Gutierrez frames water crises as an opportunity for innovation

Sally C. Gutierrez speaking at the water quality symposium in Des Moines. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | June 17, 2016

More than 150 people met today for the “Iowa Drinking Water: Could Flint Happen Here?”symposium at the Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines.

Peter Gleick, Co-Founder of the Pacific Institute and former recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, began the day by sharing an idealistic vision for the future of water quality and distribution. His 2116 world is one that monitors its water use and quality closely and boasts updated infrastructure. One-hundred years from now, Gleick imagines that water will be priced appropriately so that all people use it more efficiently.

He points out that water crises of today are not the result of absolute water scarcity, but rather ineffective management and inequitable distribution. Gleick’s opening remarks framed the day for what it was: a chance for Iowa citizens, lawmakers, water professionals and the like to work toward a world where all humans have access to clean, safe water. In his words, “We can choose the world of our future by our actions today…The whole point is that we have a choice.”

Lunch keynote speaker Sally C. Gutierrez and her branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been working to bring Gleick’s vision of the future to life. Gutierrez is the Director of the Environmental Technology Innovation Cluster Development and Support Program, a specific arm of the EPA that “seeks to advance environmental protection in tandem with economic development” through the formation of technological clusters.

According the the EPA, environmental technology geographic clusters catalyze innovation in three ways:

  1. Clusters create an environment where companies and organizations can easily share ideas and solutions.
  2. Connections within clusters lead to partnerships between businesses and researchers, facilitating the transfer of new technologies to the market.
  3. Clusters provide companies with easier access to test beds and partners for pilot studies, and encourage communication between companies and regulators.

Gutierrez pointed out how the Confluence Water Technology Innovation Cluster of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky has used concentrated organization collaboration to its advantage. Cluster member company CitiLogics of Northern Kentucky provides next generation analytics to help clients more efficiently “manage and operate urban water infrastructure investments.” The group offers a cutting-edge interactive dashboard to clients called Polaris. The analytics system is web-based tool that allows engineers and water system operators to observe and predict things like pipe breaks before they happen.

Gutierrez argues that many of the technological advancements necessary for a safer and more sustainable water future already exist, the challenge lies in getting these tools onto the market. For CitiLogics and companies like them, participation in a cluster working group can make sharing their technology with local utility companies easier.

In the ten years since the first water cluster community was founded, 17 others have formed across the United States; so far there are none in Iowa. Gutierrez says that these innovation communities can help reframe water quality and use issues. In order to spur this kind of solution-based collaboration in Iowa, she suggests “not just think[ing] about these as water problems, but…[as] economic water opportunity.”


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