Water Infrastructure Meets Climate Change

This morning’s news made mention that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions continue to decrease. This is extremely welcome news, but we can hardly consider the job done. There is much work ahead, and all sectors need to be part of the solution.

We’ve long known that energy efficiency and conservation, as well as shifts to renewable energy sources are critical pathways toward climate stability. But today about two dozen experts from across the country are arriving at Wingspread to help us examine the extent to which the water sector can play a part in climate change solutions.

Anyone who has ever had to carry a few gallons of water knows that water is heavy and moving it requires a lot of energy. And those of us who have waited for a pot to boil also know that heating water is energy-intensive. What we don’t usually see is the amount of energy that is required to purify water so that we can safely drink it, or to run the sewage treatment plant which removes most of the pathogens and pollutants from water after we’ve, um, “used” it. All told, it is estimated that moving, heating, and treating water accounts for roughly 13% of our nation’s energy consumption. That doesn’t even include the energy embedded in creating all the pipes and equipment, or digging ditches and boring deep tunnels that make up much of our water infrastructure.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. From my vantage at The Johnson Foundation I’ve had the incredible opportunity to get to know the engineers and scientists who are on the forefront of developing new ways of doing business in the water sector. I’ve also worked with leading NGO advocates, utility executives and elected officials who are on the vanguard of bringing these new ideas to the public. But is there something more that can be done? Each year, we as taxpayers and utility users collectively pay billions of dollars for replacing and upgrading our water infrastructure, but how can we make sure that those dollars are going toward systems that will work for us in an energy and climate constrained future?

That is the question we will be addressing over the coming days. I anticipate that we will hear a lot about opportunities for continued water conservation and efficiency, and use of green infrastructure to treat stormwater. Undoubtedly some of the experts will describe new opportunities to turn sewage treatment into a renewable energy source, using techniques like those recently put in place in Stevens Point WI or visions laid out in the Water Environment Federation’s “Energy Roadmap”. We may also hear about how to modify the pressure in our water delivery pipes so that the pipes can last longer and not need to be replaced as often. Or perhaps someone will have thoughts about how to capture rainwater on a city-wide scale, storing it as groundwater for future supply, offsetting the import of energy-intensive water from far away. Los Angeles is stepping boldly in this direction, but maybe this model can work for other cities as well.

And I’m sure the conversation will also turn to local, state, and federal policies which can make it easier for the public to be assured that money invested in water infrastructure will also support long-term energy sustainability goals. Sustainability answers are not purely technical – they are largely about policies, human behavior, and how we design the places where we live. And of course, we’ll hear about so much more because new innovations are coming to light every week. And we will pull together thoughts about where the impediments lie, where we can do better, and how we can lift these ideas up so that the new way of managing our water becomes the standard.

But one thing I know for sure is that I will come away with new insights and understandings, and plenty of ideas for how The Johnson Foundation and our network of collaborators and partners can ensure that the water sector is leading the way to help address climate change and long term sustainability.

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