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November 14, 2019

Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum Report Explores Policy Innovations to Ensure Water Quality for the 21st Century

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum Report Explores Policy Innovations to Ensure Water Quality for the 21st Century

The Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Program in partnership with the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University are pleased to announce the release of the summary report from the 2019 Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum: Ensuring Water Quality: Innovating on the Clean Water & Safe Drinking Water Acts for the 21st Century.

This year, the forum explored the concept of innovating the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts for the 21st Century and the ideas that undergird these two acts, their successes, shortcomings, and unintended consequences. The central question was how can innovation and regulation at local, state, and federal levels address chronic and emerging water quality challenges across the U.S.?

The report summarizes the Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum discussions of May 2019, offering various opportunities and ideas for modernizing these two acts for the next century.

Key Findings

  1. The Clean Water Act (CWA) has improved water quality in rivers and streams, but improvements have since plateaued and small, marginal improvements are increasingly cost prohibitive. Similarly, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) has resulted in most drinking water utilities providing safe and reliable drinking water most of the time. However, the capacity to address emerging contaminants and a warming climate in an affordable manner is a growing challenge.
  2. Innovation is needed to move from business-as-usual to meet our investment needs to continue to protect water quality and provide safe drinking water while maintaining affordability to utilities and customers.
  3. Innovation is inherently risky and will either require mechanisms to de-risk innovation or a disruptor that requires innovation.
  4. Regulatory uncertainty inhibits innovation as entities wait for certainty to ensure investments are in compliance. Indeed, regulatory enforcement can lead to innovation. Several innovative approaches espoused by participants occurred because of rigorous enforcement that required innovation to develop affordable solutions.
  5. Relationships and trust are accelerants to innovation. A collaborative approach between regulators and the regulatory community that is dedicated to learning how to more cost effectively and efficiently meet regulations can create trust and space for taking measured risks. This requires sustained leadership and partnership to reimagine the fundamental relationship between the regulator and the regulated to be one of continual learning and collaboration.
  6. Government and the private sector have different institutional structures and incentives with different risk tolerances and roles. The heart of government is procedural, and this focus on procedure and process can slow down innovation and adaption. The heart of the private sector is to achieve outcomes at reduced cost, and as such, are incentivized to take risk.