01/18/2010 09:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can the Water Issues of 2020 Be Seen with 20/20 Vision?

Some are uncomfortable referring to the water industry as just that: an industry. But there is no denying that's what it is. It has developed over the years gradually, beginning with small local utilities supplying mostly drinking water. Wastewater treatment as we think of it today didn't come along until later. And of course government bodies regulating these utilities at nearly all levels of government sprung up, and entire water-focused manufacturing, engineering and scientific industries now exist. There are also several organizations like where I work that represent parts of that larger industry, and still other independent organizations designed to keep an eye on us all.

Before anyone could stop and study how such a fragmented approach to water management was going to shape the industry, it was too late; disjointed processes were already ingrained. But I believe it's never too late to create a plan that is sustainable and will address the challenges we have coming in the next decade. And with something as essential to life as water, we must all be thought-leaders and suggest what makes sense going forward even if that process looks very different than the process today.

It's clear a holistic watershed approach is necessary to adequately address competing water needs and challenges. However, due to how the industry grew water utilities generally follow political, not natural hydrological boundaries, so one watershed may easily have dozens of drinking water and wastewater utilities, along with agriculture and any number of high water-use industries, and all with the various entrenched interests mentioned above. Also, all of these can span across multiple watersheds in wildly inconsistent ways. Simply put, with all these manmade constructs in the way, it makes it very hard to step back and see a community's natural watershed and work within it in a truly coordinated and sustainable way which we all as water professionals agree we must do.

On January 12, water leaders from every side of the industry including drinking water and wastewater, public and private and urban and rural, met in Washington to discuss these very issues. We discussed what can be done about this situation and who else we need to bring to the conversation. We all are dedicated to delivering service for our communities, but we may need to get out of our own way to do it.

This wasn't the beginning of this process. In fact much of what we discussed picked up from the Aspen Institute Report I blogged about earlier. And it certainly wasn't the end. We have challenges, but we are having encouraging talks, and unanimity of focus. All-in-all I'm optimistic about the state of our nation's water in 2020 and even beyond.