By Peyton Siler Jones, Program Director of Sustainability, National League of Cities, in collaboration with Cynthia Koehler, Executive Director, WaterNow Alliance

City leaders are essential decision makers in stewarding our water resources. Ninety-five percent or more of water infrastructure spending occurs at the community level, and 87 percent of people nationwide are served by public water utilities. While federal and state agencies have a vital role, the policies, strategies and priorities established by local leaders have the power to fundamentally shift how we think about and use water.

Communities across the U.S. are facing unprecedented water challenges. In the context of a changing climate, these challenges – from water scarcity, water quality and stormwater flooding to aging infrastructure – will be exacerbated. Integrated water resources management, also known as One Water, is an approach that envisions all water resources – drinking water, wastewater and stormwater – as assets that can be used fully by the community. One Water planning and implementation seeks to build the long-term resilience of local water systems to serve people and the ecosystems on which we depend. This integrated infrastructure lens offers a key alternative pathway for water utility planning that breaks down traditional silos in water resource management at the municipal level.

The new federal resources flowing from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and other recent infrastructure legislation enables municipal leaders to usher in a resilient water future for all. Additionally, the Final Rule for use of Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds allows for water and sewer infrastructure spending. This unprecedented federal funding for infrastructure provides city leaders with the opportunity to address critical water infrastructure needs with a resilience lens. Resilient water solutions are localized, decentralized and equitable water strategies. These strategies are faster, cheaper and better for residents and ecosystems. Below are opportunities for local leaders to center green and transformative municipal resiliency in addressing critical maintenance and building distributed water solutions for the future.

There are numerous benefits to cities, towns and villages to centering a One Water approach to water infrastructure improvements and planning.

These benefits include:

Improved Water Services

Investing in local and distributed water infrastructure solutions improves water service delivery through lowering the cost and increasing the efficiency of drinking water delivery. For example, The City of Evans, CO, has developed a water efficient fixture direct installation program for income-eligible residents and an indoor water efficiency audit program accessible to residents of all income levels, expected to save around 90,000 gallons of water annually.

Economic Development

Investing in integrated water resource management solutions has tremendous potential to create good, local jobs. To scale up the workforce to deliver on lead line replacement, green infrastructure implementation and maintenance, the implementation of water conservation measures and more will require professional skills. For example, Philadelphia has invested in a program that addresses sewer overflows and stormwater runoff while also providing new, good, green jobs.


Economically disadvantaged and communities of color suffer disproportionately from both poor-quality water infrastructure (e.g., lead service lines, deferred maintenance) and the absence of appropriate infrastructure (e.g., local stormwater flooding, sewer overflows, basement backups) as a result of systemic disinvestment and legacy discrimination such as redlining and racist housing covenants. Consequently, investment in resilient water infrastructure is a racial and economic equity strategy for many cities, towns and villages. The City of Durham, NC, has led by example by prioritizing capital improvements based on equity considerations.

“Pull out your long-term capital improvement plans and ask, ‘are there infrastructure projects I can re-prioritize based on historical neglect?’ Don’t just talk equity. The work of equity happens when you start spending the money.”

– Mayor Pro Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton (Durham, NC)

Public Health

Investing in local water infrastructure can have tremendous public health benefits, particularly where there is still lead in lateral drinking water pipes serving local homes. Lead is a toxic metal for which there is no safe level of exposure, that can bioaccumulate in the body over time and is especially dangerous for children. Denver Water, Colorado’s oldest and largest water utility, provides an inspiring case study of what a utility can do to address this public health crisis, even when the relevant pipes are on private properties and are not owned by the utility, which is the case for many of these pipes nationwide. Denver Water estimates there are 64,000 – 84,000 properties that may have lead service lines in its service area. To replace these lead lines, Denver Water is taking an accelerated, holistic approach that significantly reduces lead exposure. Serving 1.5 million residents, this Lead Reduction Program will reduce risk from lead exposure improving drinking water quality.

Ecological Health

Prioritizing green infrastructure offers a suite of benefits beyond stormwater capture. These solutions can regenerate urban landscapes that have been degraded over time. In New Jersey, The City of Hoboken‘s comprehensive green infrastructure implementation has captured more than 2.5 million gallons of stormwater to date. The City’s strategic green infrastructure plan, developed in cooperation with regional partners, will add more place-based green space and permeable surfaces throughout the city, designed to capture more stormwater where it falls before it reaches the combined sewer system.

Additionally, watershed-scale, upstream investment can support regional water quality and resiliency. For example, five jurisdictions in Summit County, Colorado are collaborating on a regional water efficiency program to support strategic infrastructure siting.

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