The Fundamentals of Water in Four Very Readable Steps

the_pont_du_gard_roman_aqueIf you care enough about water to read this blog, you need to read David Sedlak’s new book, Water 4.0. When David told me about his undertaking, I foolishly type-cast him as the erudite engineering professor that he is and imagined a dense textbook about water infrastructure that only a graduate engineering student could love.  This is one of the rare occasions that I’m anxious to tell you how very wrong I was.

The basic premise of Water 4.0 is to walk the reader through the evolution of urban water and sanitation systems, dating back to the Romans, and project forward to the changes needed to carry us through the coming centuries.  The author’s degrees are in environmental science and water chemistry, but he proves himself a Renaissance man by being able to effortlessly guide us though three thousand years of social, legal and technical changes that laid the foundation for cities as they are today. Breaking our urban water systems into four stages of evolution, he first takes us through Water 1.0, which represents the Roman achievements of transporting and distributing clean, fresh water from the countryside into urban centers.  Roman engineering is legendary, and many of us have had the privilege of seeing some of it for ourselves, but Sedlak teases apart the component pieces, showing us the true marvel that it was.  Who of us has thought about how they managed water pressure, how they prevented siltation in their pipes, or how they managed to pay for the system? Sedlak’s curiosity drives him to ask these questions and more, and then explain it all back to us in a coherent and compelling way that makes the history come alive.

He then applies this same curiosity to subsequent developments, including filtration and disinfection of the water supply (Water 2.0), that developed as population densities increased and leaders began to make the connection between public health and water quality. Then he discusses Water 3.0, which represents the sanitation revolution of the last century or so. Make no mistake, however. This is not a dense regurgitation and documentation of history for history’s own sake.  Taking a lesson from Mary Poppins, who famously used sugar to help the medicine go down, Sedlak gently but compellingly glides us through the parts that we need to know, all with a goal of helping us to understand where we are today so that we can make better decisions about where we need to go from here. All of my past tours of water filtration and sewage treatment plants come into new perspective thanks to Sedlak’s explanations.  He even makes the chemistry understandable!

As I was reading Water 4.0 my mind kept jumping to all the people I thought would appreciate this delightful primer as much as me. Certainly elected and appointed officials tasked with overseeing our infrastructure, and community activists working to restore communities and waterways come to mind.  But this is also a must-read for law students, planners, regulators, engineers, and so many more. There are other compelling, well-written books about various aspects of our planet’s water challenges (Unquenchable by Robert Glennon, The Big Necessity by Rose George, and The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman all come to mind), but I predict that Sedlak’s book will be the one that people hold onto and refer back to over and over again.

Sedlak, and his colleagues at University of California, Berkeley, and the research consortium known as ReNUWIt, are leading the nation in research that I believe will fundamentally change how we approach water in a future faced with water shortages, severe energy limitations, and the realities of a changing climate. The work is so new that it’s hard to find much information about it without hearing about it from the researchers directly, but suffice it to say that they are drilling into solutions like capturing urban stormwater for future water supply, on-site water reclamation and re-use, energy capture from sewage, specially designed wetlands for removing contaminants from water, etc. David knows as much about innovative water management as anyone on the planet, but in his book he holds back from being as definitive as I had hoped for.  He goes as far as giving us two versions of Water 4.0, the infrastructure of our future. One involves continuing to tweak and improve our current, centralized system for delivering and removing water and waste.

The bolder version, however, is a decentralized or distributed water system that shifts treatment away from the centralized hub back out to the neighborhood or building scale.  That’s where things get really exciting, and where I’d love to read more. To coopt my late father’s words about grandchildren, “When you make them this good, you can’t stop at one.”  Once he’s caught his breath, we need Sedlak to give us a sequel and to dig further into a vision for Water 4.0. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would pre-order.

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