Four Pillars framework

Julia Anastasio
Senior Manager of Government Affairs
APWA Washington Office

The US EPA's Office of Water is working with wastewater and water utilities to promote the adoption of innovative management system approaches to ensure these utilities are sustainable into the future. This collaboration is an integral part of EPA's overall effort to promote sustainable infrastructure through more effective utility management. Effective utility management contributes to sustainable infrastructure by promoting environmental management systems (EMS), and other innovative approaches which can lead to reduced infrastructure costs and improved performance across utility operations.

Over the summer the Office of Water hosted a meeting with leading utilities to discuss current EPA efforts at promoting effective utility management as a means of developing a national strategy for promoting sustainable utility management. One part of this effort was to identify the core attributes of a sustainably managed utility. The meeting began with a briefing on EPA's current national strategy to promote sustainably managed utilities. Jim Hanlon, Director, Office of Wastewater Management, explained that OW efforts were catalyzed by a 2002 report outlining the tremendous funding gap for infrastructure projects nationwide. As a result, EPA began closely tracking and developing a strategy for improving the future sustainability of water and wastewater utilities.

In an effort to better understand the landscape for promoting effective utility management and sustainable infrastructure, EPA developed a framework to focus the agency's efforts. This framework, or the Four Pillars of Sustainable Water Infrastructure, focuses on:

  1. better management
  2. water efficiency
  3. full cost pricing
  4. watershed approach

EPA utilized this framework to inventory and to organize the myriad of activities occurring within the sector to promote utility sustainability. The inventory includes projects that EPA is directly involved in, initiatives EPA participates in but is not leading, and projects that EPA is aware of but not involved with. The inventory includes items such as APWA/ICMA agreement to promote EMS, asset management training, utility management workshops, emergency response planning resources and training, development of ISO standard for water and wastewater utilities, and Partnership for Safe Water (AWWA) activities. According to Hanlon, the Four Pillars framework is helping the agency better define its role and identify its priorities for this important effort.

Participants at the July meeting were asked to reflect upon two questions to guide in developing a list of "attributes of a sustainably managed utility." Participants were asked what outcomes a sustainably managed utility strives to achieve. They were also asked the question, "What management strategies are needed to achieve these outcomes?" Meeting participants developed the following list of attributes:

  • Community stewardship
  • Stable, well-planned-for infrastructure
  • Adequate, acceptable risk
  • (Effective) risk management
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Quality products
  • Natural resource protection and enhancement
  • Human resources
  • Decision body (board) understanding and support

Additionally, meeting participants identified a number of management tools and approaches to achieve the identified attributes, including:

  • Strategic business plans
  • Plan-Do-Check-Act framework
  • Decision-making framework
  • Measurement
  • Asset management
  • Operations
  • Environment

Finally, participants identified several critical success factors required to ultimately achieve the outcomes identified through the performance improvement efforts. These critical success factors include:

  • Leadership
  • Empowered and enabled staff
  • 360-degree communications
  • Informed management
  • Partnerships
  • Process technology
  • Creative organization
  • Risk tolerance

Participants stressed that these attributes should be viewed as a starting point to promote management leadership within the utility sector. Moreover, they stressed that a variety of approaches, individually or collectively, can be used to achieve similar results.

Since the initial meeting over the summer, EPA hosted another meeting in October with leading utility associations to discuss EPA's role in promoting the set of attributes of a sustainably managed utility identified by meeting participants and how EPA can partner with key stakeholders in the sector to move the priority of sustainable infrastructure forward. APWA was a part of this group at the October meeting and has since agreed to further discussions with other leading associations on how we can help with this effort. If you have any thoughts to share on the attributes of a sustainably managed utility, feel free to contact Julia Anastasio (202-218-6750; janastasio@apwa.net) so that we may include them in future discussions.

For more information on OW's efforts, visit www.epa.gov/water/infrastructure/index.htm.