Building Water Resilient Communities

Water is more than just an Illinois issue. And the challenges go beyond the agriculture and food industries. Water is on everyone’s mind. And when it’s not, it should be. Unlike energy, there is simply no second, third or fourth alternative for this essential resource. 

And while previous generations might have been able to take for granted that a fresh, abundant water supply would always be there when needed, those days are gone. By 2030, global demand for water is expected to exceed supply by as much as 40 percent. And in the U.S., 85 percent of water infrastructure is at the end of its designed lifecycle.

The United Nations has identified clean water and sanitation as one of its core sustainability goals, stating that “more than 2 billion people are living with the risk of reduced access to freshwater resources.”

As a result, all aspects of water are coming under increasing—and appropriate—scrutiny. Drought, flooding and shifting weather patterns have made the ongoing availability of water a core issue. And wastewater and contamination challenges are driving serious discussions about the ultimate usability of water.
There is no longer any single ‘water industry,’ either, because water connects everyone—from consumer package goods to healthcare, from agriculture to municipalities, from Illinois to the rest of the world. According to a recent report by The Pacific Institute, 79 percent of U.S. companies face water challenges. 
What will it take to improve the world’s water resiliency, which can be defined as the capacity of any system to recover quickly and sustainably from difficult circumstances? 

Follow the Water

To fully appreciate the need for water resiliency, consider how many users are impacted by the same watershed. Often, the outflow from one individual, business or community becomes the source for other users. 

This can go largely unnoticed since water is essentially invisible. From pipes to treatment plants, the infrastructure responsible for delivering water seamlessly goes largely unnoticed. And since water is essentially free (or considered to be), those same individuals, businesses and communities that rely on a specific watershed often don’t even realize there’s a problem. 

Watershed thinking’ must replace approaches driven by artificially created boundaries or strictly local concerns. Silos and fragmentation will keep all water stakeholders—urban, rural, individuals and businesses—from finding the integrated solutions so desperately needed. Resiliency matters and it’s important to consider some of the most daunting challenges standing in the way of getting water to the people and places where it’s needed most.

Water Resiliency Challenge #1: Weather in the Extreme

Whether it’s called a long-term weather cycle or climate change, extreme conditions compromise everyone’s relationship with water. From flooding to drought, these events make extremes even more extreme—and water availability less predictable. To address this challenge, some are turning a “positive jealousy” of programs that have worked into decisive action and successful implementation in their own worlds. For example, when one government entity purchased land in floodplains to give floodwaters somewhere to go, it became a success story others could imitate.

Water Resiliency Challenge #2: Data, Data, Everywhere?

Data drives decisions in all areas of life today—and it needs to have an equally profound impact in any water resiliency discussion. For that to happen, though, our collective ability to measure must improve. In the U.S., we collect water data every five years and make it available three years later.  By comparison, energy data is gathered each month and available eight days later. It would add, on average, just $1 to every U.S. household’s annual water bill to collect and analyze water data in real time. This isn’t just about big data, either. We also need localized intelligence that’s both relevant and game changing. If we had the measurements, we would have the data necessary to solve problems using artificial intelligence or other innovations. 

Water Resiliency Challenge #3: Wastewater Not, Want Water Not

Is it possible for water that has successfully served one purpose to become usable again for someone else? That’s the motivation behind some of the most innovative wastewater projects around. Whether it’s reverse osmosis technology or other significant breakthroughs, the goal for each of these projects is straightforward: Avoid missing valuable and much-needed opportunities to make the most of whatever water is there to be used.

Water Resiliency Challenge #4: Each Industry’s Issue Is Every Industry’s Issue

Just as individuals, businesses and communities need to join forces to find water resiliency solutions, different industries—energy, data, water—must do the same. That’s because water resiliency issues don’t happen in isolation. Innovations in one area can quickly translate into breakthroughs in another. Energy, for example, should be at the heart of any water conversation because 4 percent of all electricity used in the U.S. is used to move water. 

Where Do We Go from Here?

Moving forward, water must have a clear value and we need to reward innovations. When these two needs become reality, we will be well on our way to achieving the water resiliency we so desperately need—on Illinois soybean farms and beyond. 

Bringing Key Water Stakeholders Together

The Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) seeks to inspire and encourage innovations that help rural and urban areas manage water more effectively—and to do it in times of both water shortage and water excess. This, in turn, will lead to more water-resilient systems in Illinois and elsewhere. 

Recognizing the interconnectedness of all water issues, ISA assembled a diverse group of water stakeholders for an in-depth, wide-ranging roundtable discussion at ISA’s offices in Chicago, Illinois, on July 11, 2019. 

Illinois water issues present many challenges and gathering experts in a single room was one way to focus on solutions. Each viewpoint was unique, and everyone came away with new perspectives on water that will continue to inform the ways in which everyone views water resiliency. 

Organizations represented include:
American Water (Illinois)
ConAgra Brands
Current Innovation
Delta Institute
Ernst & Young LLP
Global Water Works
Great Lakes Protection Fund
Green Sense Farms
Illinois Soybean Association
Illinois State Water Survey
Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy
Mazarine Ventures
Quadrant Management Consulting
SCS Global Services
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
The Nature Conservancy
The Water Council and Alliance for Water Stewardship
The Wetlands Institute
True North Venture Partners