Things I learned at the American Water Summit

Published November 11th, 2010

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

GWI held its first US conference at Dulles Airport in Washington DC last week. It turned out to be a great event. Here are three things that I learned at the show.

1) We have a rock star in the house: George Hawkins, boss of DC Water. He is a Princeton and Harvard educated lawyer who wears his DC Water staff shirt wherever he goes. As a child, he watched Ohio’s Cuyahoga river burn, and made water protection his mission. What he didn’t sign up for was the parlous state of the capital’s water infrastructure: high-profile main breaks punctuate his life with an alarming regularity. It has made him the most passionate advocate of investment in water infrastructure. If all of America’s public water utility leaders could make such an articulate case for spending on water, there would be none of the current pessimism which hangs over the industry.
2) The produced water market is taking shape rapidly. We’ve all heard about the opportunities in treating frac water from shale, but Water Standard CEO Amanda Brock introduced us to the much greater opportunities that that may exist in the “water flood” market, which uses low salinity water for enhanced oil recovery. All the oil majors are developing “custom water”. The audience agreed. When the growth rate in the oil and gas market was put to a vote (using the audience response system we were trialling at the conference), more than 50% of those present believed that the market for treatment solutions in the oil and gas market will increase in size five-fold by 2016.
3) Change is in the air. Ed Rendell, the governor of Pennsylvania, ended his address with the rhetorical flourish: “We built the world; we built everything, now we can’t even build ourselves.” Following George Hawkins’ graphic descriptions of the main breaks that plague his city, one can feel a tangible sense of frustration with the current funding model. However, as last week’s election made clear, there is no turning back to the old model of federal funding. Fortunately, there were plenty of alternative solutions on offer, whether it was Veolia’s Laurent Auguste highlighting the 10% efficiency savings available on the operating side, David Stanton of APTwater talking about service models for financing water assets, Dick Splete of MWH Global outlining the scope for private investors taking minority stakes in municipal water systems, the Mayor of Indianapolis Greg Ballard explaining the mechanics of the sale of the city’s water system to Citizens Energy, or the former Mayor of Santa Paula, Bob Gonzalez, explaining why private finance was the only alternative for his community. The overall impression was that although things are likely to get worse over the next two years as federal spending is cut back, new funding models will undoubtedly emerge which make for a much more sustainable future for the US water sector.

For those of you who couldn’t make the conference, the whole event was filmed by FORA TV. The videos demonstrate the very latest thoughts emerging from the US water industry, and you can sign up as a virtual delegate here: www.fora.tv. A full conference download costs $249.95, and single session passes cost $39.95.