more information, see http://growingblue.com/footprint-tools/water-impact-index/.

[Editor's note: This article is part of The Role of Business in Shaping the City of Tomorrow report.]