Water Innovation

Urban water systems in California need to adapt in response to changing climate, population growth, aging infrastructure, and other challenges. Adaptation will require innovative ways of managing and identifying beneficial linkages between environmental water quality, drinking water supplies, wastewater, stormwater, flood control, and other aspects of urban water.

This initiative examines barriers to urban water innovation, with an emphasis on direct potable reuse and innovation in the municipal wastewater sector, and explores ways to constructively address them.

August 2022

Cultivating effective utility-regulator relationships around innovation: Lessons from four case studies in the U.S. municipal wastewater sector

While all regulatory processes involve interactions between regulators and those they regulate, innovative projects may require these parties to engage in new ways, heightening the importance of the relationships between them. We investigated four case studies to examine how regulatory relationships affect municipal wastewater utilities’ efforts to adopt new technologies. Through cross-case analysis, we identified five interconnected characteristics of regulatory relationships that appear to facilitate innovation, and whose absence could impede it.

March 2021

Regulators and utility managers agree about barriers and opportunities for innovation in the municipal wastewater sector

Given the many risks and the different incentives and roles of utilities and regulators in the regulation process, a common assumption is that the two groups are generally at odds with one another when it comes to their views on regulation and innovation. New research from our team shows that, on the contrary, utilities and regulators generally agree about the ways in which regulation acts as a barrier to innovation in the wastewater sector, and how innovation could be encouraged.

January 2020

Examining the complex relationship between innovation and regulation through a survey of wastewater utility managers

In order to meet the 21st century demands, innovation is needed in municipal wastewater treatment. The innovation ecosystem in municipal wastewater treatment, however, is highly complex, and regulations at multiple levels are intended to ensure that new technologies will not result in detrimental impacts to water quality. Past research from the Wheeler Water Institute has suggested that many wastewater utility managers see these regulations as a barrier to innovation. In order to better understand these perspectives, we are pursuing multiple research projects that examine the relationship between innovation and regulation in municipal wastewater.

October 2017

Of Dreamliners and Drinking Water: Developing Risk Regulation and a Safety Culture for Direct Potable Reuse

This paper examines the notion that emerging regulation of DPR may lack sufficient attention to a particular class of risks: catastrophic risks with low probabilities of occurrence, but high consequences. We argue that proponents of DPR could benefit from proactively developing a safety culture in DPR utilities and establishing an effective industry-wide auditing organization that investigates unanticipated system failures. Developing independent oversight for DPR operation could ensure that stringent quality and management requirements are set and enforced, and that any system failures or “near misses” are investigated and adequately responded to.

Also see our Legal Planet blog post on safety culture with DPR

March 2016

Barriers to Innovation in Urban Wastewater Utilities: Attitudes of Managers in California

In many regions of the world, urban water systems will need to transition into fundamentally different forms to address current stressors and meet impending challenges—faster innovation will need to be part of these transitions. The results in this report reveal insights about the attitudes towards innovation among decision makers in the wastewater sector, and how perceptions at the level of individual managers might create disincentives for experimentation.

Also see our Legal Planet blog post.

February 2016

The Thorny Road to Technology Legitimation — Institutional Work for Potable Water Reuse in California

This paper addresses this gap between technological innovation and societal legitimacy by proposing an analytical framework for the early technology legitimation phase that combines recent insights from innovation studies and institutional sociology. The framework we put forward in this paper conceptualizes technology legitimation as being enacted by different actors in a technological innovation system through specific forms of institutional work. This framework is illustrated with a case study on potable water reuse, in this case the injection of treated wastewater into drinking water reservoirs — a technology most consumers confront with revulsion. We outline how the legitimation process interrelates with other core development processes of a technological innovation system and discuss how our framework informs recent work in innovation and transition studies.

Also see our Legal Planet blog post on moving beyond the “yuck factor” with DPR

June 2015

Beyond User Acceptance: A Legitimacy Framework for Potable Water Reuse in California

This study takes a broader perspective on the adoption of potable water reuse based on concepts of societal legitimacy, which is the generalized perception or assumption that a technology is desirable or appropriate within its social context. To assess why some potable reuse projects were successfully implemented while others faced fierce public opposition, we performed a series of 20 expert interviews and reviewed in-depth case studies from potable reuse projects in California. Results show that proponents of a legitimated potable water reuse project in Orange County, California engaged in a portfolio of strategies that addressed three main dimensions of legitimacy.

Also see our Legal Planet blog post on moving beyond the “yuck factor” with DPR

February 2015

Accelerating Cost-Effective Green Stormwater InfrastructureAccelerating Cost-Effective Green Stormwater Infrastructure: Learning from Local Implementation

Although green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) is critical to solving stormwater management challenges, GSI is evolving technology with inconsistent performance and uncertain costs. Our report recommends enhancing learning from local implementation efforts to address knowledge gaps and speed cost-effective deployment. We identify key actions the EPA and state water quality authorities can take to help drive data collection and sharing.

Also see our Legal Planet blog post.

August 2013

Reducing the innovation deficit in urban waterThe Innovation Deficit in Urban Water

Arguably, the main barriers to developing the new technologies and management practices necessary to meet emerging challenges in the water sector will be institutional rather than technical. In collaboration with ReNUWIt researchers and others, we are working to characterize barriers to innovation, and opportunities to overcome them, including legal, regulatory, social, financial, governance, and others. We have produced a “most readarticle that develops a framework for forthcoming studies on the institutional elements of innovation at various scales.  We have also investigated potable water reuse for water supply augmentation, using the concept of legitimacy to develop a broader framework for what is necessary to implement water reuse projects.