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Change is our only sustainable option

  • Change is our only sustainable option

How often do you hear someone define insanity as, “Doing the same things over and over again yet expecting a different outcome”? We might laugh about it, but the reality is that as a society we seem to live this way. And the water sector is no outlier.

For decades, we have implemented solutions built upon historical processes and insights – part-assumed and part-deduced – that addressed weather patterns, hydrology, urban planning and population dynamics. We have used “tried and historically true” metrics to guide us on what to build and when to build it. And while we trickle in new technology, the design philosophies and infrastructure we build remains starkly similar to what we built following the adoption of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act in the early 1970s. Yet, the conditions are not the same, and history is not a predictor of our future infrastructure needs. Statistically, weather patterns and temperatures have shifted dramatically in the last few decades, and we have passed an inflection point on how we design for the future. We are seeing a new reality in which: (1) increased storm intensity and frequency is causing flooding and costly infrastructure damage across communities: (2) a decrease in snowpack and changing rainfall patterns are limiting long term water supplies in many regions, which can throttle economic growth, reduce food production, and inhibit hydropower capacity; and (3) increased heat waves escalate water usage and energy requirements and adversely impact crop yields. We have uncovered the insanity of using history to predict future needs despite a new reality, and yet expecting different outcomes.

We have uncovered the insanity of using history to predict future needs despite a new reality, and yet expecting different outcomes

We are witnessing difficult times that demand a stark choice: continue with the same ways, or be bold, take action and address our changing world with a different mindset. In truth, the choice should not be that difficult to make. We are at a moment when change is our only sustainable option. No more waiting for tomorrow, no waiting for someone else, no singular solution thinking. We are the ones that must act now, act together and act with urgency. Key to our actions is adopting a mindset of doing better and doing more to make resilient, sustainable and desirable communities that facilitate growth, but with less carbon, less water and less degradation of our natural systems. Every day we don’t act is a lost opportunity to make a change and protect the future: a future of economic development, thriving communities, and environmental equity.

To break out of the “insanity,” we must build forward by embracing innovation and change, hold fast to priorities that address climate change, and accept that tomorrow’s water infrastructure won’t look like yesterday or even today. Our pathway requires holistic thinking that will (1) reduce the water sector’s carbon footprint via implementation of energy-efficient technologies and nature-based solutions in combination with greater conservation, reduced leakage and increased data analytics, (2) use less water by valuing and reusing every drop through greater adoption of reuse and greater capture of stormwater to expand water supplies, (3) integrate green infrastructure solutions to restore natural systems and enhance community amenities, (4) implement responsible desalination in balance with conservation, water loss prevention and reuse, and (5) enable environmental and social equity for all community members.

Taking a systems-thinking approach affords every community the opportunity to replace aging infrastructure with solutions that address the changing conditions of today and drive a more sustainable future. Some solutions will deliver incremental change, some will create disruptive change - both are needed. It is critical to adopt a new mindset in our planning and design, to implement the critical infrastructure needed to secure the quality of life for future generations. We must change our pathway today: tomorrow is too late.

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