02/20/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Green Water Jobs

It turns out there are real jobs to be had in the water sector if we make the investments that are needed in water supply, deliver, treatment, and smart management. Millions of jobs.

A new assessment from the Pacific Institute summarizes the potential for sustainable water jobs in the United States. That study (available free), Sustainable Water Jobs: A National Assessment of Water-Related Green Job Opportunities, finds that investments focused on sustainable water management and use create jobs in many different areas and fields. The report looked at jobs that improve the efficient use of water, protect water quality, expand water treatment and re-use infrastructure, fix pipes and delivery systems, and address floods and droughts.

Overall, the study identifies 136 different kinds of jobs at all skill levels: from plumbers to landscapers to engineers to irrigation experts. Thirty-seven of these job types each have the potential to generate more than 100,000 job openings across the country by 2020. That's millions of new jobs.

The Pacific Institute report also addresses the question of job training, experience, and educational needs associated with the water occupations that are needed. Very few of these jobs require advanced degrees although there are also openings in these areas. Twenty-seven of the 37 occupations with 100,000 job openings or more generally require some on-the-job training or previous experience; some jobs require associate's degrees or technical training. This suggests that there are important opportunities for people without formal education beyond high school -- one of the groups around the U.S. suffering from especially high un- or under-employment.

One of the authors of the study, Eli Moore, noted, "This research indicates that water policy can expand demand for workers without bachelors or advanced degrees if occupational training programs and pathways to jobs are created."

Different needs produce different job opportunities: the study identifies the numbers of jobs produced for each investment of one million dollars. Alternative water supply projects yields 10-15 jobs per million dollars invested. The same million dollars put into in stormwater management would produce 5-20 jobs; in urban conservation and efficiency, 12-20 jobs; in agricultural efficiency and quality, 15 jobs; in ecosystem restoration and remediation, 10-70 jobs.

The report also addresses the community benefits of good water-related jobs. Annette Williams, director of the BEST Academy at Sustainable South Bronx in New York (one of the case studies described in the report) has experience in this area. She noted: "Preparing people who need work to install and maintain water-saving devices and projects can heal our communities environmentally and economically." BEST Academy has trained people to work in river restoration, construction of rain gardens, and other water-related fields.

The report also looked at the wage ranges and quality of the new jobs: around half have median wages above the national median wage of $16.57 per hour. Landscaping and agricultural jobs offer somewhat lower wages and benefits than more technical jobs for engineers, plumbers, construction workers, and designers. Some jobs are union; many are not.

The bottom line? The nation is underinvesting in our water systems. There is a major backlog of needed expenditures just to maintain the quality and access we have now, and even more money is needed for expanding and improving our water systems. No new technology or breakthroughs are needed. Instead, we need a commitment to invest in our communities to greatly expand and improve our water use efficiency, treatment, delivery, and management systems. And now, thanks to this new assessment, we know that doing the right thing will also generate serious new jobs.

The report Sustainable Water Jobs: A National Assessment of Water-Related Green Job Opportunities can be downloaded free from the Pacific Institute website at The website also offers six case studies of organizations that provide training and employment in sustainable water jobs, in Altadena, CA; Bronx, NY; New Orleans, LA; Santa Fe, NM; and two in Portland, OR -- and a short video highlighting these organizations. More detail and commentary can also be found here.

Peter Gleick