Greetings, fellow classmates! This piece will appear in the “Solutions” section of the next printing of Conservation Magazine. I urge you to check out the website and pick up a copy of the magazine if you have a chance!
The New Urban Watershed
Humans have a peculiar relationship with water: Water is essential for life (we are 60-70% water after all), yet we use and waste it with seemingly reckless abandon. Early settlements formed near abundant, fresh water supplies out of necessity (one can only carry so many buckets in a day). Modern human history with water began with the ancient Romans who brought us the grand aqueducts traversing the pastoral countryside of Europe. Those aqueducts carried fresh drinking water from distant places for use in the more urbanized areas, and now serve as beacons of prosperity and engineering ingenuity. Similarly, the Romans constructed elaborate systems to quickly and efficiently carry wastewater to distant places as far from the cities as possible.
Fast forward over a thousand years to the Industrial Revolution, our great period of modern technological advancement. During this time, we developed improved water treatment processes (where would we be without disinfection?), but we needed not bother improving water conveyance infrastructure. We humbly took the effective model of the Romans and expanded it. Heck, if it isn’t broke, make it bigger! Supplying water from increasingly distant places became the norm, and cities sprung up in places formerly known as deserts. We tapped the Colorado. We channeled the Sierra Nevada snowmelt. We dammed the Columbia.
And what do we do with the water that has traveled so far and cost so much money and human effort? We usually do not even give it a moment’s thought. Water comes in, water goes out, and I am just a passive intermediary who may or may not actually use the water.
For millennia the natural wonder of the hydrologic cycle has hypnotized us into thinking plentiful fresh water is and always will be readily available, literally at my fingertips with the turn of a faucet. But, with the immense inertia of climate change most certainly in motion and urban populations expanding at exponential clips, the time is now for cities to rethink the far-reaching exurban sprawl of water supply systems.
One solution seems too simple, too apparent, to actually work. Why not use the water we already have through localized systems? In other words, we can look to close the loop of the unbounded urban water system. Let’s edit the word wastewater from our vocabulary and realize the potential of such water as a beneficial, cost-effective resource in urban water systems. By redefining our archaic systems, urban water resource systems will be our updated, contemporary beacons of prosperity and ingenuity. Let’s collect rainwater runoff and store it in constructed wetlands that can actually pre-treat water prior to drinking water treatment. Let’s more mindfully use the water and challenge ourselves to question the things we dump down the drain.
More and more cities close the loop and rechristen “Wastewater Treatment Plants” as “Resource Recovery Plants.” Orange County in California operates the largest wastewater reclamation plant in the world. Singapore has turned its NEWater plant into a country-wide marketing campaign and source of national pride. Soon, a simple matter of semantics to the unaware may actually be a watershed in urban water systems (pun very much intended!). With many cities looking to upgrade aged infrastructure, I for one look forward to the engineering, political, and sociological challenges posed by such a shift in water use—I only hope we grasp the opportunity before it’s too late.
Michael Noreika is an energy industry consultant and a graduate student in water resource and hydrologic engineering at the University of Washington.