What’s the first thing you think of when you read that word? If you answered “jobs,” you’re probably here at the Urban Water Sustainability Leadership Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, CEO of Green for All, just released Water Works: Rebuilding infrastructure, creating jobs, greening the environment. “No group has the potential to hire more people,” Ms. Ellis-Lamkins told the audience of utility managers, engineers, planners and advocates. Energy efficiency may be the focus of green jobs in Washington, D.C., but green energy “has nothing on job numbers” compared to green water infrastructure. According to Green for All’s new report, adequate investment in green water infrastructure over the next five years could generate $265.6 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs.
Green infrastructure is the most popular topic at this conference, which features well-attended sessions on funding and implementing strategies that rely on natural systems to ‘treat’ and manage stormwater and sewage. Green infrastructure strategies – including rain gardens, constructed wetlands, green roofs and permeable pavement – reliably gain public support and can be much cheaper in the long run. However, utility companies responsible for managing water systems often struggle with regulatory, financial and organizational hurdles in trying to adopt them.
As significant as the topic is, sustainability goes beyond green infrastructure to a variety of innovative regulatory, management and technological techniques that can ensure a supply of clean water into the future.
This conference, designed to break down the silos among the agencies and organizations that care about water, features cross-disciplinary panels from a handful of cities each year. The idea behind it is to spread innovation and inspire leadership. One of this year’s teams is from Los Angeles and includes representatives from the Bureaus of Sanitation and Engineering along with partners like the President of Tree People, and the Research Manager from the Council for Watershed Health.
Adi Liberman, a an expert on public outreach and organizing and one member of the L.A. team, described their innovative multi-benefit water projects. “What L.A. is doing is really an international example. They spent six years building relationships with neighborhood organizers, elected officials and environmental groups. [The Bureau of Sanitation] helped this team understand how water works and what it costs. Now they have a team of communicators who can support an integrated, regional approach to water that would have been a political non-starter ten years ago.”
Ben Grumbles, CEO of the Clean Water America Alliance, the conference organizer, explained the need to promote greater collaboration on water issues. “Engineers and utility managers can tell you precisely how much clean water costs, but they may not always have a handle on the value of water.” Water is more essential than, say, oil, but its relative abundance has – so far – made it easy to take for granted.
Smart Growth America has been at the Urban Water Sustainability Leadership Conference in Milwaukee, WI this week. Learn more about Smart Growth America’s previous water protection policy recommendations.