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Unlikely Partners: Urban Water Utilities and Rural Communities Protecting Water Sources Together

March 2014

Management consultants generally frown upon tackling too many problems at once. But when public urban water utilities join with rural neighbors to protect water sources, a slew of positive outcomes can result. A new report, “Urban Water Utilities and Upstream Communities Working Together”, describes this potential cascade of benefits:

  • A good environment produces good water
  • Rural communities’ local economies get a boost from greater integration with urban neighbors
  • Water becomes more affordable – utilities spend less on water treatment and families buy less bottled water
  • Public health improves
  • Multi-stakeholder watershed councils become more dynamic
  • Politicians receive higher marks for better water quality
  • Water systems become more resilient through natural infrastructure
  • Ecosystems on which we depend grow healthier

Importantly, watersheds, and not just water, begin to be viewed as a commons, inviting integrated water and land planning and greater urban-rural collaboration. Rather than just extract cheap water, food and fiber, cities may find long-term benefits in supporting rural economies and pro-actively constructing cooperative and equitable partnerships for natural resource stewardship. 

Protection of source water is not only an environmental issue – and shouldn’t be left to environmental organizations, alone.  There’s a convincing business case to be made for water utilities to invest in protecting their water sources. That logic is not only economic; thoughtful watershed stewardship also gives public utilities a social and moral license to operate. The human right to water and sanitation takes a step closer to its implementation.

In June of last year, public water utility operators, environmental and forestry officials, municipal authorities and NGO leaders, among others, met from across the Americas to discuss these issues. Urban populations worldwide will double in the next 40 years, adding urgency to protecting the water sources of growing cities.

The Mexican Forestry Commission cited the New York City Water Authority as a source of inspiration for its own watershed management. Faced with deterioration in the quality of its “champagne of drinking water,” New York’s utility managers brokered a deal with upstate farmers to control farm effluents. Farmers received support to shift away from polluting practices, and, in the process, gained new urban markets for food and timber. The city satisfied Environmental Protection Agency requirements and retained its reputation for high water quality. Consumers were spared higher bills to pay for an unnecessary treatment plant. Facing a dismal water future, Mexico City’s 19 million water drinkers seek similar creative solutions. 

A new publication sheds light on this challenge. It explores how public water operators –from Manhattan to Medellín to Montevideo – collaborate with upstream communities for mutual gain. It’s not a simple road – watershed boundaries tend to look nothing like political jurisdictions, cooperation among public agencies can be messy and expensive engineering solutions are often favored over “natural infrastructure.” 

As temperatures rise, so, too, do the stakes in this debate.  With climate change upsetting hydrological cycles and water wars looming, it’s time for water utilities to step up their leadership to protect watersheds. The new publication, “Urban Water Utilities and Upstream Communities Working Together”—also available in Spanish—points to hopeful and practical steps forward.

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