Weathering the Perfect Storm – and Growing Blue at the same time

Last week I had the honor of posting a piece on the blog for Growing Blue, a project dedicated to water sustainability, including economic sustainability. You can see it on the Growing Blue site, but I’ve also pasted the text below.

It’s no longer news that our nation’s built infrastructure is in disrepair. Whether it’s water, transportation, or the power grid, it all needs attention. But all too often, the headlines and hearings that call attention to our infrastructure’s needs focus on money as the solution. Funding would be nice, but money alone is not the answer. If all we do is rebuild using off-the-shelf blueprints, we will build a conduit to the past.

The problems we face today are different from those that our parents’ and grandparents’ generations faced, and these problems demand new solutions. In the case of water infrastructure, we need solutions that will of course provide us water and sanitation for homes, businesses, and agriculture. But we are looking for tomorrow’s utilities to go beyond these basics and be able to help us manage in an era of climate change, in which most communities will experience changes in water availability: extended drought, loss of snowpack, dropping water tables, more extreme rain events, or all of the above. As energy becomes more constrained, we will look for ways to be smarter about how we move, use, and treat water, and how we recapture energy and nutrients from waste. In fact, we need to work toward eliminating waste, moving toward the day when materials are reclaimed and repurposed rather than ‘wasted’.

From my vantage at The Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin, I have the opportunity to collaborate with some of the best minds around the country working on water and other sustainability issues. Among those people are Richard Luthy, of Stanford University, and David Sedlak, of UC Berkeley, both professors of Civil and Environmental Engineering at their respective institutions. Together they launched, and now lead, ReNUWIT (www.renuwit.org), a consortium of universities (Colorado School of Mines, New Mexico State University, Stanford University, and UC Berkeley) whose purpose is to be an “interdisciplinary, multi-institution research center whose goal is to change the ways in which we manage urban water.” That sounds innocuous, but the words behind their acronym tell their story better: ReNUWIT stands for “Re-inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure.” You read that right: Re-inventing.

Their second annual meeting, held recently in Palo Alto, featured research reports and plans that ranged from developing energy-positive wastewater treatment and nutrient recovery technologies, to innovations such as repeatable, designed “unit process wetlands” for treating wastewater. Smart grids, membrane technologies, decision support tools, stormwater harvest and much, much more were the event’s lingua franca.

Though its focus is on university research, no one can accuse ReNUWIT of ivory tower separatism. Woven directly into the fabric of the collaboration are roughly two dozen utility and industrial partners, including Veolia, Growing Blue’s lead creator, which provide advice and test bed opportunities. Luthy and colleagues are working directly with cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Aurora, Colorado to test lab science in the field, monitoring how it works in real-world conditions. During the meeting last month, industry partners gave feedback on the research and suggested new areas for inquiry and application, including finding partners in new regions of the country to see whether the techniques developed in the arid West can apply more broadly.

The excitement I feel when I talk with people working on water and waste innovation makes me think of The Perfect Storm, a non-fiction book probably best known by the movie of the same title. My brother was on a cruise in the Atlantic that fated week in 1991. Rather than being frightened, when he woke up the morning that the storm was building, he went out on the deck to experience the waves crashing over the rail. He wanted to share the thrill with his wife, but when he went back below deck he found that most of the other passengers were in line for Dramamine shots or were weathering the storm from under their covers. Our nation has a perfect storm brewing on water and waste management, but, like my brother, I’m not queasy about the choppy waters. I want to be out on the top deck with ReNUWIT and the many other researchers, practitioners, and visionaries I’ve come to work with through The Johnson Foundation’s efforts, who are each helping us navigating our way to a new future. What an incredibly exciting time to work in the world of water.

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