by Samantha Guidon*
On February 8, 2013, with an imminent Winter Storm Nemo on the horizon, over 250 industry leaders and key players in the water sector came together at Goldman Sachs in New York City to begin the dialogue on addressing water risks throughout the country. Students from the Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania joined the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (Wharton IGEL) team in attending this event to gain key perspectives from leaders in the water sector. Entitled “Water: Emerging Risks and Opportunities Summit,” the conference identified areas in need of improvement and discussed opportunities from various points of view. A welcoming address from David Solomon, Co-Head of the Investment Banking Division at Goldman Sachs, established the overall goals of bringing together capital, technology, and policy in order to determine best management practices within the water sector.
Throughout the conference, knowledgeable speakers illustrated the various risks within the water sector, ranging from aging water infrastructure throughout the country and the counterintuitive pricing of water to the thirsty energy sector and the increasing demand for water as a result of population growth. Industry and technology leaders addressed both issues of water supply and water quality, and discussed opportunities for innovation and investment. Hydraulic fracturing, the process of pumping large amounts of fresh water deep into shale reserves in order to access shale gas, was also a hot topic of the day, leading to some interesting questions regarding the use of alternative water sources –such as saline water and acid drain mine drainage- for speakers Ken Kopocis, Senior Advisor and Nominated EPA Administrator for Water, and David Sunding, a professor at UC Berkeley and the Principal of The Brattle Group.
Several speakers left a lasting impression on the audience with their goals and accomplishments, particularly Representative Bill Pascrell from New Jersey and Pat Mulroy, the General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Representative Pascrell was a colorful speaker, giving his personal phone number to the audience if anyone wanted to speak to him directly about his big plans to improve water infrastructure int the country. His bill, the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Act, plans to put forth private capital to improve the existing –and outdated- water infrastructure before it leads to a collapse of the entire system. In comparison, Ms. Mulroy has already had to deal with problems of extreme disruption and lack of water in Southern Nevada, due to supply issues in Lake Mead. Ms. Mulroy was forced to respond drastically to the failing water system through a mix of mandatory measures and incentives aimed at reducing water use, such as a ban on watering residential lawns at certain times of the day and an incentive to replace grass lawns with local desert landscaping. In doing so, she successfully helped the area to better deal with lower water supply from the Colorado River. These speakers expressed the need to address water issues proactively, and not wait for extreme circumstances and a state of emergency –such as the Southern Nevada example- that will render such adaptation more challenging and costly. The dialogue enabled by this and other conferences are vital to find proactive solutions for water issues and start responding now to the many challenges, rather than being forced to respond to more disruptive disasters in the near future.
Sponsors of the conference GE, Goldman Sachs, and the World Resources Institute plan on releasing a white paper encompassing all of the issues discussed throughout the conference in order to bring outsiders into the conversation. The conference was a good starting point, bringing together crucial players in the water sector. Individuals with the economic resources to fund technological research and infrastructure upgrades were able to connect in an intimate environment with policymakers to brainstorm opportunities and solutions to the many problems discussed.
However, clearly the bulk of the work still needs to get planned, financed, and executed. Now that the issues have been raised and discussed, the solutions need to be better defined and actually implemented. And, as we learned, this needs to happen sooner, rather than later.
*Samantha Guidon is a Master of Environmental Studies candidate at
University of Pennsylvania, concentrating in Environmental Policy with
a particular interest in hydraulic fracturing. Sam also has a
bachelor’s degree in Environmental Policy from Union College.