More than 120 water experts will present on the sector’s most relevant topics during a packed schedule of 50 online sessions organized into seven tracks. Several sessions will address how the water community can manage the multiple impacts of COVID-19, including a session on financial and asset management featuring Ted Chapman from S&P Global Ratings, Cameron Parks from Citi, and moderator Cindy Wallis-Lage of Black & Veatch. “We expect the next couple of local government budget cycles to be very lean, and objective data acquired through asset management can be shared with the public and help decision-makers allocate limited resources,” said Chapman, senior director of S&P Global’s Municipal and Cooperative Utility Group. Maintaining resiliency, serving community Chapman (pictured left) noted that utilities can obtain objective data through asset management and share it with the public to illustrate the need for financial resources. “Anything that lends itself to operational and financial continuity tends to be something we generally view as a credit quality stabilizer,” he added. The financial community is also interested in the increasing number of water bill payment assistance programs. There is growing recognition, Chapman said, that while essential water services are relatively low-cost, they are not affordable for everyone. “There’s an opportunity to remind the financial community that the utility business model might be right in line with the type of ‘responsible investing’ strategy some investors are interested in,” Chapman added. “This includes the United Nations’ principles for responsible investment – what Wall Street calls Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) – which looks at how companies and governments run themselves and how they treat people.” Planning beyond the pandemic The pandemic can be a catalyst for utilities to embrace technologies to better manage their assets and serve their communities, said Wallis-Lage, Black & Veatch’s president of Water Business. “Implementing dynamic asset management plans enables a utility to assess their assets for health, performance and risk of failure, and to visualize data so that trends are more readily identified,” said Wallis-Lage (pictured right) . “Now is the time for utilities to be bold in showing the value of investing in their systems as well as the much higher cost of doing nothing.” Moving forward, it is important that water utilities plan long-term and across the organization. “Be prepared to have a discussion with rating analysts about where the utility plans to go beyond 2020,” Chapman said. “For example: What happens when the moratorium on shut-offs and disconnects is finally lifted? What kind of financial assumptions went into your 2021 budget, and are there any implications for your capital improvement plan over the next three-to-five years?” “Higher-rated utilities tend to be those that have a detailed and prioritized long-term plan that can be adjusted if revenues are tight, and risk management is really comprehensive,” he added. Wallis-Lage agreed that utilities should focus on long-term investments to support healthy communities. “Without resilient systems, businesses cannot survive, and local economies are impacted,” she said. “We don’t have to look very far back to see the devastation in Flint, Michigan, which was driven by short-term decisions to reduce cost.” AWWA members who register for the Virtual Summit by the end of today can access early bird pricing of under $200 for the complete program, and access sessions on demand for 30 days after the event.