Join us on a journey exploring 50 years of clean water creation and learn how our members were some of the nation’s first environmentalists as well its most impactful innovators.
The Next 50 Years
For most of 2020, the United States was in the grip of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s economic health and social fabric have been drastically impacted, financial markets are volatile, and more than 40 million Americans filed for unemployment. Public clean water agencies are also feeling the effects, as they are faced with significant operational and staff health and workplace challenges along with a growing loss of revenue.
At NACWA, the impacts of the pandemic have been significant. Most of NACWA’s meetings for 2020 were cancelled, including the planned 50th Anniversary Celebration and Gala in July 2020. It remains unclear when NACWA’s members will be able to meet and engage with one another in person again. The loss of these in-person connections has been tremendous. Nevertheless, NACWA and its members are persevering, and we will emerge stronger than ever. As essential to our communities, the half a million employees that comprise the clean water workforce that we’ve come to rely on are doing the important work to keep us healthy. They’re proving through this crisis that, no matter what happens, they can always be counted on to serve. And they're helping to remind Americans, in a way that has never been so concrete before in the history of the Clean Water Act, just how critical clean water is to helping citizens stay healthy and safe every day. NACWA is also adjusting to the “new normal” of pandemic life by increasing options for its members to engage with one another virtually and continuing the strong sense of clean water fellowship that has been its lifeblood.
As we celebrated our 50th anniversary during uncertain times, NACWA continued to be counted on to serve. NACWA is proud of its steady and continued growth, representing over 325 public utility members and over 100 private affiliate members serving more than 127 million people. We’re also extremely proud of our record of achievement that goes much further than supporting our members’ funding for wastewater investments and advocating for sound, science-based regulations. What NACWA and its members have accomplished over the past 50 years has directly enabled community growth and nurtured wealth and prosperity throughout our country. Because of clean water, communities that were once dying now boast thriving cultural centers. Beaches that were closed and offered no viable fishing before the Clean Water Act are now contributing significantly to local economies.
NACWA is proud of its steady and continued growth, representing over 325 public utility members and over 100 private affiliate members serving more than 127 million people.
NACWA is proud of its members’ 50-year legacy of community environmental health, growth, and prosperity. Not content to rest, however, we push forward to shape the future and address the challenges ahead of us. Our focus will continue to be on funding for our members’ essential work; identifying and sharing innovative best practices; advocating for the use of sound, science-based laws and regulations; and empowering and equipping our members to engage with their ratepayers and stakeholders. We will continue to pursue ways to become more resilient to challenges ranging from climate change to pandemics. We will do so by building on our values as an increasingly diverse organization and sector. Finally, we will never lose sight of our overarching mission—to influence and advance responsible and sustainable clean water policy on behalf of our member public clean water utilities.
One thing that has been made clear over the past 50 years through the incredible work, dedication, and progress of the public clean water sector is that NACWA and its members have earned the right to have a permanent seat at the table in discussions on what the next 50 years of clean water will look like in the United States. The 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act is just around the corner in 2022, and the next few years will see many celebrations of the act’s success—and rightfully so, as it has arguably been the most beneficial and impactful of all the federal environmental statutes. But it is also the work and progress of the nation’s public clean water utilities—NACWA’s members—that is arguably the greatest success of the Clean Water Act. We, as a sector, have done our part to dramatically improve the environment and public health all across our great country, and we are ready to do so much more.
As we look forward to the next 50 years, NACWA and its members will be at the center of a new water policy paradigm focused on holistic watershed approaches, powered by cutting-edge technology, funded by rates that are fair and equitable to all customers, and anchored by public clean water agencies that are centerpieces of the environmental, social, and economic vitality of their communities. We can’t wait to get started on this next chapter of our clean water story. Back in those early years of NACWA, country music star Loretta Lynn sang, “We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” Today, NACWA can say the same about our sector, but we have much further to go. We appreciate your support and partnership on this journey and look forward to the adventures ahead.
Wisdom from our Leaders
NACWA invited it past presidents to peek into their crystal balls, with the benefit of their deep knowledge of the sector and their lifelong commitment and attention to clean water, to tell us their thoughts and predictions about the future. Their thoughts have been compiled here.
Challenges Facing the Sector
Looking beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, there are multiple other challenges facing the sector. Among the biggest is economics. With growing regulation, emerging pollutants like PFAS and PFOAs, the need for infrastructure replacement, and expectation for greater service levels, the sector’s costs continue to rise as revenues are constrained by a volatile economy. It may be necessary to move toward a business model of full cost pricing along with enhanced asset management. At this same time, utilities will have to employ a variety of affordability programs that respond to those who are truly at risk of losing vital services, and they will have to do this all amidst increasing distrust in science and government, which will make it difficult to achieve public understanding of the value of services and the risks addressed by our utilities.
Looking beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, there are multiple other challenges facing the sector. Among the biggest is economics.
Additional challenges include the need to continue to recover resources for both economic and environmental benefit amidst consumer skepticism. Members will have to expend time and money to build awareness and support for the benefits of resource recovery, such as the beneficial reuse of biosolids and biogas, allaying fears and dispelling the myths of the processes as they go.
Overcoming Barriers to Success
A lack of credibility with key stakeholders will continue to inhibit member success until they embrace robust outreach and engagement programs that establish them as the authoritative voices that they are on water-related issues within their community. Agencies will also want to consider how they can address inefficiencies head on by embracing continuous improvement, wringing every dollar they can out of their business and operational efforts. This may mean consolidating into more efficient utility scales and service lines. Most importantly, agencies will benefit from staying engaged in their local legislative and regulatory conversations to ensure laws are appropriately addressing issues while balancing the risks and costs. In addition, our agencies must embrace a more courageous approach. They must figure out how to work more effectively with their public governance structures to seize and implement innovative solutions when needed.
Characteristics to Achieve Success
New leaders in the clean water sector can learn from Charles V. Gibbs’ bold playbook for success to be visionary and courageous and to cultivate multidimensional organizations that excel not just in engineering but also in business, communications, marketing, and legislative affairs as well as in people management, too. The highest cost in any utility is labor, so maximizing their value, attracting top talent and paying them competitively, is critical for success. Continued investment in research and collaboration are also needed to address governance structures, regionalization, and public-private partnerships.
NACWA’s Continued Critical Role
NACWA’s critical role will continue to be to strike the right balance of legislative and regulatory engagement. While Congress seeks a middle ground, NACWA can be developing the kind of infrastructure solutions that appeal to the needs of both parties. We’re stronger as a unified group of water-sector influencers than by ourselves, and NACWA can be a key catalyst, linking like-minded organizations together to gain greater influence in Washington, DC and the states. This unified approach can then be modeled at the local level as well so that members see the value of and embrace collaborative approaches for solving community infrastructure challenges.
For NACWA to influence the Clean Water Act for the better, it will need massive collaboration between water organizations, utilities, industry, agriculture, and other NGOs.
Engaging in the Reauthorization Process
The reauthorization process won’t happen well without a substantial voice in Congress. For NACWA to influence the Clean Water Act for the better, it will need massive collaboration between water organizations, utilities, industry, agriculture, and other NGOs. Building these relationships and coalitions will take time and trust. This will also require a new mindset, one that is less cynical about what has been and more hopeful and focused on what can be.