(Ready any day now for) The Future of Water Reuse - Metropolitan Planning Council

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(Ready any day now for) The Future of Water Reuse


Gary Hunter of Black & Veatch presents at our Roundtable on Tuesday, Oct. 14.

For nearly a decade, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has advocated for modernizing Illinois’ policies on water reuse as an integral part of creating a comprehensive approach to water supply planning and management. Through research-backed policy recommendations documents like Troubled Waters (2006) and Immeasurable Loss (2012) MPC has pushed for changes like modernization of the Illinois Plumbing Code to facilitate non-potable water reuse. Over the years we have come close to systemic reform that would unlock the marketplace for systems capable of reusing a building's water, but haven’t quite gotten over the hump.

As our region’s aquifers, river and Lake Michigan distribution system face a whole host of stresses, having all available water resources management tools in the ol’ toolbox is more important than ever, and the reality is that many, many other states and cities have adopted more supportive policies for water reuse. Heck, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will pay you to install a graywater reuse system. We’re not there yet in Illinois.

On Tuesday, Oct. 14, MPC continued with its longstanding commitment to water reuse by convening public and private stakeholders at our roundtable, Rinse and Repeat: The Future of Water Reuse sponsored by Illinois American Water. The issue at hand, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago Commissioner Debra Shore explained in her opening remarks, is quite frank: “The only new sources of water are desalination or reuse.” Therefore, to combat future water scarcity, the rate of beneficial reuse of water, currently standing at a meager 8 percent of all wastewater in Northeastern Illinois, must be increased.

Gary Hunter, a wastewater engineer at Black & Veatch, recommended using a Total Water Management approach which would ultimately place satellite water distribution centers closer to end users such as major industrial plants, which can reuse water several times over, an economic incentive for the firm as well as an environmental benefit across the board. Hunter argued large urban environments like Chicago can successfully tackle water scarcity proactively, before it occurs, by providing economic incentives for communities to reuse water and delivering efficient regulatory guidance

Illinois American Water’s Jeffrey Kaiser shared insights gained through his work creating water reuse systems for clients across the country. Kaiser’s philosophy on water reuse is simple; he said, “Wastewater is not a liability, it is a resource,” a tenet he has applied to projects such as The Solaire residential tower in Battery Park, New York City. Kaiser designed a system to effectively reuse 9,000 gallons per day of water for flushing, 11,500 gallons per day for the building’s cooling tower, and another 6,000 gallons per day used for landscaping irrigation. Projects like this, and others like Gillette Stadium—home of the New England Patriots—another notable project of Kaiser’s, demonstrate that large efficiencies in water reuse can be achieved on a small scale, with minimum disturbance to infrastructure on the street.

Also crucial to MPC’s Roundtable was panelist Justin DeWitt of the Illinois Department of Public Health, a key voice weighing in on the regulatory challenges the State is grappling with as new water reuse techniques surface. DeWitt underlined the importance of safe drinking water as the utmost concern of the agency, a provision which can limit the application of reused water in some settings. Absent a minimum set of safety standards for water reuse in the Illinois Plumbing Code, the Department is forced to review each incoming proposal to build a water reuse system on a case-by-case basis, which will not be sustainable as the marketplace continues to grow.

As I’ve found out over the five years that MPC and its partners have been grappling with plumbing code modernization, the reality of consumer preferences and market demand isn’t enough to convince skeptics that water reuse technologies will be part of Illinois’ future. Until that happens, compromise is the name of the game. The Department did recently grant a code variance to a Chicago-area university with a drip-irrigation system, a method considered lower-risk than spray irrigation systems, which are more likely to result in human contact. Regulatory compromises such as these, which seek to first and foremost ensure public safety, are a necessary word of caution as future projects surrounding water reuse take off, DeWitt explained. While there may be skeptics in the reuse of water, Jeffrey Kaiser remarked perceptions are likely to change as water reuse increasingly becomes a necessity.

The issue, it was clear, was not one of technology or really even health concerns, but political will to overcome inertia. Several of the speakers’ closing statements echoed that. Kaiser closed with, “If we wait until there is a crisis, we won’t act correctly—History has shown us this.” DeWitt drove it home;  “We have the technology, but do we have the will?” And MPC’s MarySue Barrett explained a broad coalition of public and private stakeholders must take steps to increase the reuse of water, breaking down the limiting dichotomy of water and wastewater, but also opening up whole new marketplaces for innovate technologies that can help us adapt our water management strategies to current issues.

There’s a lot of talk out there right now about optimization of existing water supplies and resource recovery—I’ve been focusing on these issues in some of my October presentations, they’re at the heart of the Johnson Foundation’s Navigating to New Shores: Seizing the Future for Sustainable and Resilient U.S. Freshwater Resources, and as Commissioner Shore demonstrated, they’re the future laid out in the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s strategic plan. It’s exciting, but frustrating at the same time. Water reuse is sure to be a big part of Illinois’ water management future (it’s the present in many other places). So the question is not if, but when will we be able to seize it?

MPC Research Assistant Zoe Chapin contributed to this post.


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