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Charting New Waters

U.S. freshwater management has historically been fragmented, leading to uncoordinated—and sometimes ineffective—solutions. We guided a successful six-year collaboration that catalyzed integrated, innovative solutions.

In the early 2000s, the uncertain future of U.S. freshwater resources started hitting headlines regularly. Aging infrastructure, drinking water contamination, groundwater depletion, and extreme weather events threatened not just isolated communities, but also regional economic security and quality of life. 

In 2008, The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread rallied U.S. leaders in water management and infrastructure to embark on a groundbreaking collaboration known as Charting New Waters (CNW). The Foundation enlisted Meridian as a trusted partner to facilitate and guide CNW. Over six years, we engaged leaders from the water, agriculture, and energy sectors. The collaboration produced innovative consensus solutions and forged unique alliances that continue to transform the future of freshwater management.

The experts we convened recognized that new approaches in freshwater systems and services were key to the stability of the U.S. economy, environment, and public health. Governance of freshwater resources has historically been fragmented across federal and state agencies, municipal levels, and sectors. Practical, integrated solutions require a broader approach, with collaboration across silos. Unlike other freshwater management initiatives, CNW committed to reframing problems as challenges to overcome, devising strategies with multiple benefits, and integrating policy and management approaches.

Our experienced team gathered knowledge and insights from more than 600 individuals, representing approximately 265 organizations, at dozens of meetings. The conversations informed two consensus documents that present guiding principles and recommended actions. We also developed seven reports on specific areas, such as distributed infrastructure, urban water security, and nutrient management. The unlikely partnerships and framework for action developed by CNW established a foundation for subsequent collaborations that continue to tackle pressing freshwater resource and infrastructure challenges.

Generating Action: A Platform for New Initiatives

Historically, institutional barriers and fragmentation have impeded efforts to address mounting U.S. freshwater and infrastructure challenges. In response, CNW catalyzed new alliances that continue to generate actionable, innovative solutions. Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began working more closely with industry leaders. Utilities began working effectively with advocacy-focused NGOs. The entire industry shifted toward greater collaboration. 

Some of these new relationships have since evolved into long-standing partnerships that have applied CNW’s principles and frameworks to tackle regional concerns. For example, through nutrient management workshops, we led municipal leaders, utility managers, and regulators to develop smarter strategies for managing nutrient discharge from municipal water resource recovery facilities. In 2019, we teamed up with the Bay Area One Water Network to examine how improved stormwater capture and treatment could augment water supplies and how building- or neighborhood-scale water systems can integrate with centralized systems to increase regional water security. 

In short, CNW’s solution-oriented and integrated approach continues to inspire action, laying a foundation for advancing our nation’s water security and resilient freshwater resources.