New Approaches in Decentralized Water Infrastructure

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The Coalition for Alternative Wastewater Treatment convened a series of workshops of experts and advocates to develop solutions and strategies for sustainable water systems.

Decentralized water technologies and designs, such as water-efficient appliances, rooftop rain gardens, and onsite wastewater treatment and resource recovery, are the key to enhancing the performance of the nation's aging centralized water and sewer systems and to assuring adequate water supplies and healthy ecosystems into the future. Decentralized systems also create a host of other benefits for communities, including energy savings, improvements in air quality, creation of green spaces, restoration of streams, aquifers, wetlands, and habitat, and stimulus for new green companies and jobs. In the long-run, the nutrients in wastewater may be of value, and synergies with distributed energy production and other infrastructure may also be important.

Use of decentralized infrastructure could be arguably second in impact only to better farming practices in setting the nation on a sustainable path in water, but this potential is not well-articulated or widely-known. Decentralized technologies are still at the "margins" of engineering practice, and construction of big-pipe water, stormwater, and wastewater infrastructure continues. Part of the unrealized potential for decentralized alternatives can be explained by the continued segregation of advocates, entrepreneurs, and professionals into the three separate spheres of water supply, stormwater, and wastewater, and by their primary focus on the individual technologies or "appliances" rather than their cumulative impact. This "siloing" thwarts the emergence of the major benefits and values of the decentralized approach because it is only when all of water's sources, uses, and movements are thought about in an integrated fashion in a watershed, and when the trio of technologies is jointly-designed at the site or neighborhood scale, that a dramatic synergy of value-creation begins to occur.

Localized and integrated capture, use, treatment and reuse of water would mimic how nature itself uses water and supports complex and abundant webs of life in ecosystems. Until now, our centralized, big-pipe infrastructure has relied on an industrial model of specialization and economies of scale. This industrial model has more than adequately protected the public from pathogens and floods, largely by storing and piping of clean water long distances into population centers, and then transporting wastewater pollutants away. But at bottom, the approach is also wasteful, environmentally disruptive, and ultimately not sustainable as populations increase and more and more land is developed over time. Climate change-related extremes of heavy storms and droughts will place even greater stresses on this natural-manmade water system.

A first essential step in realizing the potential for decentralized technologies is a transformation in the way that professionals, advocates, and the public think about looming ecosystem crises and about the unsustainable practices currently embodied in the water infrastructure. This is difficult when conventional water engineering has been considered one of society's greatest accomplishments in public health and in clean water quality protection. But, changing the infrastructure from an industrial model to a "biomimicry" model also entails a daunting set of changes in the governance and institutional framework of water management. Sectors of the economy where public bureaucracies are so closely intertwined with the private sector are much more difficult to transform than in a private market alone, where the "creative winds of destruction" can sweep aside outmoded products and practices. A realistic fear is that inertia and drag in this public-private institutional framework in water could actually forestall a transition to more sustainable technologies and designs.

This paper describes the recommendations of a project which was intended to explore the various pressures or drivers, as well as the impediments, for a change in the fundamental "paradigm" of water management (Nelson, 2008). A series of workshops with experts and advocates was convened to explore the institutional issues and to tease out various new strategies for jump-starting and easing a transition. Key topics of science and technology development, market restructuring, and public participation were discussed.

Case studies and workshops showed that there are scattered drivers for a paradigm shift in water management, including: increasing drought conditions, flooding and wet weather pollution, and sprawl development; new ways of thinking about biomimicry and market transformations; and niche successes in building decentralized system alternatives by community activists and entrepreneurs. Impediments to change include: government funding and regulations that have been built up to support the traditional infrastructure; distorted pricing of water; risk aversion; conventional attitudes and expectations of the public; management utilities that are oriented around big-pipe infrastructure in public rights-of-way; and others.

Attempts to leverage one or another driver or break down one or another impediment are ineffective, because there are so many interlocking pieces of the traditional paradigm that work to "lock-in" the approach. The first essential strategy, therefore, is the creation of spaces for multi-faceted "paradigm" innovation to occur. These include developing the water component in the Green Building movement, where new products and new markets have already been successfully created in the parallel fields of energy and construction materials, and supporting community demonstration projects, where new institutional models can be structured for management, financing, and regulation. These projects, over time, will clarify how the localized and integrated "biomimicry" model works to create multiple community values and engage new partners.

A second strategy is support for a multi-faceted conversation about sustainable water infrastructure, which includes academics, entrepreneurs, engineers, activists, public bureaucrats and managers, and the public. Researchers need to study the imminent water quantity and quality crises the nation will be facing and link those crises to the differential impacts of centralized, decentralized, and hybrid infrastructure alternatives; activists need to question their continuing support for the traditional infrastructure and explore the benefits that can be achieved through decentralized alternatives; public bureaucrats and managers need to take a larger, holistic view of water management and begin to collaborate with the private and non-profit sectors in identifying

Finally, as Green Building and community demonstration projects show over time what works and what does not work in the pilot projects, and as the new approach becomes better-understood and better-known across a broad range of constituencies, there can be enough of a groundswell of support for a serious restructuring of water institutions and policies. This restructuring will include an integration of planning, funding, and regulations across the currently segmented fields of water, stormwater, and wastewater; an expanded role for the private sector in technology development, systems management, and finance; a closer link between professional practice and community participation; and careful management and stimulus of continuous innovation and reform.

In this process of innovation, it must be recognized that the United States is at a disadvantage relative to the developing world. While we have a substantial investment and track record in clean water and sanitation, this sunk investment also makes it more difficult to shift to new approaches. Countries like China and India, with few water and wastewater services to begin with, are beginning to "leapfrog" over the U.S. and to implement more quickly the new approaches discussed in this report. It is vital for the federal government to provide the leadership and financial resources to mobilize American universities and entrepreneurs, municipal utilities, builders, non-governmental organizations, and the public to respond to this competitive challenge.