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3 steps to achieve One Water in the real world

December 13, 2023

By Arthur Umble and Sanaz Imen

If we view water through a One Water framework, we can improve communities. Here are three steps to help bring this concept forward.

A few years ago, the water industry introduced the One Water concept. Water touches everything from the environment to the economy. As such, One Water is a concept where all aspects of water resources in the environment are managed as a single source—from raw surface and groundwater to drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, reuse water, and more.

The goal of this approach is to drive broad appreciation for the value of water as the single natural resource that equitably sustains life for all humanity. Since then, those of us working in the water industry and researching water have spent a lot of time and energy defining what One Water means.

But just how to implement it from a practical perspective remains elusive. We face a variety of barriers. These include socioeconomic, financial, regulatory, geographical, data availability, and risk aversion. Add to that political bureaucracy, resistance to change, and even technical barriers. It’s clear we face an uphill battle.

One Water is a concept where all aspects of water resources in the environment are managed as a single source. It includes everything from raw surface and groundwater to drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, reuse water, and more.

All these are real, and we can’t ignore them. But we think there’s a way forward with a set of three practical, viable steps. It starts at the local utility level, expands to the community, and then grows further to regional levels. These steps can help utilities and communities realize the opportunities and benefits of One Water, implemented one community at a time.

Over recent decades, our industry has seen a lot of trends come and go, but we believe One Water is a framework that should stay. Let’s dive into the three steps.

1. Single water workforce

The first factor that can help a utility move toward One Water? A single water workforce. The separation in water delivery services has become deeper as water utilities keep their workforces focused on each water service type. For instance, a drinking water operator or maintenance employee is trained around all aspects of the drinking water delivery service. But they don’t touch wastewater or stormwater. This prevents an awareness of how water services are related. The lack of awareness becomes a barrier to One Water.

How do we get over this hurdle? We think utilities could cross-train their staff to understand processes, operations, and more. Over time, teams will understand how every aspect of water serves the community. Eventually, we hope this will get stakeholders to buy in and consolidate water service departments and divisions into a single entity.

We expect some resistance here. Utilities will need to work through bargaining agreements and union labor contracts. But this isn’t impossible. We’ve seen how integrating cross-training activities into bargaining agreements is doable, even where different unions operate different utility services within the same city. I, Art, can attest to this. When I managed a public water and wastewater utility in northern Indiana, I shepherded a fully cross-trained, union shop workforce.

The key to success here? Money—like pay grades and bonuses—helped. Offer these as employees pursue continuing education and special trainings, certifications, or apprenticeship programs. In Indiana, this type of approach resulted in staff appreciating the challenges and opportunities of each division of the utility. They recognized that working as one team opened prospects and built more efficient operations. It also reduced costs and improved coordination in capital projects and O&M planning.

Over recent decades, our industry has seen a lot of trends come and go, but we believe One Water is a framework that should stay.

Once staff are working together across divisions, they begin to see that boundaries aren’t needed. This leads to our second step to One Water.

2. Single unit of local governance

Most public and private utilities follow a similar model. Each division manages their own aspect of water service. Within the utility there may be departments for drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, water reuse, and so on.

Within each department, there are further breakdowns. There are groups for planning, capital improvements, engineering, operations, and construction management. In some parts of the US, each may even be operated by separate labor union agreements. In some utilities, the divisions report to an elected city council or a city manager. Some cities will have divisions report to a politically appointed public works board. For public utilities, all these alignments are mandated by city charters state statutes.

This siloed approach works against the One Water construct. How can we expect utilities to support a One Water framework when the structure appears not to favor it? With so much division, it’s unlikely a utility could group all its water delivery services under one local body.

One option? Taking a grassroots approach created initially through cross-training and encouraging people from other departments to sit in on discussions. Why? If different departments invite others to hear them talk through strategy, budgets, project management, and more, it will build trust. And the invitations may be reciprocated. Over time, department boundaries will come down, and transparency will become the norm. Another opportunity to advance One Water is with a cost-based approach to pricing water, like the one outlined in this report.

Then utility leadership can begin to gradually change their structure into a more integrated, singular governance form. This takes time and energy because of its organic nature. It will also take consistent and intentional communications with political leaders. This is key so that the movement doesn’t lose drive when political positions change.

3. Single regulatory framework

A single regulatory framework that oversees all water is a logistical challenge. And many people feel that a One Water goal is out of reach. Right now, we don’t have enough environmental data to establish One Water. We also need proper funding to collect and analyze the data needed for permitting. Even where some jurisdictions have voluntarily built partnerships around One Water, there are limits because of patchwork regulations.

We also need to consider that watercourses and watershed boundaries do not follow political boundaries. Often, there are multiple jurisdictions that impact the water. Each has its own environmental and political perspectives, resulting in overlapping or contradicting regulations. Even within the same utility area, we see contradictions between industrial water users and the utilities that serve them.

A possible solution? Digital analytics. With today’s robust technologies in data collection via remote sensing, environmental data is more plentiful than ever. For example, remote sensing—in this instance, imagery obtained from satellites and aircraft to monitor a waterbody—can provide a holistic view of a water body. It also provides historical record of water quality, showing trends both seasonally and year over year. Finally, it helps with reducing costs and time by processing thousands of samples across the entire body of water.

We can also track many parameters across watersheds with data obtained from satellite images. Machine learning and artificial intelligence make it easy. We can now scrub, collate, analyze, and integrate massive data sets. This allows us to view entire watersheds and surface water bodies as a single asset. Digital analytics could pave the way to a singular environmental permit covering all point and nonpoint sources.

Satellite imagery, like these images from Nova Scotia, gives regulators a clearer picture of water quality across a catchment area. Note the changes from 1987 (left), to 1999 (center), and 2012 (right).

Given the proper inputs, machine learning can produce models that relate satellite imagery data to water quality. For example, in Nova Scotia, we conducted an analysis of data for the New Brunswick Department of Transportation. Using satellite imagery, we observed the total suspended solids (TSS) over a 25-year period. The data showed that the increase in TSS was a result of more industrial activity on upstream tributary rivers entering the bay.

This gives regulators a clearer picture of how water quality varies across a catchment area. It also helps them understand to what degree different pollutant inputs impact the aggregate water quality. This gets right down to specific water course reaches and environmental endpoints—such as a drinking water source, an estuary, a spawning area, or a beach.

With the data now available, we open the for a digital water approach and One Water permitting. We no longer need to continue with the traditional fragmented approaches.

This resolves technical issues that work against singular watershed-based permitting. It does not resolve political issues that limit the regulation of nonpoint source contributions to water pollution. But there are some regional watershed plans today where voluntary participation is in place, like the Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound watersheds. These are often coupled with regional total maximum daily load mandates. With more and better environmental data sets, the plans become even more robust.

Bringing One Water to life

The real question here is “so what?” If the three elements discussed became reality and One Water comes into being, what’s the outcome? Truth be told, we believe it would drive incredible change and harmony through communities and their local economies. People would begin to understand how our water resources work as one—and see how the benefits reach beyond water to enhance quality of life.

For instance, we manage stormwater runoff to protect property. But as stormwater is captured and stored, it can have many uses. Once it’s treated, it’s good as non-potable water for irrigation, industrial water uses, or groundwater recharge.

Wastewater isn’t “waste,” it’s simply part of the One Water resource that exists. 

Also consider used water, traditionally known as wastewater. When used water is treated to predefined quality levels, it can be reused to augment a variety of non-potable uses. And potable use, too. And the benefits go beyond the water resource.

For example, we can use heat extracted from used water for local district heating. Also, we can recover nutrients present in treated used water to augment or even replace agricultural fertilizers. And don’t forget about the movement of water itself. The kinetic energy present in water flowing in pipelines can be captured for electricity production. This has potential to address existing water inequities.

Though it all seems logical, we recognize that there’s potential for a rebound effect. This means consumption could increase because integrated water sectors may give the false impression that more water is available. In people’s minds, no net negative environmental impact will result if we consume more.

Therefore, as we move toward a One Water framework, each community must make sure this doesn’t happen. We can keep demand in check with education and proper messaging about the goal of One Water: to make water available for a sustainable future.

One Water’s great potential

We have yet to bring the concept of One Water to the utility level. That’s why we haven’t realized the benefits to water customers and society. While there have been some successes in piloting service and workforce consolidation, it’s piecemeal at best. Without integrated regulatory frameworks, the movement is stagnant. It may never reach its full potential.

But we have hope. The potential is greater than ever before as One Water becomes more widely recognized. The explosion of digital technology makes it possible to monitor, quantify, and analyze pollutant sources that influence water quantity and quality across an entire watershed in near real time.

We now have the tools to truly realize the benefits of One Water. The time to act is now.

  • Arthur Umble

    As the lead for Stantec's Institute for Applied Science, Technology & Policy, Arthur’s position involves developing strategies and providing solutions for complex wastewater treatment challenges.

    Contact Arthur
  • Sanaz Imen

    A senior research advisor specializing in research and innovative services, Sanaz uses technology such as machine learning and remote sensing to deliver water sector projects.

    Contact Sanaz
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