Water managers: shortages need to be addressed, and can be

11/01/11 Janelle Irwin
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Florida may not be facing an immediate water crisis, but ongoing water restrictions and ever-receding water levels in lakes and rivers shows there is still cause for concern. Today at USF’s Patel School of Global Sustainability, water management professionals brainstormed how to make consumption more efficient. Addressing the problem might wreak a little havoc at first but the school’s director, Dr. Kalanithy Vairavamoorthy, said without the initial burden, changes won’t be that impactful.

“Really look at, can we look at some more substantial decisions which could be more painful initially, but allow us then to get these benefits from recycling and reuse in the long term. But that discussion is not currently there because most people are just tinkering, you know, they’re just playing around at the edges and not doing anything really substantial. I mean in some countries like Singapore, they’ve made major changes in how they manage their water systems so they were able to get the benefits, but in Europe and the U.S. I think, we’re less – not ambitious I wouldn’t say – we’re less willing to take risks.”

Vairavamoorthy said the places that have implemented major water overhauls have done so because they had no other choice. That is not the case in the U.S. where awareness is rising, but the overall sense of urgency isn’t. Using money from a student-funded green building account, USF will be installing sensors around the Tampa campus to measure what benefits could occur if the area was to transition water collection practices to something more sustainable.

“For example, I invest in a storm water harvesting structure that captures rain water and we use it close to a particular location. It means that we are able to use less water, but also we use less energy to move that water around. But it might require us to have a different urban plan which will allow us to capture rain water at that location which then might change the way traffic moves. Now will that give us a return it will that hinder the traffic movement too much? We don’t know.”

He showed images depicting the way public utilities currently deal with water distribution challenges. To transition into a new system would be costly. But more and more, public utilities are looking to the private sector for help through public-private partnerships, or P3’s. Rajah Augustinraj, a client manager for an engineering company, said as water needs change, so do funding needs.

"When people think of P3’s they say, alright, is it because governments are broke that we need P3’s, is it because there’s no money at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level that we cannot finance these infrastructure needs, these utility needs, is that why we need P3’s? Or is it because we want to build big stuff – we saw a couple of great examples for projects that are long-term, massive investment projects – is that the reason for P3’s? What I would submit to you is that I firmly believe that P3’s are necessary because they are the most efficient way to meet the infrastructure and utility needs of the 21st century. Bar none."

Denver Stutler, CEO of P3 Development Corporation said utilizing this resource gives local governments more options when funding pricey projects.

"The traditional approach would have been that you put $100 million grant on the project and then you bond using municipal bonds, the balance of the $200 million and you put a toll on the bridge. And then you figure out that toll rate. The P3 approach is, you don’t have $100 million of grant money from the US DOT or from the local government. And so, you go to the private sector and they want to invest in the project, but they are going to want a return for loaning you that money. And then the balance of it is payed for using toll – is financed using debt, just like you would borrow at the bank except for you generally can find programs that the government underwrites like tithia – and you finance, and you add all that up and you finance it over about 55-years and you get a toll rate."

There are potential drawbacks to bringing private entities into what used to be an exclusively public ring. If a company that has privately financed a public project goes bankrupt that local government is left with a complicated burden. But former Tampa City attorney Chip Fletcher said there are ways to mitigate the risks.

"You need to decide who’s going to pay for what up front and everybody needs to know what that expectation is so that it can be priced properly. A big development right now, most of my clients are focused on rehabbing or retrofitting or upgrading existing facilities. There’s not a lot of new projects going on right now. But identifying who’s in charge of what, what the current conditions are and what the conditions of the return of the asset to the public owner all a critical part to that analysis and the whole deal could fall apart if there’s not full disclosure."

Some organizations already successfully utilize public-private partnerships. According to Holly Greening, Executive Director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, measurable goals like sea grass levels have consistently been made. And The Room for the River Project in The Netherlands, one of the world’s largest examples of a public-private partnership, has created a system so successful it is a benchmark for many countries looking to upgrade their own water management systems.

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