Sustainable Urban Water Systems: A View from the Tap

By Anisha Anantapadmanabhan
Manager, Water Infrastructure, Ceres

As Hurricane Harvey floodwaters recede, and Houston begins the long, expensive road to recovery, its civil engineers and city planners can learn from other cities that are embracing a sustainable water movement.

Engineers, planners and financiers are coming together in many cities across the U.S. under a sustainable water movement, working across disciplines to design resilient infrastructure services as cities face growing threats to water supplies, whether from aging infrastructure, pollution or extreme weather.

Harvey’s torrential rains were truly unprecedented, but it was decades of paving over wetlands and natural flood plains that led to Houston’s epic flooding. Green design and thinking will be required to rebuild Houston’s sewer system to absorb flood water in the era of climate change.

Sustainability stewardship in the public water sector is gaining importance as infrastructure needs such as Houston’s escalate. While one might expect to hear success stories from cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., newly emerging utility leaders are shoring up sustainability efforts on water.

Take St. Louis. The city has been grappling with legal action from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and one of the most expensive combined sewer overflow problems in the country at a price tag of $4.7 billion. When too much water enters the city’s sewer systems during a storm event, the system is overwhelmed and dumps untreated water directly into the Mississippi River—the same river that provides drinking water to the residents of the city. This untreated sewage can impair water quality and impact human health.

Credit: KOMUnews via Flickr

St. Louis is responding to the EPA mandate to upgrade and build new infrastructure to manage its storm water, with sustainability in sight. Rather than build expensive gray infrastructure projects alone, the St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District has chosen to invest $100 million in green infrastructure projects that use more affordable natural design and infiltration systems to soak up water before it enters the sewer system. These green projects are being implemented at different scales across the city, with the help of various city departments, developers and community organizations.

Similarly, by 2025, the City of Seattle, Washington plans to manage 700 million gallons of polluted runoff annually by building green stormwater infrastructure. The city is tracking its progress toward this goal through an online project map that depicts which types of green infrastructure solutions have been built so far and where they can be found.

Credit: Anisha Anantapadmanabhan

Fort Collins, one of the fastest growing cities in the State of Colorado, introduced a triple bottom line sustainability program in 2012 backed by a team of 15 staff members. Specific actions on water include conservation and efficiency initiatives, implementing green infrastructure and low-impact stormwater design, planning for supply needs under climate change and collaborating across city departments to analyze the impact of their projects on water resources. The city’s 2014 sustainability report describes progress on these actions, both in terms of water reductions and financial savings. In the bigger context, the city’s urban water commitments are critical to plugging the state’s water supply deficit. The Colorado Water Plan calls for 400,000 acre-feet of water savings by 2050, a majority of which could come from urban water conservation efforts at the city or utility level.

Finally, Cleveland aims to become a “green city on a blue lake” by 2019. Led by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, the city has hosted annual Sustainability Summits for the past eight years and has a sustainability working group on water among other topic areas. The city’s municipal action plan lays out some areas of action to reduce water use and capture impervious area runoff, which include water efficiency and conservation, reuse and recycling, loss minimization, and on-site green and grey stormwater management strategies.

Credit: NE Oh Regional Sewer via Twitter

Interestingly, city departments and agencies are partnering to implement and measure progress on these projects. The city has also outlined some water-specific goals in its climate action plan. A major achievement therein highlights the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s implementation of a Green Infrastructure Policy and $2 million investment in green infrastructure projects across the Greater Cleveland area to reduce sewage overflows into Lake Erie. The District is scaling up local partnerships with community organizations and developers to install these stormwater interventions, similar to what St. Louis is doing.

While cities are paving the path for achieving sustainable water stewardship through local ambition, inter-disciplinary planning processes and performance measurement on sustainability practices, it is just a start. Water utilities are at the center of this sustainability play, with the ability to deliver on practices that can change the way we manage our precious resources for generations to come. As the race to the top has begun, cities and their utilities are in the spotlight with an unprecedented opportunity to implement the sustainability agenda.


About the Author
Anisha Anantapadmanabhan
is manager of water infrastructure at Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit organization working with the most influential investors and companies to build leadership and drive solutions throughout the economy. Connect with her by email at Learn more about Ceres at

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Meet the Author
Ceres is a sustainability nonprofit organization working with the most influential investors and companies to build leadership and drive solutions throughout the economy. Through powerful networks and advocacy, Ceres tackles the world’s biggest sustainability challenges, including climate change, water scarcity and pollution, and human rights abuses.