Mr. Mike T. Healy, Leadership Group, APWA Center for Sustainability

FATHOM Global Water Resources, Inc.


With the introduction of “Green Infrastructure” and “LEED” construction concepts there was always some initial confusion, not only in nomenclature but also in what actually qualifies under these advancements. The same appears to be true today in grappling with the concepts of “Sustainability” and “Sustainable Practices.”


As a white-haired former public works director, I recall struggling with past concepts, especially with the misconception—both by my City Council and a percentage of the general public—that most if not all of these advancements constituted an increase in cost to achieve.  I recall many a conversation centering on initial investment and ROI.  To be honest I won some and lost some, but most importantly these discussions resulted in a change of thinking and conceptual acceptance, albeit over time.


With respect to “Sustainability” and “Sustainable Practices” I would like to have a nickel for each time I have been told by colleagues, “I understand the concept but what is it?”  Normally I respond with a series of questions like: “Are you doing more today with fewer resources than before?  How did you get there? What practices did you implement to get there?” More times than not, they discover that these are all sustainable practices when they result in an improved deployment of staff effort, fuel and energy savings, or improved technology used to achieve positive results.


A couple of the prime examples that are simple and sustainable include: Automated Meter Infrastructure (AMI) in Water Utilities as these systems eliminate the very expensive and mundane process of meter reading while also delivering real-time, system-wide consumption data for use in water production, allowing utilities to meet consumption demand while pushing production schedules to periods when electric power is less expensive.  These systems when coupled with technology also aid in water conservation by identifying leaks in a day as opposed to month(s) later.  Another simple and common sustainable investment example is the use of solar compactor trash cans in high-pedestrian use areas such as central business districts; these have been found to reduce the  amount of labor and equipment use by as much as one-third.  In short, there are many ways to achieve sustainability and you may already be making strides in this, but are unaware of your day-in and day-out achievements.


One thing that I have learned very well over my long career in public works is that we are a nimble and dynamic bunch always looking to save money, partly because we are generally a vulnerable target of budget cuts, especially during tough economic periods.  In almost all cases, we find a way to cut costs and maintain or improve service delivery.  Simply stated, without knowing it, when we make process adjustments to meet resource decline, many if not all of the process changes are indeed sustainable achievements and need to be trumpeted throughout our communities.  This promotion is exactly how the concepts of “Sustainability” and “Sustainable Programs” gain traction and understanding.


Lastly, one other constant that I know about public works professionals is that we are reluctant to toot our own horns when we achieve success.  This has to change if we are going to advance an understanding of the concept of sustainability…


Dear colleagues, celebrate your sustainable achievements and let your communities know about it!