Urban Sustainability and the Fundamental Importance of Water

by Jul 1, 2015Smart Cities

Ken Kirk

Ken Kirk is the Executive Director of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), formerly known as the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA). Prior to joining NACWA, he worked with a Washington, DC-based private consulting firm, where he had responsibility for the management of several associations, including AMSA; worked in the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Legislation; and served as Public Affairs Manager at the Water Environment Federation. Mr. Kirk has degrees from New York University, the Georgetown University Law Center and the George Washington University Law Center, where his specialty was environmental law. Mr. Kirk also serves as co-chair of the Water Infrastructure Network, a broad-based coalition dedicated to preserving and protecting the health, environmental and economic gains that America's drinking water and wastewater infrastructure provide. He helped found – and is a past president and current Board Member of – the U.S. Water Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization established to explore the complex issue of water sustainability and plan for the future by improving public awareness that advances holistic, watershed-based approaches to water quality and quantity challenges.


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Really smart people are putting their heads together more frequently to discuss and find solutions to the enormously complex issue of urban sustainability and what the city of the future will look like. They have diverse backgrounds and often long and impressive resumes that can be daunting. I have spent virtually my whole career with one organization called the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and am retiring after several decades leading it – so the primary lens through which I see urban sustainability is water management. I have thought that perhaps my background biases me to the fundamental importance of water among the various infrastructure sectors but I have come to believe it not a bias but a reality.

People are made mostly of water, without it we simply cannot live. Without efficient water management and sanitation there is illness and disease – we see this more in under-developed countries but we must never let down our guard here at home either. And with climate change there is either too much water or too little water – both of which are causing catastrophes of a different nature and sometimes of different severity in urban and rural areas from coast to coast. With population growth, there are more mouths to feed and with more mouths to feed there is more pollution from agriculture, industry and households challenging our ability to control water pollution.  Yet, a reliable, clean water supply is also critical to all manufacturing/industrial processes and to virtually every business and service imaginable – without sound water management there is no cloud computing, no restaurants,  no electricity, oil or gas, etc.  You get the point!

In short urban growth and sustainability depends more on water than arguably any other resource or commodity. And yet, all too often, water investment and long-term planning at the local, state and federal level can be an afterthought.  NACWA has led an effort called the Water Resources Utility of the Future (UOTF) initiative. Its objective is to spotlight the unparalleled and innovative work clean water utilities are doing at the local level to  not only contain growing pollution challenges, but to also create local jobs, spur economic growth, improve the environment and drive sustainable innovation. Utilities are creating energy from the wastewater treatment process to help drive us toward energy independence. They are pulling phosphorus from the waste stream, creating an endlessly reusable fertilizer as phosphorus nears dangerous shortages internationally. They are planting trees, building wetlands, green roofs, bioswales and other natural processes to keep water in place, rebuild groundwater supplies, create green space that adds to the quality of life while also improving the environment and water quality. They are using advanced technology to reuse and recycle wastewater as a key method to battle the drought and ensure sufficient water supply for agricultural use, manufacturing, and energy production.

I hope you will listen to the public clean water agencies’ stories or even visit your local utility. You will find them to be eye-opening in terms of the technologies they employ and the near-heroic efforts the public stewards who run them are making on behalf of urban renewal and sustainability. We must tout their efforts and underscore the imperative need to value water more highly as we piece together the complex puzzle of urban sustainability. We have come to rely on these water systems without taking full responsibility for the huge investment it will take to upgrade, maintain and expand them. When developing a plan for urban sustainability a starting place should be the following question: What could be accomplished without daily, reliable clean and safe water? The answer, of course, is nothing.

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  1. Without question! The greatest opportunities lie in making water agencies self supporting as public service corporations that generate revenue from managing water to pay for managing water. By thinking holistically they could sell recycled byproducts and services and employ more citizens in the process. Their services can include teaching us to creatively manage resilient communities that create zeo waste by generating our own energy and resources. That way we will know what valuable contributions they can make — with our help.

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