A Practical Way of Thinking about Sustainability

By Neftali (Nef) Hernandez

The term sustainability is commonly used in the environmental field.  In general, it is defined as the capacity to utilize resources and goods in perpetuity without adverse impacts to our environment, economy, or social settings.  However in practice, sustainability has hundreds of definitions rendering it rather ambiguous.  I want to examine one practical way of looking at sustainability … through the lens of Asset Management.

Can you think of a common factor that allowed ancient civilizations and today’s largest cities to be built and grow?  If I were to pick just one, I would have to say it is WATER.  Civilization depends on fresh water.  This is why London is located on the Thames, Rome on the Tiber, New York on the Hudson and Kansas City on the Missouri.  This is the case for nearly all established cities, from ancient civilizations like the Maya to today’s largest metropolitan areas.  In addition to an abundant water source, these cities relied on sophisticated networks of aqueducts to deliver water to their people.  We depend on this asset, high quality water, and will for as long as I can imagine.

But if civilization depends on these networks, how do we ensure that they are sustainable for years to come?  One way could be through establishment and implementation of an Asset Management Plan.  If you are in the financial industry or transportation sector, you might be familiar with Asset Management, but I will illustrate using a simple example most of us can relate to, the exterior of a home.

In this case, assume I want to sustain the outside of my house, which is my asset.  To keep the value of my asset, I have to manage items like the roof, the siding, and the windows.  Say my roof is rated to last 20 years and the replacement cost is about $2,000 (Yes this is really low, but remember I’m trying to make this a simple example).  The siding should last a long time if painted every five years at a cost of $500 (assuming I do it myself), and the windows will last 35 years with a replacement cost of about $8,000.

I want my home to last forever, or to be sustainable so my great-grandchildren can one day live in the same home.  In order to plan for the management of my asset, I plan to set-aside the money to pay for the maintenance and replacement of the exterior on a monthly basis:  For the roof [$2,000/(12 months x 20 years)]= $8.33 per month;  For the siding [$500/(12 months x 5 years)] = $8.33; and For the windows [$8,000/(12 months x 35 years)]= $19.04 per month.  So my Asset Management Plan, indicates that to sustain the exterior of this house I have to set-aside almost $36 every month.  Of course this example is extremely simple and ignores inflation and other realities (like a hailstorm that could give you a roof sooner than you expected).

Returning to my original point, this concept of asset management can be scaled up when you think about the sustainability of water services. Water utilities consist of many discrete yet interconnected elements often comprising a network of underground aqueducts and infrastructure of various ages, types, and condition located miles and miles apart.  Many utilities have started using a fully digital system to track and manage assets. The system stores information about each asset such as pictures, status, description, acquisition date, expected maintenance dates, actual repairs, and costs. A Geographic Information System (GIS) combines data about the asset with its location for better resource management. Our society’s well-being requires properly managing water and water infrastructure, and using an asset management plan will likely position water utilities on the road to sustainability by establishing a framework for long-range financial planning to maintain critical infrastructure.

Asset Management Plans provide the structure to operate, maintain, rehabilitate, repair and replace things of value for a particular group or person; geospatially enabling them can further aid in scare resource allocation, planning, and growth.  Asset Management Plans can be applied to a wide variety of resources including infrastructure and the environment, and can be adaptable to meet the needs of a scale; from your home to a large utility, from a single tree to the land, air and water upon life depends.  Asset plans are a practical reminder of how we can strive towards our own sustainability by saving and planning right now.

About the Author: Neftali Hernandez grew up in Puerto Rico and is an Environmental Scientist with EPA Region 7’s Drinking Water Branch.  He is a member of EPA’s Water Emergency Response Group and has a bachelor of science degree in biology and a masters of science degree in environmental health from the University of Puerto Rico.

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