Water Reuse as a Design Opportunity
All too frequently, news of water scarcity, contamination and overstressed infrastructure makes global headlines. Cape Town South Africa, with a population of nearly 4 million, is navigating a water scarcity crisis and it is estimated that they’ll run out of their potable supply this year. Flint Michigan continues to struggle with lead contamination brought on by a shift in their municipal supply strategy. It was the wrong answer and the people of Flint are physically suffering the consequences of their City and State’s poor planning. In addition to these circumstances, unprecedented growth in urban areas and the risks associated with overstressed infrastructure are on the radar of local utilities.
History tells us issues of scarcity and contamination contribute to poverty, migration, civil unrest and famine. The Romans understood the importance of a fresh water supply as far back as 312 B.C. when Appius Claudius Caecus built the first aqueduct. Rome's first aqueduct was built in response to the burgeoning city population and major sanitary issues which affected their existing water supplies. The Aqua Appia fed the City with approximately 73,000 cubic meters (approx 19 million gallons) of water per day. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe objected to the construction of an oil line across their land and waterway, proclaiming that Water is Life. In six months of operation, the Dakota Access Pipeline has suffered five oil spills. While minor, these failures validate the concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Here in California, this year’s water supply is looking increasingly meager. In April, experts found that the Sierra Nevada snowpack is one half what would be measured during a “typical” year. The Sierra Nevada snowpack accounts for a third of the state’s fresh water supplies, making reliable snowfall critical to the needs of the urban environments and to one of the most productive agriculture regions in the United States. Additionally, this reduction in snowpack has collateral effects such as an increased risk for wildfires and mudslides.
Why do we continue to undervalue our finite fresh water supplies? Culturally, we have developed the expectation that when we turn on the tap, water will be there in perpetuity, yet water has been priced lower than the cost of its capture and delivery. “It (water) is a human right,” said Kevin McGovern, chairman of the Water Initiative, “but you can’t have it for free.” It is estimated that the world needs $22 trillion in water investments to ensure adequate supplies in the years ahead. While this global perspective is important, we have to ask ourselves what we can do here and now with the available potable and non-potable supply.
The William J. Worthen Foundation (WJWF) and its collaborative of practitioners recognized the need to embrace onsite water reuse and demystify the technology, design process and regulatory hurdles for developers, designers, and policy makers alike. With generous funding from The Charles Pankow Foundation, Google, AIA California Council, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, the City of Santa Monica, Water Reuse Foundation, Crescent Heights, and Urban Fabrick, Inc, WJWF assembled subject matter and industry experts from around the world to produce A Design Professional’s Guide to Onsite Water Use and Reuse. The goal was to create a document that disseminates highly technical and complex information into easily digestible bites of content with concise infographics to help inform everyone about onsite water reuse.
“The challenge for most architects is to understand how to better engage in a water discussion much earlier in the design process. If the first time you seriously discuss water with your client and plumbing engineer is at the time of bathroom and kitchen fixture selection, or when running the calculations to confirm how many LEED credits you get, you are very likely missing some interesting opportunities to collaborate and engage with your client and project team on the subject of water,” said Bill Worthen FAIA, LEED Fellow, GPR, co-founder of Urban Fabrick Inc. (deceased January 2017)
The Water Reuse Practice Guide (WRPG) addresses the entire life cycle of water reuse systems including project pitch, design, scope definition, system specification, permitting and operation. Additionally, the guide emphasizes onsite treatment strategies and conservation measures, the value of a more collaborative and integrated design process to ensure the success of sustainable water reuse systems, the water-energy nexus, and strategies for communicating the value of future water reuse projects.
Water is a precious resource. Let’s face it, flushing toilets and urinals with potable water IS waste and we have an opportunity to shift the conversation towards one of water stewardship. As the “yuck factor” begins to subside, we are seeing a growing interest in water reuse strategies. However, the long slog isn’t over. Educating the design community, communicating the benefits of water conservation to clients, and working with regulatory and health officials to develop effective policy is core to the mission of Urban Fabrick Inc. and The William J. Worthen Foundation.
The rapidly evolving field of green building and climate positive development require holistic, multidisciplinary systems thinking and teams. This is a new way of working and The Foundation is helping to facilitate the change. By sharing our individual knowledge and experiences, we can be an educational resource for clients and funders, helping them to better understand how to get what they want, improve the design process for all involved, and to make a difference.
The Water Reuse Practice Guide is available as a free download on the Foundation’s website: collaborativedesign.org
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