By Debra Coy, Principal, Svanda & Coy Consulting

Those of us in the water industry are used to going to lots of conferences – trade shows, technical conferences, and smaller specialty events. It can feel pretty déjà vu at times, like we keep saying the same things over and over and not very much changes from year to year. However, I’m excited about the upcoming American Water Summit in Chicago on Nov. 14-15. With the current confluence of politics, budgets, and weather events, it feels that change is in the air.

This year’s conference theme is “Business Models for the Future.” It might not sound that exciting, but I believe it captures the core essence of what we in the water industry need to address. “Business as usual” isn’t working to pull in the billions of dollars of infrastructure investment that we need to upgrade and maintain water and sewer systems in the U.S., and new approaches are needed.

Lack of money isn’t really the problem, though we often think it is. While the water sector remains capital constrained, there are billions of dollars in private capital sitting on the sidelines looking for ways to invest in long-term infrastructure assets. To address this gap, I’m looking forward to chairing a panel on “Infrastructure Finance” at the Summit. John Hanula, director of CH2M HILL’s North American Urban Client Sector, is a featured panelist, and we’ll also hear the perspective of an infrastructure investor and project finance banker, as well as top officials from California’s I-Bank and from Bayonne, NJ’s, Municipal Water Authority, which is now implementing a public-private partnership including private finance. We plan to look at the range of innovative finance structures available and to address barriers to opening up this market.

One of the things we’ll acknowledge is that it’s still really hard to make innovative finance deals work in our industry. The truth is that we’re far too addicted to low water rates and subsidized capital, and perhaps worse, we’re far too attached to the increasingly costly status quo of utility structures created more than 100 years ago. My friend Glen Daigger, CH2M HILL Senior Vice President and Chief Water Technology Officer, recently said it to me this way, “As Pogo said, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’”

Confronting this challenge, the Summit will also include sessions on more cost-effective project delivery approaches, better use of information technologies and data management to improve utility operating efficiency, and perhaps most importantly, the water industry’s new focus on explaining the value of water to the public to gain support for infrastructure investment and new technology deployment in areas such as water reuse.

I look forward to seeing many of you there, and to engaging in these critical discussions as we move our industry forward to a more sustainable future.

Ms. Coy was a leading financial analyst covering the water sector for investors for 20 years before she launched her independent consulting practice in 2010.  She provides strategic advisory services to companies and investors in the sector and is an advisor to XPV Capital, the largest water-focused venture capital fund in North America.  She received several “Best Brokerage Analyst” awards for her water sector coverage on Wall Street, has appeared on numerous investment news broadcast, and been widely quoted in industry publications.  She regularly speaks at industry events, focusing on the intersection between investment capital and public policy in meeting water infrastructure needs.