Is drought turning the tide for water project funding?

Fri, 2015-05-15 06:00 -- Jesse Berst

Are California’s mandated cuts in water use helping build a wave of public support for new water projects?

That’s what one way to look at the recent online survey by Harris Poll. The survey, conducted one week after California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered mandatory water use reductions in his state, found that 82% of the 2,023 Americans it contacted thought it was “important or extremely important to invest in strategies and programs that develop sustainable water supplies.”

True, the poll was commissioned by the Value of Water Coalition, an industry group that promotes investment in infrastructure spending and includes SCC Associate Partners CH2M and Black& Veatch as members. But, if you look back a bit, the findings may indeed imply a real readiness to address our water worries.

The Californian shift

Consider, for instance, the massive water program on the ballot last November in California. Two-thirds of the voters there approved issuing $7.5 billion in general obligation bonds for the purpose of financing a range of water projects. But 20 months ago the win for water funding looked unlikely. A Los Angeles Times poll showed that only 36% of Californians -- when told their financially struggling state would have to borrow $5 billion to $6 billion to update its water works -- were on board with the idea.

This change of mind in California could be explained by the fact the economy has gotten better, and the drought worse, over the past few years. Yet, there’s also the recent poll conducted for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In that survey, 65% of respondents said "fixing infrastructure, including roads, bridges, water, and sewage systems" should be a high priority for a city mayor. Only 10% of respondents regarded infrastructure spending as low priority.

The flood of water shortage news

Citizen willingness to pay for water infrastructure upgrades may also relate to the fact that the alarms are simply too hard to ignore any longer. Every month we get another batch of grim declarations that water scarcity is on the way. We recently learned from the U.S. Government Accountability Office  that 40 of 50 state water managers expect shortages in some portion of their states in the next 10 years. Researchers at Stanford University, after analyzing water supplies of 70 big cities in 39 countries, just reported that 25 (36%) are already vulnerable to water shortages. By 2040, this number will to 31 (44%).

Serious water conservation measures, including incentive pricing, are necessary to sustain our water supplies. But new and upgraded infrastructure is essential, too. The Value of Water Coalition poll results may mean the public is ready to endorse funding replacement of the ancient water mains and rusting values that leak trillions of gallons of drinking water. And, as I have written about elsewhere, smart technologies will make these infrastructure investments more effective and efficient than ever.

Jesse Berst is the founding Chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Click to learn about the benefits you receive when you join the Council for free. Follow @Jesse_Berst and connect on LinkedIn.

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