Larry W. Frevert, P.E.

Water: Our greatest challenge and passion

Larry W. Frevert, P.E.
APWA President

Water is the key to life. Fully two-thirds of the earth is covered with water but only 1% of it is fresh. Because 40% of the world's population is affected by water scarcity today and it is estimated that within 30 years the majority of the earth's population will not have enough water to drink, I believe that providing safe drinking water and properly caring for our wastewater and stormwater are the greatest challenges we as public works professionals face.

Protecting and managing our water resources has become increasingly complex in recent decades. Changing weather patterns, changing regulations and laws, aging infrastructure, rising costs, and rate increases affect all of us. How we, as public works professionals, manage through this maze of complexities, maintain our perspective and focus on our goals, is critical to completing our missions. We need to work together to address the future challenges by providing leadership in the protection and use of our most precious resource.

A significant issue in managing water and all natural resources is Environmental Yield. The question that should be asked continuously by both the public works official and environmental regulator is, "If this project is developed and constructed, and the program is implemented, what will be the meaningful benefits to the environment?" If the question cannot be answered with a positive environmental result or the potential benefits are negligible, it is probably not a good investment of public dollars. Too many projects in the past have taken on lives of their own without defining the Environmental Yield. These oversights can lead to water shortages, pollution cleanup, failing systems and other environmental and health hazards.

Much of what public agencies can do depends on funding, and an eye on long-term costs and benefits is essential. Balance is needed between the level of spending and the environmental benefit that will be achieved. Projects with little or no Environmental Yield cannot be undertaken at the expense of all other necessary sewer, wastewater and water infrastructure improvements. A community cannot continue to spend money beyond the point of diminishing returns, simply to meet absolute regulatory compliance. There should be a viable, continuous reevaluation of where to best spend the limited resources to realize the best environmental benefit for our citizens. By continuously asking the Environmental Yield question, the prudent investment of public funds and improvements to environmental protection will be optimized and the benefits tremendous. Some of the rules require substantial sums of money to enact and in the end, provide marginal benefit. In addition, utilities are spending money to comply with rules that are in conflict with other rules.

In the future, utilities must conduct intelligent ongoing discussions with regulators to define where limited resources can best be used for the public benefit. Projects and programs should follow a prioritization process that includes a cost/benefit analysis, takes into account the overall needs of the community and calculates the Environmental Yield of the project. Public funds must be used for meaningful purposes and have measurable public benefits consistent with the amount of funds expended.

Both public works officials and environmental regulators have a tremendous stake in improving the environment and water quality for the next generation. The challenge is to meet these goals because there is competition with other state and national programs for the same dollars. A new paradigm is required for the public works and regulatory communities to work together as a team which will provide a strong foundation for water quality improvements across the nation that noticeably progresses in the coming decades.

Much has been said and written in recent years about "Climate Change" and its impact on the environment. I understand that just raising the temperature of ocean water a few degrees will have a devastating and fatal effect on some forms of sea animal and plant life. Further, rising ocean temperatures and melting of the polar ice caps will cause the ocean water level to rise, inundating more land and turning existing freshwater supplies brackish or worse. When our earth's population, now exceeding 6.5 billion people and expected to reach 9.1 billion by the year 2050, is coupled with diminished freshwater supplies and land area, we are on a collision course with disaster. I believe it is incumbent on us, the public works community—the people who best understand these types of crises and best equipped to address them—to act now to help prepare for the future.

APWA will host its first-ever "Climate Change Symposium" April 9-10, in Tempe, AZ. I look forward to that event as an opportunity to learn more about this "collision course" and what we must do to prevent it. Please consider joining us or sending key members of your staff as we brainstorm needed solutions across the environmental gamut, including water, wastewater and stormwater issues. I fully expect that recommendations from this symposium will come forward that will help direct APWA's future legislative priorities and our position and policy statements recommended to our member agencies. To learn more about this symposium, see the ad on page 45 of this issue or go online to: /SuperPush/index.asp?ID=99.

Navigating the world of water resources management means addressing funding, regulation and environmental issues in such a way that this one precious resource is available to every community and every citizen now and in the years to come. Can you imagine a greater impact on human life by public works? It's no wonder that water is becoming our greatest challenge and passion.

Thank you for all you do for APWA and for your service daily to the public works profession.