In Deep Water: How Today’s Technology Can Localize and Restore Urban Water Infrastructure

By Brian Young and Emma Stewart, Ph.D

Brian Young is the Sustainable Infrastructure Program Manager and Emma Stewart is the Head of Sustainability Solutions at Autodesk.

Jan 30, 2013 | Urban Sustainability | 0 comments

Many of us have experienced the growth of the “buy local food” movement in recent years. We’d like to propose an even more effective movement: “drink local”. (For you barflies out there, we’re referring to water, not beer).

Many municipalities today have put themselves “in deep water” by simultaneously centralizing water systems while underinvesting in water infrastructure. We’re then surprised when the inevitable rationing, flooding, or sewage overflows occur (these should really be no surprise in the US, where a water line bursts every two minutes [1] and pipes typically leak 16% of the water they transport [2]). To reverse this trend, we need to focus on localizing urban water systems and restoring water infrastructure, both of which can be accomplished with today’s technologies.

Why are local water systems more economically and financially sustainable? Due to the high cost – economically and environmentally – of transporting and treating water, municipal governments and water utilities should “seek out every drop on hand before looking afield [3],” reusing and recycling water to the greatest extent possible. Before transporting water from one state to the next, they could consider conservation policies, leak repairs, and water recycling. In lieu of dams or desalination plants, they could evaluate alternatives to water for cooling or fracking. Instead of discharging stormwater or black-water from a site for treatment by utilities – requiring huge networks of expensive sewer and sanitary pipes and pump stations — real estate owners could reuse it onsite for irrigation and other non-potable water needs. In all of these cases, localizing the water system allows for better service and reliability with lower infrastructure cost.

Why are we underinvesting in water infrastructure? In part, government austerity measures view water infrastructure as a painless place to cut. The US government’s proposed 37% cut to the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds for 2013 punctuates a steady decline of federal support for water infrastructure projects since the Clean Water Act of 1972 [4]. This year, these low-interest loan programs will cover only 2% of the estimated $98B need [5]. Meanwhile, private investors hesitate to back centralized water supply and sewer projects because of their high costs and vulnerability to droughts and energy security risks. And ratepayers who enjoy cheap water and rarely consider the pipes behind their bathroom wall see no reason to pay more.

To localize an urban water system, one must first gain a comprehensive understanding of the watershed surrounding the city and the ability to design and analyze new possibilities in context. That involves unifying data on existing conditions and analyzing designs, as these groups have done.

  • To preserve Fairfax County’s freshwater supplies, Dewberry installed 5 miles of purple pipe to deliver treated wastewater to nearby parks for irrigation and a local waste-to-energy facility for cooling purposes.
  • To protect local stream ecosystems, Clark County Public Works added 15 rain gardens in a subdivision with undersized stormwater facilities. These biomimetic design features absorbed and filtered polluted runoff that would have otherwise discharged into the surface waters.

To restore water infrastructure, one needs to attract long-term capital at good rates, which requires confidence on the part of government, willingness-to-pay by ratepayers, and a return on investment for private investors.

  • To complete the environmental permitting process for a client’s new development in Virginia, Timmons Group restored the affected waterways and habitats for local flora and fauna. In addition to the environmental benefits, the client’s decision to invest in natural infrastructure reduced costs by over 50 percent by eliminating the need to purchase mitigation bank credits.
  • To attract private capital, the City of Buffalo offered American Water a contract to upgrade, operate, and maintain its underperforming water system. American Water easily surpassed expectations and saved the City $21 million with cost-effective efficiency improvements such as online management systems for customer records and work orders. [6]
  • To win stakeholder buy-in for a new water reclamation facility, AECOM shared 3D visuals of its design at public hearings in the Town of Davie, Florida. Ratepayers and government officials concerned with the plant’s impacts on the local character could see how the facility preserved the rural atmosphere while protecting their water supply. The $101M project was approved much earlier than expected.

As these projects exemplify, while many cities have been heading in the wrong direction when it comes to their water infrastructure, the creative application of today’s technology – and don’t forget a healthy dose of political will – can reverse that trend, with lasting positive impacts on the local environment and economy.

[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2012) Aging Water Infrastructure Research: Water Distribution Systems.
[2] Fishman, C. (2011) The Big Thirst. New York: Free Press. Kindle Location 5766.
[3] Barnett, C. (2011) The Blue Revolution. Boston: Beacon Press. Kindle Location 4971.
[4] Gies, E. (2012) “Spending Cuts Threaten U.S. Water Infrastructure”, Forbes.
[5] American Society of Civil Engineers. (2011) “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Water and Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure
[6] The National Council for Public-Private Partnerships. (2005) “Partnership Pays Dividends for Buffalo’s Water System

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