Smart Growth programs—developing urban areas with a variety of building types and land uses in a concentrated space—are touted for their potential to spur economic development through the creation of more attractive, environmentally sustainable, and walkable communities. One underlying theme is that increased urban density allows people to access a variety of shops, housing options, and recreational areas without having to hop in their cars. The most commonly cited potential benefits of smart growth include improved public health, higher air quality due to reduced vehicle traffic, more efficient use of land, protection of valued natural or open spaces from sprawl, increased property values because of high demand, and often greater community involvement in the development process.
A recent post on the School of Government’s Community and Economic Development blog outlined some examples of Smart Growth programs here in North Carolina, and Glenn Barnes earlier wrote about five ‘tools’ included in the EPA’s Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities program. This post examines what I think is a sometimes overlooked benefit of Smart Growth and higher densities: water conservation.
Every year, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes data on household expenditures, income, and demographics collected through the Consumer Expenditure Survey. This nationally-representative survey reveals, among other things, how much households are spending on electricity, water and other public services, natural gas, fuel, and telephone services. This blog post summarizes how average household expenditures for these services have changed since 2000.
The EPA’s 2011 Report to Congress on the Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment, which estimated infrastructure capital needs of $384.2 billion over the next 20 years, includes a short line that has stuck with me all summer: “It is difficult to predict future needs.” 
Predicting the future in any context is difficult—if not impossible—and state agencies attempting to estimate statewide water/wastewater infrastructure needs must wrestle with some rather unique challenges. One of the challenges is a lack of consistent, long-term capital planning among water systems across the state. Water systems that do not practice asset management planning or have Capital Improvement Plans (CIPs) cannot predict the level of infrastructure investment they need in order to operate beyond the short lifetimes of their existing infrastructure assets.
This blog post provides a brief summary of how policy-makers in Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky have addressed this issue by incorporating water system capital planning into the application requirements for water infrastructure funding programs. In some cases, this approach has enabled the development of sophisticated systems for tracking infrastructure needs at the local and state levels. No solution is perfect, but it is clear that taking steps to encourage even basic planning across all water systems can improve financial, environmental, and public health outcomes.