Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum

Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum

The Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum External link, convened annually by the Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program and Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, serves as a platform for addressing domestic water challenges in the 21st century. The plethora of challenges in the US water sector—from the drought in California to the need for policy solutions that address water trading opportunities— will continue to be addressed at this convening as the Aspen Institute and Nicholas Institute collaborate to develop forward-thinking pathways to address the state of the US water system.

2020 Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum

2020 Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum

Water Affordability and Equity

The importance of water and sanitation for public health is once again visible and may change the trajectory of the water sector moving forward. Given that water is essential for public health, what must be done to ensure that these life-sustaining services are affordable and accessible to all and the utilities providing services are financially resilient? How do we reconcile the different values as individuals and society negotiate who decides, who gets what, and who pays. In a just society this process is inclusive, meaning all have a seat at the table.

To unpack these questions, this paper explores the evolution of water services in the United States. The construction of water and wastewater systems during the 19th and early 20th century were significant feats. Now, most people have access to water, most tap water is drinkable, most dams are secure, most farms can grow more with less water, and most rivers are cleaner than they were 50 years ago. Most does not mean all. There is growing evidence that an increasing number of Americans are losing access to safe drinking water and sanitation—and others never had it at all.


The 2019 Aspen-Nicholas Water 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.? Ensuring Water Quality: Innovating on the Clean Water & Safe Drinking Water Acts for the 21st Century summarizes the Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum discussions of May 2019.

The 2018 Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum explored how merging, integrative and cooperative partnerships can be used to change the scale of water management and address chronic and emerging water challenges. The Forum will brought leaders from across the water community to explore types of integrative approaches, the tradeoffs involved, and the opportunities that can emerge. Through our well-developed, moderated discussion format, multiple perspectives and opinions can surface and will be deliberated in a closed-door, off-the-record, casual setting. It resulted in the publication of Reaching Watershed Scale Through Cooperation and Integration.

The 2017 Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum explored emerging trends related to groundwater. Topics ranged from new measurement techniques developed by private industry to novel groundwater markets in Nebraska to new regulations in California, among others. It resulted in the publication The Future of Groundwater.

The 2016 Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum focused on the shifting role of public and private financing for water infrastructure and the new universe of innovative financing solutions to create impacts in the water sector, including how impact investing can hold the multiple roles of bridging the ever growing funding gap for infrastructure, improve water use efficiencies, and protect water resources while at the same time making a financial profit. It resulted in the publication Conservation Finance and Impact Investing for U.S. Water.

The 2015 Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum focused on water and big data to explore how the emergence of large, but dispersed, amounts of data in the water sector can best be utilized to improve the management and delivery of water for a more sustainable future. Understanding what water data we have, how we collect it, and how to standardize and integrate it may well be a prerequisite to taking action to address a wide range of water challenges. It resulted in the publication Data Intelligence for 21st Century Water Management.

The 2014 Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum recognized that water crises are not the outcome of climate change, population growth, new contaminants, or financial constraints alone but of the convergence of these challenges combined with the realities of undervalued water, policies that preserve the status quo, and under-financed and degraded water systems. To address the urgent need for infrastructure upgrades and resilience building in U.S. water systems as well as the need for leadership and synergistic action in the space, the Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum brought together water experts with diverse knowledge, from finance and policy to technology and ecosystems, to explore the future of our water system; the role of corporations and municipalities in managing water risk; and the innovations in, and convergence of, water policy, finance, and technology to identify potential game changers. The inaugural Forum was convened by The Aspen Institute's Energy and Environment Program and Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, May 28-30, 2014, in Aspen, Colorado. It resulted in the publication Innovating for a Sustainable and Resilient Water Future.