• The American Planning Association has declared that "Water is an essential organizing element in healthy urban environments."

file under: United States, Government, North America, Water, Green Design, Integrated Resources Management, Sustainability

Planning for Growth with One Water

By 2060, the United States will experience population growth of about 95 million people. This rapid growth will also add 30-40 million people to the workforce. In many urban communities, the development triggered by this population increase will stress current water infrastructure beyond its capacity to support residential and economic growth. With water scarcity already plaguing America’s dry climate regions and areas with overused supplies, how will we meet the water needs of 2060 and beyond?

A One Water approach provides benefits in myriad ways, including more resilient potable and non-potable water resources, better management of wastewater and stormwater, stronger ecologies, greater drought resistance, and better quality of life for all citizens.  

Urban planners wrestle with the opportunities and challenges of growth every day, but water is being increasingly recognized as one of the most critical components in the planning process. In July 2016, the American Planning Association (APA) ratified a new Water Policy Guide, based on the proposition that water is an essential organizing element in healthy urban environments. As APA’s new Water Policy Guide states, “an urban water cycle [is] a single, integrated system, in which all urban water flows are recognized as potential resources, and the interconnectedness of water supply, groundwater, stormwater and wastewater is optimized, and their combined impact on flooding, water quality, wetlands, watercourses, estuaries and coastal waters is recognized.” This premise is addressed through the discipline of integrated water resource management, and is best encapsulated by the emerging term “One Water.”

The One Water approach is modern, yet embodies basic principles of water and hydrology. It integrates all aspects of water resource management and infrastructure in a way that works in harmony with nature, not against it. Water management has evolved over thousands of years, with innovations simply added to existing infrastructure systems as they became available. The result has left many cities with approaches to water that exist in “silos”, and do not produce sustainable outcomes. Viewing water as one resource, however, urges planners to employ sustainable practices that will safeguard our future. For example, wastewater discharged to a river from one facility becomes part of the water supply for downstream drinking water utilities. A One Water approach provides benefits in myriad ways, including more resilient potable and non-potable water resources, better management of wastewater and stormwater, stronger ecologies, greater drought resistance, and better quality of life for all citizens.

Planning for Growth with One WaterPhiladelphia has pursued a One Water approach, resulting in a vast proliferation of green infrastructure improvements that soak up and store excess water.

As an example, the city of Philadelphia and its Water Department have pursued a One Water approach for the past decade. Through a plan that “greens” a vast swath of the city with natural infiltration facilities that soak up and store excess water, Philadelphia has substantially reduced its need to artificially store stormwater while increasing the number of green spaces available to its citizens, reducing heat island impacts, and improving the water quality of its rivers. Heavy rain is managed much more efficiently with the help of absorbent tree trenches, vegetation planters and rain gardens. A multidisciplinary team of planners, engineers, landscape architects, biologists and a diverse list of stakeholders have worked together to implement this project, developing a plan that is transforming the city and is positioning it to thrive in the future.

Finally, the economic benefits of a One Water approach should not be underestimated. Integrated water resource management requires different kinds of investment that can challenge the traditional way utilities work. Yet without a sustainable approach to water supply and wastewater reclamation, aging water infrastructure leaves no room for economic development. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that 1.4 million jobs will be at risk nationwide over the next 20 years as a result of water infrastructure deficits, because costs to businesses and cities beset by unreliable water delivery and wastewater treatment services drain resources that could otherwise be used to power growth. Better stormwater management, water reuse innovation, water conservation, more effective management of water supply, and smarter infrastructure tools will keep long-term costs under control and mitigate the damage from extreme weather events.

If a community wants to nurture and attract new growth and businesses of the future, they must be equipped with secure reliable resources and maintain water quality; the best way to achieve this is through an innovative One Water approach.
Merely patching broken infrastructure isn’t a sustainable solution for American cities. Our nation’s water infrastructure can provide the foundation for future prosperity, if One Water approaches are widely embraced. Effective water management and protecting water quality are not only environmental objectives; they are critical components of planning for new growth.

William Cesanek, AICP is a vice president at CDM Smith and co-chair on the Water Planning Taskforce for the American Planning Association. With over three decades of experience in environmental planning and permitting, infrastructure planning, and water resource studies, he works with communities around the U.S. to develop sustainable strategies for growth. 

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