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Green bonds and beyond: 4 ways to fix water infrastructure

Four streams of water
These four takeaways shows us where to direct our efforts for water infrastructure.

It is common knowledge that U.S. water infrastructure needs investment to address a wide range of issues from water scarcity to the impacts of droughts and climate change.

According to a recent Circle of Blue report, U.S. utilities will need to spend about $633 billion over the next two decades to supply water and to treat sewage. The article also highlighted the release of Navigating to New Shores report (PDF) from the Johnson Foundation, which addresses U.S. infrastructure needs and innovation.

My interpretation of the Circle of Blue report’s conclusions are summarized below.

1. Stop wasting water

Increase water conservation, price water to encourage efficient use, eliminate water losses through leakage in conveyance systems and reuse/recycle water.

2. Integrate energy, water and food thinking

Move beyond “silo thinking” and incentivize the transfer of water between sectors and watersheds. There is much talk about the water-energy-food nexus. Now is the time to align how we manage these resources to drive economic and business growth along with improving the quality of life for underserved populations.

3. Value water

Access to safe and reliable sources of water requires adequate funding, and funding starts with educating consumers and customers on the value of water.

4. Design and build the 21st-century wastewater utility

It's time to rethink what a wastewater utility could be in a world with resource constraints. Wastewater utilities could move away from just treating and delivering water. They could recover resources from their waste sludge, generate electricity and integrate “natural infrastructure” such as constructed wetlands into their systems. This also means a move towards smaller decentralized treatment systems, such as point-of-use and neighborhood-scale treatment systems.

The report helps frame innovative approaches to addressing U.S. water infrastructure needs. Coupled with innovative thinking on 21st-century water infrastructure, there is a movement to secure alternative types of funding for these investments, essentially addressing the question, "How do we creatively fund new investments in infrastructure?"

Green water bonds making a stir

Riding the wave of interest in green bonds is increased interest in green water bonds.

One example is the U.K.-based Climate Bonds Initiative, which describes itself as “an international, investor-focused not-for-profit. It's the only organization in the world focusing on mobilizing the $100 trillion bond market for climate change solutions.”

Late last year it established a water infrastructure working group to develop criteria for water investments that can be used to back green and climate bonds certified under the Climate Bond Standard. The group is charged with developing criteria for water related investments in the areas of “clean water projects, water treatment infrastructure, agricultural usage, storm and flood drainage and protection.”

The rethinking of water and wastewater utilities and financial products to fund capital infrastructure investments are promising developments to address the reality of a water-scarce world. Resource scarcity drives innovation.