Systemic Changes Needed to Water Delivery Services

By Matt Harrison

We are presently confronted by challenges to meet immediate human needs without compromising the needs of future generations at every level of human organization, and cannot do so without developing innovative solutions to old problems. This is the central challenge to widespread establishment of sustainable systems, and was the subject of a recent lecture by Dr. Nicholas Ashbolt of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (EPA ORD) at the University of Illinois Chicago in the context of water resources and delivery systems. Here, Dr. Ashbolt made a compelling case for the development of alternative water service systems to enhance sustainability in metropolitan areas and throughout the nation. In sum, the contemporary model of water service delivery relies on a single, centralized system that is poorly equipped to address certain pathogens of concern or to recover nutrient and energy resources that are presently treated as waste products. For example, historically, fecal pathogens have been the primary contaminants of concern that our water delivery systems seek to mitigate, though Dr. Ashbolt argues that we now face greater threats from unregulated environmental pathogens such as Legionella. Additionally, phosphorous contained in agricultural and household products has been treated as a waste product and delivered to the Gulf of Mexico where it is responsible for creating hypoxic conditions, or dead zones.  However, EPA ORD is seeking to address these problems by taking a “systems approach” and looking at the “water-energy-carbon-health nexus” to identify opportunities for resource recovery or recycling. The main point here is that nexus of these issues in the context of our current water services delivery system constitutes a “wicked problem” that touches on social, scientific, and economic issues beyond the reach of science alone.

This water-energy-carbon-health nexus describes the relationship among these systemic factors, where water is essential to human health, as well as many activities of daily living that promote health and well-being, such as cleaning, cooking, and drinking; however, many of these activities depend on energy to pump and treat water supplies. In fact, 3-7 percent of total energy produced is expended on water resources, and some energy generation is dependent on carbon-intensive energy sources. Additionally, energy existing in food and fecal residues are not accounted for in assessments of thermal energy in wastewater. Sustainable management of water resources, then, requires that we address institutional barriers and distorted price signals that impede the development of more efficient, decentralized systems. For example, revenue models based on the units of water sold does little to promote conservation or efficient end use practices. To illustrate the point, consider the fact that we drink only ten percent of the water delivered to our households.  In fact, despite the technological advances of the late twentieth century alone, our current water delivery systems have changed relatively little in the past two thousand years, and would likely be easily understood by an ancient Roman engineer who found himself transported to a contemporary American city. These deficiencies are made worse by a political situation resulting in a $20 billion annual shortfall in system maintenance.

The solutions to these wicked problems involve looking beyond each identifiable problem in order to solve multiple problems simultaneously. For example, Dr. Ashbolt argued that under a hypothetical water system structure, the EPA will focus on where and how pathogenic exposure occurs while managers may focus on recovery of energy and nutrient resources to maximize the efficiency of the delivery system. Dr. Ashbolt’s example of a systems approach is a multi-criteria decision-making framework that considers health, environment, economy, social/cultural, and technical functions. Additionally, he identified two themes that underlie safe and sustainable water resource systems: first, sustainable water resources, including both natural resources and agricultural inputs; and secondly, sustainable water infrastructure systems. Each of these involve green infrastructure and more effective resource recovery practices. Resource recovery at the household level may have a range of implications but will likely involve a greater integration of drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater. Examples include treatment and reuse of household grey water and sewage systems that divert urine away from sewers to return nitrogen content to the soil and recover energy from black water (containing fecal matter). The enduring message is that we need to move toward a closed-loop water system. MPC embraces the systems approach Dr. Ashbolt described, and has been active in engaging stakeholders in our vision of sustainability for the Chicagoland region. To learn more about our work engaging stakeholders click here, or click here and here to learn more about our work toward sustainable neighborhoods and households, or follow our blog to keep up on regional advancement in water sustainability.

Preserving critical natural resources for future generations is an important national undertaking to which our strategic approach continually evolves. The rise of industrialism in the nineteenth century contributed to environmental degradation, and gave rise to the notion that nature and natural resources are public sources of inherent value which popularized the conservation ethic of the early twentieth century. In the post-World War II era, the increase in population coupled with urban expansion and suburbanization gave rise to new concerns about how to protect not just resources, but whole ecosystems. In 1969, the U.S. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which codified the role of the federal government as a steward of the environment and in 1970 the EPA was established to enhance human and environmental health.

In its early years, the EPA was primarily concerned with enforcement of environmental regulations that the Agency promulgated to target polluters. With regard to critical water resources, notable legislation includes The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, which regulates public drinking water supplies, and the Resource and Recovery Act of 1976, which allows the Agency to control toxic waste in all phases of its life cycle from generation to disposal. More recently, the EPA has taken a more integrated approach to managing human and environmental health with an emphasis on sustainability and a tripartite focus on social, environmental, and economic factors. This is an important development but will not be sufficient to create truly sustainable systems without the engagement and commitment of service providers, homeowners, and concerned community members.

We are undoubtedly fortunate to live in a region so rich in water resources, but that does not mean the challenges we face are of any less concern than for inhabitants of water scarce regions. Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for nearly 7 million people in the greater Chicago area, contains various contaminants including some unregulated chemicals. In recent years, testing revealed trace amounts of sex hormones, flame retardants, herbicides, and a variety of prescription drugs in the municipal water supply. Additionally, some municipalities discharge treated waste as well as untreated sewage overflows directly into the lake. A sustainable water services system may eliminate some exposure to these contaminants through rainwater capture and grey water recycling. Reusing water can also enhance local ecosystems and amenity values through a net reduction in demand for water, a decreased energy-intensity of water consumption and the co-benefit of minimizing green-house-gas emissions. These wicked problems are complex and there are no simple solutions. However, the threats we presently face to critical water resources have never been greater, and the stakes have never been higher.

Additional resources:

ASHBOLT, N. Which Pathogens are in EPA’s New Water Sustainability Focus?. Presented at University of Illinois at Chicago Area of Excellence in Water, Policy, and Health Seminar Series, Chicago, IL May 15, 2012.

ASHBOLT, N. Community-scale and Household-scale Decentralized Reuse Experiences on Two Continents. Presented at Decentralized Water Systems Workshop, Nags Head, NC, July 26 – 29, 2009.

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One Response to Systemic Changes Needed to Water Delivery Services

  1. Wow! I could not agree with you more. It is so nice to finally read information when the person knows what they are talking about. I have been reading on the web for about an hour and yours is the first one to tell me what I wanted to know. Thanks.

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