Restoring Flows: Financing the Next Generation of Water Systems

Sharlene Leurig, Jeff Odefey
Created: 12/18/2013 -


All around us, the chorus of voices calling for renewed investment in our nation’s critical water infrastructure is growing. Yet while the calls amplify, harmony remains elusive.

There is widespread agreement that our water systems desperately need investment if they are to sustain the critical services they provide to economies. As to how those systems should perform, how we should pay for them and how we should value them—there, unanimity dissolves. Yet no matter what price tag we attach to this problem, and no matter what solution we define, one thing is certain: the scale of investment needed demands cooperation rarely experienced in the world of water.

Somehow, we must broker comity and a shared sense of mutual interest between those who use water, those who provide it, those who build and finance our water systems, and those who advocate for the protection of the natural systems that also rely on “our” water.

Our objective is to identify the pathways to this unprecedented cooperation by illuminating the work that is already underway, from the forests of the Mountain West to the vacant lots of the Postindustrial Northeast. By connecting these disparate stories of innovation, experimentation and advocacy we hope to create opportunities for the creation of shared pursuits beyond the boundaries of politics, watersheds and economic sectors that typically define our relationship to water.

This document originates from a convening of water providers, finance experts and NGOs in August 2011, as part of The Johnson Foundation’s Charting New Waters. That convening informed Financing Sustainable Water Infrastructure, which captured the many concepts that flowed from that diverse gathering. With support from the Russell Family Foundation, Ceres and American Rivers were able to continue that dialogue beyond Wingspread, in a series of interviews conducted during the winter of 2012. This document is an attempt to distill those ideas into a set of high‐priority, high‐impact strategies that can be jointly pursued by the many stakeholders who have a stake in shaping a more prosperous water future: the utilities who provide water, the financial intermediaries who help capital flow to those water providers, the investors who provide that capital, the NGOs who advocate for better water stewardship and job creation through infrastructure investments, and the foundations who enable cooperation across sectors.

The strategies we outline can bring together environmentalists, economists, water utilities, water users, financial institutions, foundations, investors and labor groups to articulate the value of our water systems to a spending‐weary public; to reform the ossified tenets of modern accounting and finance to recognize the crucial role our natural systems play in delivering secure water supplies; and to invigorate investment in the restoration of natural systems and the renewal of urban neighborhoods, which we now know to be part of our water system.

The challenges before us are immense, but the rewards larger still: creating jobs that cannot be outsourced, revitalizing long‐degraded urban communities, restoring the health of polluted waterways so they can create cultural meaning and economic vitality, and bolstering the resilience of natural systems that protect our water supplies.

We hope this is a faithful translation of the messages we heard from the many individuals and organizations working across the country to revitalize our nation’s most critical assets. We do not intend for this document to be an exhaustive inventory of issues, opportunities or actors, and the examples we provide may be illustrative more than comprehensive. Undoubtedly there are many efforts, consistent in spirit, which have not been captured through our research. We hope this report, through its examples, will serve as a useful starting point for strategic cooperation. While the details may depreciate, we hope this basic framework will only gain in value as we realize the economic prosperity, the human dignity and environmental vitality we can achieve by pursuing one simple goal: clean water for all.

Published On


American Rivers is the leading conservation organization standing up for healthy rivers so communities can thrive.  American Rivers protects and restores America's rivers for the benefit of people, wildlife, and nature.  Founded in 1973, American Rivers has more than 65,000 members and supporters, with offices in Washington, DC and nationwide. 


Sector Addressed
Water Resources
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy
Maintain adequate financial resources for adaptation
Target Climate Changes and Impacts
Flow patterns
Water supply
Habitat/Biome Type
Rivers and Streams
United States