Onsite Water: The Future is Now

Last week I had the opportunity to deliver one of the key note addresses to the 600+ attendees at the Onsite Wastewater Mega-Conference in Virginia Beach, VA. Until Eric Casey, who runs the National of Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA), invited me to speak to the group I wasn’t very familiar with it or its work despite the fact that 25% or more of U.S. homes are served by onsite sewage treatment, generally in the form of septic systems. The focus of my talk, “New Opportunities in Decentralized/Distributed Wastewater Treatment and Reuse” was geared to bring some of the cutting edge developments in small-scale options for sewage treatment and resource recovery to this audience, which was a mixture of installers/operators, regulators (primarily state health officials), and designers/engineers.

My first stop in developing the talk was to give myself a refresher on our 2014 Johnson Foundation at Wingspread convening report “Optimizing the Structure and Scale of Urban Water Infrastructure: Integrating Distributed Systems.”  This was a meeting that I had wanted to host from my very first day of work, but in those early years the topic wasn’t yet ripe. When selecting topics for our Wingspread-led forums within the Charting New Waters effort, one of the questions we would ask ourselves was “is this the right time for this conversation?” We were looking for the sweet spot, trying to take on topics that weren’t so far down the road that our contribution would be redundant, but not so early on that no one would be ready to hear the message.  By 2014 we knew that distributed infrastructure had finally hit the sweet spot, a sense reinforced by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable partners who joined us in leading the effort, the Water Environment Federation and the Patel College of Global Sustainability at the University of South Florida.

In reviewing our report, three things jumped out to me immediately. First, that meeting had focused on urban applications, whereas most of NOWRA’s members work in rural areas, or at least low-density development.  The other was that NOWRA members tend to specialize in sewage whereas our meeting had included all three slices of the water pie: sewage, water supply, and stormwater. Third, and perhaps most important, that 2014 report is still very timely and is a unique offering.

I also turned to work that is being led by some of the most innovative municipalities in the country for examples of how distributed infrastructure is starting to take hold.  Driven by water shortages, systems that are at capacity, an inability to maintain the integrity of a large collection system, storm water regulations, and interest in capturing energy for on-site use, a number of cities have been rethinking the future of their water systems.

Leading this group has been the San Francisco Public Utility Commission which right around the same time that we hosted the Wingspread meeting pulled together about a dozen municipalities from around the country to hammer out what it takes to incorporate distributed treatment as a complement to a larger, centralized water/sewage/stormwater system. They very quickly published the output of that Capture 3meeting as the “Blueprint for Onsite Water Systems: A Step-by-Step Guide for Developing a Local Program to Manage Onsite Water Systems“. Realizing that one of the critical stumbling blocks to implementation is trying to ensure that public health is protected as these new systems are incorporated, they have since gone on to partner with the National Water Research Institute to sponsor an independent advisory panel to develop guidelines for public health standards for onsite water systems. The much-anticipated results from that panel are due out in the coming year.

Of course, I also got to incorporate a sampling of the really exciting work that is happening all around the country, and the globe, leaving me with great hope about how water, and the way we manage our water and our “waste” (which is actually a misunderstood resource) will play an important role in achieving more sustainable and rational ways of living. I hope you’ll come back for future postings which will explore some of this pioneering work. And of course if you have suggestions for topics or examples I should include in future posts, please send them my way!

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