Large-scale, centralized water infrastructure has provided clean drinking water, wastewater treatment, stormwater management and flood protection for U.S. cities and towns for many decades, protecting public health, safety and environmental quality. To accommodate increasing demands driven by population growth and industrial needs, municipalities and utilities have typically expanded centralized water systems with longer distribution and collection networks. This approach achieves financial and institutional economies of scale and allows for centralized management. It comes with tradeoffs, however, including higher energy demands for longdistance transport; extensive maintenance needs; and disruption of the hydrologic cycle, including the large-scale transfer of freshwater resources to estuarine and saline environments.
While smaller-scale distributed water infrastructure has been available for quite some time, it has yet to be widely adopted in urban areas of the United States. However, interest in rethinking how to best meet our water and sanitation needs has been building. Recent technological developments and concerns about sustainability and community resilience have prompted experts to view distributed systems as complementary to centralized infrastructure, and in some situations the preferred alternative.
In March 2014, the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread partnered with the Water Environment Federation and the Patel College of Global Sustainability at the University of South Florida to convene a diverse group of experts to examine the potential for distributed water infrastructure systems to be integrated with or substituted for more traditional water infrastructure, with a focus on right-sizing the structure and scale of systems and services to optimize water, energy and sanitation management while achieving long-term sustainability and resilience.