An Inexpensive Fix For U.S. Water Woes

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By Erica Gies

Our nation’s water infrastructure is aging badly: U.S. cities currently lose one-fifth of their water to leaks and suffer 1.2 trillion gallons of sewage spills annually, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.

In February, a water main in Kalamazoo, Mich., burst, spewing a million gallons of water into a local neighborhood, flooding homes and damaging streets. Similarly destructive ruptures have recently occurred in Washington, D.C.; La Jolla, Calif.; Lewiston, Maine; DeKalb County, Ga.; and Pine Knoll Shores, N.D., to name a few.

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Even worse, raw, untreated sewage pours into U.S. waterways 75,000 times per year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. During storms, the human excrement of roughly 40 million Americans in 772 communities in 30 states goes untreated straight out the pipe into rivers, lakes, and bays, says the EPA. The difficulty is antiquated combined sewer and stormwater systems overwhelmed by rainy weather.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t getting better. Asthe U.S. population grows and water demand increases, more frequent droughts and floods are putting increased pressure on our already ailing water infrastructure. National Academy of Sciences climate models show that the Southwest will likely experience widespread, prolonged drought in the future, while the Southeast will see more intense storms, spurring floods. In the Northeast, hotter, longer summers are already straining water supplies. And in the West, declining mountain snowpack is leaving water managers scrambling to meet water needs in the dry season.

Clearly, our entire water system needs a major overhaul. But the costs for that fix will be huge, more than $600 billion by 2019,according to the EPA. However, there is an economical solution that could simultaneously reduce water pollution and meet future water supply needs: decentralization.

Stormwater, for example, instead of being treated as waste, can be cultivated as a resource. Rain – rather than being channeled into sewer pipes – can be stored in the ground where it falls through low-impact development (LID) technologies such as porous pavement, green roofs, rain barrels, rain gardens, vegetated swales, cisterns, urban agriculture, and wetlands and stream restoration. The result is inexpensiveon-site natural storage and cleaning.

This is a big departure from our over-engineered, failed solutions to water management. LID ismore compatible with nature’s own rhythms,resilient to climate change stress, and less expensive to build and maintain. For example, cities that create parks rather than buildings in floodplains save money by avoiding property loss from predictable disasters.

LID also offers many economic, environmental, and social benefits, such as greatly reduced stormwater system overloads and sewage overflows. In addition, greener infrastructure improves a city’s quality of life, reducing the heat island effect, creating wildlife habitat, allowing residents to re-connect with nature, and increasing property values.LID techniques also allow property owners to provide some of their own water, reducing cities’ needs to procure new, expensive supplies.

This isn’t pie in the sky technology: Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Ore., are leading the way with LID implementation.Portland, for example, pays homeowners $53 per downspout disconnected from the sewer system and diverted to a rain barrel. And residents are responding enthusiastically – 45,000 disconnects have reduced combined sewer overflows by more than 1.1 billion gallons annually. Meanwhile, Chicago is providing incentives to those who install green roofs to decrease stormwater runoff. The city has even put a green roof atop its own city hall.

Philadelphia has created a sustainable water management program to help reduce its annual average of 166 combined sewage overflows. The city plans to absorb excess stormwater with both old- and new-school approaches: expanding its wastewater treatment plants while increasing on-site stormwater retention via LID techniques.

The centralized, over-engineered approach to water management of the 20th century won’t work in the 21st. Decentralized LID solutions are working, solving myriad problems and creating numerous benefits for far less money. Aggressively addressing our nation’s water infrastructure failings today will save us headaches and big money in the future.

Freelance reporter Erica Gies has written for The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Wired News, Grist, and E/The Environmental Magazine. To comment on this column go to www.blueridgepress.com © BRP 2011


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