Navigating to New Shores

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With the shoreline in sight and the wind at our backs, the last few weeks have gone by quickly.  It’s been more than six years since The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread decided to try out a new approach to its convenings.  With that in mind, they brought me onto the team in late 2008 to bring into shape a still-forming concept about how to strategically use their resources to have deep impact on an issue the Foundation cared about: our country’s freshwater resources.

On September 29 at WEFTEC, we released our final report, “Navigating to New Shores: Seizing the Future for Sustainable and Resilient U.S. Freshwater Resources,” with all of the hoopla and energy that comes with a 20,000-person conference.  The press coverage has been terrific, ranging from an interview with Monica Trauzi on E&E TV, online coverage from USA Today, BNA and a host of other blogs and print outlets.

At junctures like this one can’t help but reflect on what has changed since we began the work. In those early years of 2009 and 2010, we routinely heard that people take their water and water services for granted and that the water sector was slow to embrace change.   In trying to come to consensus on our 2010 recommendations in “Charting New Waters: A Call to Action to Address U.S. Freshwater Challenges,” some of the most difficult discussions were over climate change.  Some worried that their membership could not agree to its inclusion, while others refused to sign onto the document if it didn’t acknowledge this as the defining issue of our day.

Those conversations seem like a distant memory.  Today the wastewater sector in particular, led in part by big thinkers at the Water Environment Federation, is leading a charge for innovation and sustainability perhaps best summed up in its Energy Roadmap and soon-to-be-released Nutrient Roadmap.  Leaders in the sewage sector know that they will play a key role in urban sustainability, with better nutrient capture and recycling, and energy harvest, eventually being able to apply these technologies to farm and food processing operations as well.  While the public still undervalues its water, that’s starting to change, driven in part by unfortunate events like water shutoffs and chronic droughts.  And the majority of Americans now believe that our climate is changing, and we need to do something about it.

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We’ve also seen a tremendous evolution in the acceptance of green infrastructure as an essential component of sustainable water management.  In 2009 rain gardens, permeable pavement and green roofs were still in the realm of boutique projects driven by NGOs and their supporters. Today we are seeing distributed green infrastructure and ecological restoration routinely integrated into municipal stormwater and CSO plans.  Multiple federal agencies, including DOE, DOT, USDA, HUD, etc., are seeing that they play a role in stormwater management as well. That said, we still have a very long way to go before natural landscapes become a routine tool for urban water and climate management.

Over these six years we’ve also seen the concept of decentralized utilities come out of the closeted conversations that it was relegated to, to a point where at least some major utilities are actively exploring how to incorporate these new concepts into all aspects of their services.   For those of us that look at the glass as half full, these developments are very encouraging. The momentum is in the right direction.

Kate WolfordBut what are the big needs ahead? During our panel discussion in Washington, D.C., on October 8, Kate Wolford, president of the McKnight Foundation and a Johnson Foundation board member, stated that she felt our report made a big contribution in its highlighting of the water-energy-agriculture nexus and especially some of the points where we can move innovation forward. Our report was released during the week when Environmental Grantmakers Association hosted its annual meeting, and Kate said that the halls were abuzz about the report, including this concept.

In thinking about the big opportunities ahead, I think that Kate is right.  We need energy, we need food, we need water, but providing each of these has major implications for the other.  Traditionally, in our typical silos, providers feel pressure to provide cleaner water, more water, more food, and more energy, but we do so in a way that increases the stress on adjacent resources.  If we turn to biofuels to provide more energy, that uses water and steals productive land from the food supply.  If we intensify our food production using the same techniques we’ve turned to for the last 40 years, we will pull more water up from deep aquifers, send more pollutants to our waterways, and demand more energy for fertilizer production. In the realities of a resource-constrained world, we can’t keep robbing Peter to pay Paul.  We must find ways to provide these services while not further degrading our planet’s resources.

Fortunately, there is a way.  There has to be a way.  And those are the new shores to which we need to navigate.

But it’s not just our way of providing food, water and energy that is navigating to new shores.  I am also heading out on a new adventure.  After nearly six years of some of the most privileged work imaginable, I will be launching my own vessel.  My last day with The Johnson Foundation is October 31, but it will also be my first day with Broadview Collaborative, Inc.  I’ve set up Broadview Collaborative as a platform to be able to continue to work on these critical cross-sectorial, interdisciplinary sustainability and resiliency challenges that are absolutely essential to solve if we are to continue to enjoy life on this blue planet we call home.  I hope that you’ll find me there, as well as through the tried-and-true methods like LinkedIn and Twitter (where I’m still @LynnBroaddus).   There’s work to be done!

ntnsslideThe following remarks were given by Lynn Broaddus at a press conference announcing the culminating report, Navigating to New Shores: Seizing the Future for Sustainable and Resilient Freshwater Resources, during WEFTEC in New Orleans, Sept. 29, 2014. 

For more than 50 years, The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread has been convening the nation’s leading thinkers to address the challenging issues of our day. We have a history of taking on big issues and having big impact.

Six years ago we decided to take on U.S. freshwater resources and services, dedicating much of our convening expertise to these challenges and their solutions. Since 2008 we’ve brought together more than 600 experts from nearly 300 organizations on a wide variety of topics related to water, and many of you are here. Our partners have included business, academia, all levels of government, farmers and ranchers, and citizen advocacy organizations because we believe that a broad base of perspectives makes for the most robust recommendations.

I want to especially acknowledge the collaboration with the Water Environment Federation and its members, a collaboration that has developed into a number of genuine friendships. Between the leadership and staff of WEF, as well as the utilities and private sector entrepreneurs who have been so generous with their time and expertise, we are deeply appreciative.  Though we have a different role, we share a vision for the sustainable and resilient future that we know is possible. The optimism and energy that we see among WEF’s membership is one of the reasons we know that there is indeed a new shore ahead.

But today I’m here to share with you the culmination of those 6 years of work, “Navigating to New Shores.”

WEF members are all too well aware of the challenges we face:

You know that most of our nation’s water infrastructure is feeling the effects of age, much of it dated and inefficient, and vulnerable to single-point, catastrophic failures. Increasingly, storms overwhelm our water supply and treatment systems, sometimes leaving a community without basic services for weeks at a time.

Major portions of our country are experiencing the daunting reality that there are limits to our water supply.  Drought, changes in snowpack, groundwater depletion, and saltwater intrusion, as well as paralyzing events like chemical spills into urban water supplies make us realize the true worth of our water.

And then there are problems with energy. As this crowd knows, providing clean water to our communities has traditionally been an energy-intensive business. And providing energy has, to date, required a lot of water.  The challenges facing each of these two resources are magnified when dealing with the complexities of the real world.ByuDiwpCQAA-pIG

As if that weren’t enough, we also are facing growing challenges from polluted runoff and emerging contaminants.  Valuable nutrients are being lost from wastewater facilities, roads, and farm fields, causing problems downstream.

Overlaying all of these challenges is the undeniable reality of climate change. As water and resource recovery providers, WEF members know that climate change will be felt primarily through water.  But the water industry is not just on the receiving end – as our recommendations show, the water industry can and will play a critical role in bending the curve on climate change.

While we certainly have challenges, this report, “Navigating to New Shores,” highlights the opportunity for change.  It represents the distillation of ideas from these six years and more than 600 experts.  As we wrap up our work, we felt an urgent need to summarize what we’ve learned and to put it out to the world.

While we believe that there is an urgent need to accelerate change, we recognize that there is a spectrum of actions. The report’s recommendations fall along a continuum, some of which entails the basic common sense efficiency of resources that so often gets overlooked in day-to-day priorities. But to meet the future with confidence, we cannot escape the need to begin transitioning existing practices on the way to fully rethinking and transforming the way we work with water.

We’ve broken our recommendations into five broad categories which I’d like to highlight:

Optimize the Use of Available Water Supplies: Much more can be done with the water we have, and that includes the water recovered from sewage.  We need to aggressively increase the efficiency of operations, which includes keeping rainwater and groundwater out of our collection systems. We need to examine rate structures and policies that incentivize efficiency. We also need to get smarter about using the right water for the right purpose – not all water needs to be cleaned to potable standards. And of course we need to break the barrier on water re-use as well as find ways to stop throwing our valuable freshwater, cleaned by resource recovery facilities, away to our oceans. By continuing to drive better practices in our built environment we use less energy while also leaving more water for essential agricultural, fisheries and ecological needs.

Transition to Next-Generation Wastewater Systems. What we’ve traditionally called “wastewater” treatment is undergoing a quiet revolution which needs to be encouraged and amplified.  We have a chance to change water treatment from one of our communities’ single largest users of energy to being a source of renewable power, while also recovering other valuable products. Best estimates are that more than 12 percent of our nation’s energy goes toward water. Imagine the impact that this sector can have with its energy recovery efforts! Many of you are already well underway on this route, but we need to make this the industry standard. Tightening up systems to keep unnecessary rainwater and groundwater out is an essential underpinning to this transition.  We also need to right-size our treatment facilities, finding the size and scale that maximizes community resilience and ecological restoration while still providing essential services. This means finding ways to encourage and move toward distributed technologies and natural or “passive” infrastructure where possible for water harvest and recovery, groundwater restoration, and sewage treatment rather than always assuming that bigger is better.

Integrate the Management of Water, Energy, and Food Production. There are so many opportunities for efficiency and shared expertise that could be gained by bringing the water sector into closer partnership with other sectors.  There are enormous opportunities for better use of recovered water, one of which is to partner with nearby energy utilities which need cooling water.  Conversely, water utilities should switch to renewable energy sources that don’t exacerbate climate change or put pressure on water reserves. Water utilities can work directly with electric utilities to manage demand on both ends, thus shaving off the all-expensive peak loads for both. And there are exciting opportunities for sharing expertise, technology and resources between the wastewater sector and the agricultural sector. The work of the Mississippi River Nutrient Dialogues, and the WEF Nutrient Roadmap, also being unveiled at WEFTEC, are the kinds of partnership that can lead to these solutions.

Institutionalize the Value of Water. Many of you have been leaders in the “Value of Water” coalition or similar efforts and know very well how important it is to have a citizenry, both individual and corporate, that values water and water treatment and is willing to invest in it.  And as you know, to make this happen we need more than good marketing: We need new financing mechanisms and rate structures that build incentives for efficient use on the part of the customer while allowing for financial sustainability for utilities. We also need tools that allow us to recognize and incorporate the value of natural infrastructure – healthy streams, rivers, wetlands and aquifers.

And finally, Create Integrated Utilities. We need to open up current regulatory and disciplinary silos to integrate utilities. There’s no one fixed model for doing this, but by recognizing that all water – water supply, groundwater, wastewater and stormwater – comes from the same well, and by managing our resources – water, energy and solid waste – in an integrated way that wastes nothing, we all win. The water sector, like the energy sector, is seeing an erosion of its traditional business models. Rather than fight the change, those utilities which are finding new ways to generate revenue and be relevant to their customers in this new market are the ones who will thrive in this changing world.

The report takes a deeper dive on these recommendations, and I encourage you to read it, share it and use it for a springboard for further conversation.

Collectively our communities spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year on water infrastructure and services, but the key to the future is that we must focus those resources on solutions and new developments that will make us resilient to our changing reality.  Yesterday’s technology is no longer sufficient, and tomorrow’s innovations can serve as an economic engine for our communities.

smaller_blue-green_algae_Paddling on the Wisconsin River is one of the best kept secrets in the Midwest.  The state’s namesake river cuts diagonally across Wisconsin, winding a lazy, sandy path through some of the state’s most stunning scenery on its way to join the Mississippi. One of my favorite features is the sand bars that dot much of the length. These are largely publicly owned and available for picnics and overnight camping on a first-come, first-served basis.  On a beautiful summer weekday, you can pretty much have the river and its sandbars to yourself.

Walking across one of those sand bars recently I noticed crusty blue patches, clearly left behind from times of higher waters. They made me think of spring in Virginia when the pine tree pollen floats on every puddle, but I’d never heard of blue pollen. My paddling partner Denny Caneff, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, felt pretty certain that I was seeing blue-green algae, bleached of their green pigments as the puddles dried up.

Blue-green algae, which are more appropriately called blue-green bacteria or cyanobacteria, are a naturally occurring and 20120713_-bluegreen-algae2_33important part of our ecosystem, but have a pretty bad rap because of the noxious impact that they have on recreational lakes and drinking water sources.  When the right combination of growth-stimulating phosphorus, warm temperatures and calm waters get together, cyanobacteria populations explode.  The Wisconsin River has a steady flow and is relatively cool because of the groundwater-fed streams that feed into it, so bacterial blooms are kept to a minimum.  But when high waters recede, the nutrient-rich puddles left behind on sand bars quickly warm up in the sun and become incubators for bacterial growth.  The cyanobacteria turn the water a shockingly green, almost unnatural, color.  As it turns out the “unnatural” look is because of the phycocyanins, natural pigments with “a characteristic light blue color” according to my go-to resource, Wikipedia. That’s what I was seeing on the sand bar that warm, August day.

Cyanobacteria have launched into newsrooms and public hearings because of their recent show-stopping impact in Toledo, Ohio.  Lake Erie, Toledo’s water source, has long been experiencing disruptive “blooms” (a deceptively nice-sounding use of the word), but the City of Toledo Public Water system has always been able to clean the water sufficiently to meet regulatory requirements and customer expectations.  But not this time.  The ban lasted nearly three days, and customer confidence has undoubtedly been shaken for much longer than that.

Many prognosticators are comparing this event to the late-‘60s burning of the Cuyahoga River, aflame with pollution from Cleveland’s thriving industries. That incident is credited with energizing public officials to finally be able to pass the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the hope is that Toledo’s pain will be enough to rally our nation to clean up its act on phosphorus, which has long been getting into our waterways from lawns, road surfaces, sewage treatment facilities, septic tanks and, of course, farm fields.

Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that this is a one-time crisis, isolated to Toledo or Lake Erie.  The Lake Erie problem, which has been going on for 10-12 years, is mirrored in freshwater lakes throughout. People have been writing about the problem for some time, and advocacy groups have been trying to get attention on this for just as long.  Health officials are starting to learn that the problem may be worse than we think: There is evidence that very low levels of exposure over a lifetime contributes to degenerative neurological diseases such as ALS.

No one wants to swim or fish in water coated with brilliant-green scum, but there’s more to this than squeamishness.  Despite being small, “simple” organisms, cyanobacteria have complex life cycles, and complex impacts on our own biology. Though cyanobacteria are complex, some things are easy.  We know that in order to restore confidence in our nation’s water we need to get back into right relationship with phosphorus.  That means restoring wetlands, decreasing fertilizer use on lawns and farms, recovering more phosphorus from sewage treatment plants, and increasing agricultural soil health so that fewer nutrients wash out into our waters.  We know what to do.

stock-footage-irrigation-of-sweet-corn-fieldCeres has done it again. With the release of “Water & Climate Risks Facing U.S. Corn Production: How Companies & Investors Can Cultivate Sustainability” the team of Boston braniacs moved the agricultural sustainability conversation forward by a giant step, and without ever asking, “Mother, may I?” For more than 25 years, Ceres has been bringing capitalists and environmentalists together with the understanding that environmental sustainability and financial sustainability go hand-in-hand.

In this report, released in mid-June, Water Program Director Brooke Barton and agribusiness consultant Sarah Elizabeth Clark highlight the importance of corn to the U.S. economy and to our ability to feed a growing population, then proceed to point out the growing risks that corn production faces given current agricultural practices. Putting all of this in the context of the U.S. corn value chain and the outsized role that corn plays in the U.S. economy, the authors’ goal is to draw attention to the need for more sustainable environmental practices that will, in turn, bring greater stability in the corn-related financial markets. While the report’s primary audience is likely the large investors whose capital is put at risk by short-sighted practices, there is much fodder for the water sector in this meaty (corn-fed?) report.

Just about every paragraph in this report has quotable statistics. Using my blogger’s prerogative, I’m going to lift out a few of my favorite nuggets for amplification:

  • A lot of things come in thirds: The U.S. produces about a third (36%) of the global corn supply, corn makes up about a third (31%) of U.S. crop acreage, and U.S. corn supply is used in three roughly equal sectors: animal feed (38%), ethanol (35%) and everything else (27%). The last of these categories includes food ingredients (10%) and exports (10%), and the mysterious application called “stocks” (7%) (pp. 14, 15, 19).
  • While annual average corn prices have gone up considerably over the last 10 years, driven primarily by global dietary changes and U.S. renewable fuel standards that create demand for ethanol, the daily price volatility has also increased, making it harder for procurement managers to stay within budget. This was especially true in 2012 when a major drought caused swift changes in corn prices and the price of corn futures (pp. 20-21).
  • Federal crop insurance may be enabling risky behavior on the part of corn growers, thus postponing implementation of well-established practices, such as cover-cropping, that can help retain soil moisture. In recent years corn losses have been driving up the total payouts from the Federal Crop Insurance Program (pp. 26 & 31).
  • While corn irrigation has become more efficient, increasing by 46% on a per bushel basis over a 25-year period, the total volume of water used for corn irrigation has grown considerably over that same period. More alarming, however, is that 87% of the irrigated corn production is in areas of high water stress. Not surprisingly, concentrations of this activity occur in Nebraska and Kansas, but California, Colorado, and Texas are also included. In California’s case, its 1.8 million dairy cows require corn silage, which in turn relies on irrigation. Because of the timing of the report, it does not include data from the drought that much of the West has been experiencing this winter and spring.  Anecdotal conversations that I’ve had with colleagues in Nebraska and Montana indicate that much of the beef industry, at least, is starting to shift north in response to prolongued drought (pp. 35 & 37). I presume it’s having an impact on corn and dairy as well.
  • As groundwater tables drop, pumping requires more energy, which means more money and, without renewable power, more greenhouse gas emissions.  The report states that in western Kansas these energy costs have been as high as 10% of the total cost of growing corn (p. 36). Again anecdotally, I was told that portions of Nebraska experienced brown-outs during the 2012 drought because of the energy demanded by center-pivot irrigation for the region’s corn crop.
  • Corn has the highest application rates of nitrogen fertilizers of any major U.S. crop, as well as more phosphate and potash than most crops.  In 2010 U.S. corn production received 19.1 billion pounds of commercial fertilizer, which is gulf_dead_zonemore than half (54%) of all fertilizer applied to U.S. crops (though I think this doesn’t account for on-farm fertilizers such as manure). More than half of the nitrogen pollution that enters the Gulf of Mexico and fuels the dead zone comes from runoff from corn fields (pp. 45-47).  (I’m sure the frustrating irony is not lost on you, the reader: We want to grow more corn so we can feed more people, so we apply more fertilizer which pollutes the water that kills the fish that should be feeding the people. So we grow more corn and apply more fertilizer ….)
  • Largely through nitrogen fertilizers, corn contributes to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture makes up 8% of total U.S. GHG emissions, and of that, 56% is attributed to nitrous oxide, an extremely potent GHG.  Corn, in turn, accounts for approximately one-third (35%) of the nitrous oxide emissions.  Mulitplied together, nitrous oxide emissions from corn production represent 1.5% of total U.S. GHG emissions.  That’s a lot for something that looks “green” to most people.

Naturally, the authors make recommendations that growers and the federal government can make changes to reduce risk, but the bulk of the advice is crafted for the companies that play a role in the corn value chain, and investors who hope to hitch their futures on those companies. But there is fodder in this report for all. Even if one only has time to skim the maps and graphics, I highly recommend this to anyone who cares about water, food, energy or investing, which, last I checked, is pretty much everybody.

antreactorLast weekend I had the great fun of attending a reunion of sorts for those of us who shared Dr. Janis Antonovics as a professor, or who passed through his boisterous lab group that included anyone from post-docs to undergraduates and professors on sabbatical.  While it was a reunion for Janis, because our experiences stretched over his nearly 50-year career to date, the rest of us were meeting many for the first time.  But we all shared a common, intellectual touch point, the study of plant population genetics under Janis’ tutelage.

The gathering included dinners on Friday and Saturday nights, as one might expect. The in-between time was filled with botanical excursions and (this is what nerds do when they gather) a day of talks.  Each of us was invited to give a 10-minute talk on his or her latest work.  At first I assumed that I, who had strayed from the academic path expected of a life after a Ph. D. from Duke University, would be a passive participant during this part of the weekend.  After all, I haven’t done primary research of any significance since graduating in 1991.  But on second thought, I decided to take the plunge and share some of the exciting trends in the world of sewage treatment. Though few ecologists, population geneticists or evolutionary biologists think about sanitation any more than the average librarian or stock broker, there is actually a strong intellectual connection between the two. Because my academic friends are mentoring the future innovators of the world, and are themselves members of communities faced with the routine civic decisions that add up to big impact, I wanted to use this chance to crack open the door into my watery world.

Trying to pack Sewage Innovation 101 into 10 minutes turned out to be wishful thinking.  My first draft included everything from self-contained eco-machines based on concepts dating back to the New Alchemy Institute in the 1970’s, to building-scale systems like those incorporated into Vancouver’s Dockside Green, to small communities that are employing engineered ecosystems like those designed by Natural Systems Utilities.  But I settled on the less-is-more concept, and selected one simple story about relatively newly discovered bacteria that some say will revolutionize the way we treat sewage.  And now I want to share it with you.

To appreciate the importance of this little discovery, let’s first re-examine the nitrogen cycle.  Here’s a little cartoon I found that shows the N-cycle the way I learned it 35 years ago: nitrogen gas (N2) is prevalent in the atmosphere but plants nitrogen_cycle_from_www.shmoop_1can’t use it directly. Plants need nitrogen to be converted into nitrate, either by lightning strike or by nitrifying bacteria, in order to use it. Plants then absorb nitrate through their roots and incorporate it into their cellular structure, especially amino acids that are used to build proteins. Animals need to get their nitrogen/amino acids through eating plants or other animals.  As organisms decay or defecate, nitrogen moves back into the system as ammonia, some of which reconverts back to nitrate, and the rest is denitrified and returned to the atmosphere.

A sewage treatment plant compresses this cycle on an industrial scale.  It takes in plant and animal (i.e. human) waste, and uses different mixes of bacteria (often called “bugs,” though they are decidedly not insects) to nitrify the waste ammonia into nitrite, and then another mix of bacteria denitrifies the nitrite back into nitrogen gas.  This all works fine, but the problem is that the process requires immense amounts of energy. Some of this energy demand comes from bubbling air up through the sewage slurry to bring the oxygen to the aerobic bacteria who are doing all of this work, and some of the energy demand is tied directly to the food (generally in the form of methanol) that the bacteria need.  And because the nitrate that inevitably slips through the process and makes its way into the sewage effluent feeds algae in the receiving waters — causing harmful and even toxic algae blooms — there is growing pressure to remove even more nitrate, which creates more energy demand.

anammox_nitrogen_cycle.pngMeanwhile, about 20 years ago, bacteriologists discovered a new group of bacteria they called anammox bacteria, shorthand for “anaerobic ammonium oxidation” bacteria. These newly described species, which fall in the group of bacteria known as planctomycetes, normally live in oxygen-deprived marine sediments where they feed on the ammonia from decaying matter and convert it directly to nitrogen gas. By short-cutting the energy-intensive nitrifying and denitrifying steps, they redefined the nitrogen cycle. The exciting part, however, is that the newly discovered bacteria require neither oxygen nor carbon-based food. In other words, they are able to convert ammonia to nitrogen gas (N2) with no external energy or oxygen inputs. Think about how much sewage there is in the world and the amount of energy that sewage treatment currently uses. Can you see why this is a big deal?

I don’t know the full story of how these new species, with a brand new ecological role, were first brought to the attention of sanitation ecologists, but I do know that the anammox process was harnessed first in European industrial wastewater treatment plants.  Understanding the bacteria’s needs, and finding ways to cultivate these slow-growing, finicky bacteria, while keeping out more aggressive, “normal” bacteria has not been easy.  But determined engineers and scientists at Hampton Roads Sanitation District (Virginia) and DC Water are the first to bring these processes to scale in the United States under very challenging, real-world conditions.  Both of these utilities discharge to the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed and are under stringent expectations for nitrogen removal, which gives them extra incentive to find new but affordable solutions.  Anammox will allow them to meet nitrogen effluent limits while also reducing energy inputs and costs, and, of course, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Yaniv Scherson and his colleagues at Stanford’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department (part of ReNUWIt, a collaboration I’ve written about in earlier blogs) are taking anammox one step further. They have developed a proprietary process that can also directly harvest electricity from the energy released during the anammox chemical reactions.  This process, known as CANDO, has moved from the lab bench and is being field-tested at a nearby wastewater treatment plant. If they can make this work, it will truly revolutionize how we treat our “waste.”

So while this may seem like it’s a far cry from my roots in plant population genetics and conservation biology, to me it is actually connected.  The microscopic world where the bacteria consume, exhale, reproduce, compete and mutate is not that different than the visible one that produces the grasses, flowers and fungi that most of my former colleagues study. I’ve heard it said that bacteria are the next frontier of discovery, and if annamox is any indication of what lies ahead, we have good reason to be excited.

 

Top image credit: Osaka Institute of Technology

finley_leaping.jpgLife can be overwhelming, can’t it? There are times when the problems seem insurmountable, when you just don’t know how to go on. Even for me, blessed with unimaginable good fortune, there are times like this winter when I had to literally will myself to put one foot in front of the other because standing, paralyzed at the top of the stairs wasn’t going to solve anything. That’s more personal than I usually get, but Earth Day, especially this Earth Day, is personal for me.

Earlier this winter my beautiful, wonderful niece, Finley Broaddus, was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and very un-fun liver cancer. As you might imagine, our family’s lives came to a bit of a standstill as everything other than Finley’s needs, and support for her parents, fell down the ladder of priorities. Just a few weeks before her diagnosis, Finley had been accepted early decision into the College of William and Mary where she hoped to study environmental policy, but those dreams went on hold while she poured her energy into the task at hand.

green_leap_logo.jpgA few weeks into her lengthy residence at the Bloomberg Children’s Center of Johns Hopkins, she and her father (my brother) started talking about ways for her to have impact on the issues she cared about even while sequestered in a pediatric oncology ward. At about the same time, her legions of fans were wondering how they could help, and especially how they could give her a very special 18th birthday even though she couldn’t eat cake or enjoy a typical celebration for this milestone. The plan eventually hatched into “Finley’s Green Leap Forward Fund,” and a birthday surprise campaign on Facebook that has to date raised nearly $90,000 from people in 37 states and six continents.

That alone would be excitement enough, but this week Finley began paying it forward with Earth Day grants. For her first round, she selected two groups, the Cacapon Institute in High View, West Virginia, and The Green Belt Movement in Nairobi, Kenya. Each will receive $5,000 to put toward tree planting and associated volunteer training. Finley focused on trees for her first grants because of the cascading benefits: carbon sequestration, water purification and retention, wildlife habitat, shade and cooling, food and fuel. The Cacapon Institute even offered to dedicate its 2014 planting season to Finley!

Planting trees runs deep with my sons, Finley’s cousins.  When Evan, my older son, was about five years old the preschool he attended and the church from which they rented space was bursting at the seams and made the decision to build new classrooms.  This, in turn, meant taking out a small piece of adjacent woods.  When the time came to cut the trees down, and Evan realized what has happening, he made it very clear that he felt this was an injustice to the birds and animals who lived in those woods. How could we adults condone such a heinous act?

wilmington_trees_planted_in_1994.jpgThis was a teachable moment. As his mother, I couldn’t halt the project but I could take action in another way: We were going to plant trees somewhere else. It seemed like a heavy burden at the time. I didn’t have money or connections, but somehow we raised a few hundred dollars, received permission to plant trees along a floodplain in a nearby New Castle County park, and organized young children and their families on a cold spring day to plant 100 or so native trees. For years, while we still lived in Delaware, we tended those trees, hauling water to get them through initial dry spells, picking up litter and (most importantly) fending off mowing crews.  We moved away in 2000, but in 2011 we returned to see the grove that would never have happened if Evan hadn’t gotten the ball rolling with his five-year-old sensibilities.

Finley has now set in motion a much bigger wave of tree-planting and restoration that her friends and fans want to see spread out across the land. Many of them are planting trees of their own and posting pictures on Finley’s Green Leap Forward Fund’s Facebook page, sometimes with green ribbons tied around them. This weekend my husband and I will be planting “Finley trees” on our property in a rural section of Virginia’s Northern Neck.

None of us can fix all of the world’s woes, but each of us can do something.  A five-year-old child can express an opinion, a parent can start organizing, classmates can donate money, while still others can give an hour to dig holes. My niece Finley is doing something big. She’s not letting herself be paralyzed by the enormity of the challenges ahead, and neither should we.  Let’s get a shovel and do something.

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Money Matters

screen_shot_2014-04-16_at_5.24.54_pmWater is in an odd quandary relative to financial matters.  On the one hand, money is the quickest translator for people and is the way they can most easily understand the cost, rarity and importance of most items in life, and then make decisions relative to their own priorities and financial capabilities. Why, then, is there so little attention to these matters when it comes to water? Maybe it’s because people feel like they have no control over it?  Discussions are relegated to utility commission meetings or public service hearings, arenas that most people don’t know about and wouldn’t understand even if they did try to attend. Maybe it’s because rate structures and bills are (intentionally?) obfuscating?

But we need people to understand: Our water systems are in poor repair, use a lot of energy, and are vulnerable to climate change’s impacts. Upgrading systems to meet the demands of tomorrow requires paying attention to the dollars and tradeoffs. To prepare myself for some upcoming meetings around water rates and financing, including next month’s forum on the “Future of Environmental Finance” at the University of North Carolina, I decided to dive back into the literature.  Here’s a quick rundown on a few pieces that I felt were worth holding on to:

  • Financing Sustainable Water Infrastructure (The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, January 2012): We released this report, co-written with American Rivers and Ceres, a little over two years ago, yet our contribution still strikes me as fresh and relevant.  It provides a unique and understandable overview of the state of our water systems, what we mean by “sustainable” systems, and how to understand the financing. It very clearly lays out 10 challenges with today’s systems and a few opportunities for shifting toward financial and social structures that drive sustainability.
  • Water Pricing Primer for the Great Lakes Region (Alliance for Water Efficiency, December 2010): Don’t be fooled by the title. This is a water pricing primer for the entire country. Yes, it was funded by Great Lakes interests and has case studies and detailed data from Great Lakes states, but the background on rate structures, the conundrum of water efficiency vs. rates, the importance of communication, etc., is a valuable tool for citizens and utilities from any geography.
  • Disclosure Framework for Water & Sewer Enterprises (Ceres, April 2013) and Assessing Water System Revenue Risk: Considerations for Market Analysis (Ceres, August 2013): These two publications are the latest in a body of critical work in which Ceres tries to shine light through the opaque walls of water investments. Underlying this work is a concern that decision-making related to water infrastructure investments is not always aligned with the long-term interest of the private citizen, the community as a whole, and certainly not the long-term sustainability of the planet.  The first of these pieces, the Disclosure Framework, is aimed at “market participants,” which generally means big players like large utilities and institutional investors, but it could just as easily be used by citizen groups and local activists who want to know which rocks they should be turning over when facing community decisions about long-term investments. The second is aimed squarely at those who play in the market by issuing bonds and debt, trying to better understand the likelihood that the debt can be repaid. Though the language can be challenging for those not steeped in the financial sector, the basic considerations are equally helpful to people on both sides of the debt equation.

For a long time, water rates in the United States have been low, and water infrastructure has been a safe investment because water was essentially a growth industry. However, in many parts of the country, water demand has been decreasing, a trend highlighted in Shadi Eskaf’s recent post with the University of North Carolina’s Environmental Finance Center. “Utilities that expand their water systems based on old demand projections and then experience a decrease in total demand … will have taken on new debt and capital costs to pay for capacity that may not be used … at the same time when revenues may also be suffering.” This is a polite way of saying that communities that lock themselves into debt for expensive infrastructure investments may find themselves financially strapped in the future.

Financial sustainability is part and parcel of environmental sustainability. I’ll be attending the above-mentioned event at UNC next month, and I hope to come back a lot smarter on these matters. Stay tuned.

640x360-ag-runoffAs usual, Ben Franklin had it largely right with his sage advice: “Waste not, want not.” Take phosphorus, for instance. It’s a ubiquitous and much-needed mineral.  Along with carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, it’s one of the fundamental building blocks of life.  Phosphorus atoms are essential to every molecule of DNA, RNA and ATP — all fundamental cellular components of every living organism on the planet.  Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are ubiquitous and readily available in a form that most plants and animals can use, so they tend to not be limiting components. Nitrogen is also abundant, though its gaseous form is not readily available to most plants and animals; that’s another story for another day. Phosphorus, though, is in a category unto itself.

Unlike C, H, O and N, phosphorus is generally found in the soil in relatively dilute quantities. From there, plants absorb it, convert it into the life-supporting molecules mentioned above, and grow.  You know the story: Plant grows, animal eats plant, another animal eats that animal, and so on. With each sequential phase the phosphorus is taken up by the next consumer and either absorbed into its own cellular components or excreted as, well … let’s just say it’s excreted.  This is a long way of saying that excreta (especially urine and guano) have a lot of phosphorus.

Where it starts to get a little tricky is that in order for plants to grow bigger and bear more fruit or grains, which is what farmers generally want, more phosphorus is needed. Manure can be used to boost growth, but these days the most common way for commercial growers to boost yield is to use fertilizers made from rock phosphate, a concentrated form of phosphorus that is mined from one of a few specific places on the planet.  In the U.S., most of that phosphorus comes from one mine in Florida. There are differing perspectives on how long the global phosphorus mines will last, but it’s definitely not forever.  What this means is that we need to start developing alternative supplies of phosphorus fertilizer, and stretch our existing supply if we want to continue to grow as much food as we currently do.

Meanwhile, it turns out that while phosphorus in the soil helps plants grow, when that phosphorus gets into lakes and rivers it helps algae grow, and pretty much no one likes that. One of the major sources of phosphorus pollution (notice I wrote one, not the only) is effluent from sewage treatment and large-scale farming operations.  Generally this is a source of friction between water advocates and waterfront property owners, and sewage treatment agencies.  For a variety of historical reasons, most sewage effluent still has considerable amounts of phosphorus. The same is true for large-scale livestock operations, which, from a waste perspective, are basically small cities that produce a lot of manure. So, one naturally thinks, how do we realign this situation so that the phosphorus that is currently being dumped into our rivers and lakes can instead be used by farmers to grow the food we need while extending the life of our nation’s phosphate mines?

There are multiple answers to this question, but one that is creating quite the buzz these days is a process that can harvest a form of phosphorus known as “struvite.”  A blog I wrote on innovation last fall included a paragraph on Ostara, one struviteof the companies that is leading this revolution, that is relevant here:

  • This is a win-win opportunity because it not only results in cleaner water, but it also eliminates struvite from building up inside of pipes, a costly maintenance problem. Ostara goes beyond the basic technology with its interesting business model. Rather than leaving the utility to have to sell the resulting fertilizer, Ostara purchases it from the utility, and then does the branding, marketing and re-selling itself, allowing it to develop economies of scale that would be impossible for an individual utility. Its signature operation is in Portland, Ore., but the big news this year at WEFTEC was the announcement that Ostara has signed an agreement with Chicago’s MWRD, which will make Chicago the world’s largest nutrient recovery operation.  Interestingly, Chicago has no legal obligation to lower its phosphorus limits.  From what David St. Pierre, its general manager, told me, he’s taking this step because he and his board want to be out front on this.

The magic of their process, or so I’ve been told, has to do with pH manipulation. At low pH, the phosphorus stays in solution and does not build up in the pipes.  But as soon as the pH starts to rise (which naturally happens in sewage pipes), struvite begins to precipitate out.  Ostara has developed a process that captures and harvests the struvite rather than allow it to build up in the pipes where it causes problems.  One can think of this like the scale build-up some people experience in their toilets.  The scale is essentially struvite.  Adding a small amount of vinegar, which is acidic, fairly quickly loosens up the struvite so that it can be quickly scrubbed off of the ceramic toilet bowl.

We can and need to do a better job of getting phosphorus and other nutrients out of our wastewater and out of our waterways.  With opportunities like struvite recovery, I like to think this will happen because it’s good for everyone: good for people, good for utilities, good for farmers and good for business. To learn more about what leaders in this field are thinking, I hope you’ll take a look at The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread’s recently released convening report, “The Road Toward Smarter Nutrient Management in Municipal Water Treatment.”  I’d love to know what you think.

elkriverWhere were you when you first heard about Freedom Industry’s contamination of the Elk River and the 300,000 people who depend on it for daily water? I remember it well: I was driving east on I-94 toward Milwaukee, returning from an afternoon meeting. It caught my attention because my mother’s roots are in Charleston, W.V., and our family has a long, loved history with the Elk. I was even more stunned later that day when, walking into my athletic club, my eye caught a television screen showing Freedom Industry’s tanks and a road sign for “Barlow Drive.” I called my mother, who long ago migrated to South Carolina, to tell her to turn on her television. I half expected that we’d see our relatives, especially since my uncle, her brother, owns Elk River property on Barlow Drive, adjacent to the tanks that were blasting across national news feeds. Our family was at ground zero on this one.

For the people who live in Charleston, and who depend on Elk River water, this problem continues. Residents are skeptical about whether their water is safe, pregnant women are wondering if they should leave town to shower, philanthropic dollars are stretched more than ever, and commerce officials are scrambling to protect West Virginia’s “Wild and Wonderful” brand that drives much of the state’s economy. Meanwhile, the perpetrator tries to metaphorically skip town by filing for bankruptcy. But for those of us who aren’t at ground zero, our attention fades as other urgent needs pull us away.

elkriver-600x402This strikes me as a challenge of limited perspective. I have a mental image of floating above a Google Earth version of the United States. When Charleston’s water started smelling of licorice and Freedom Industry’s contamination hit the news, the nation zoomed in to share the outrage and concern. But eventually most of us lost interest and understandably were pulled off to more immediate concerns. In my Google Earth dreamland, we went back to floating at an elevation high enough that the flashing lights of the problems headquartered in central West Virginia became just a dim light.

But the problem is that this isn’t just a West Virginia problem. A few weeks later, we were outraged by Duke Energy’s massive coal ash spill into the Dan River, contaminating water supplies and destroying essential river bottom habitat well downstream from the “accident.” Or remember Enbridge’s oil pipeline spill in Wisconsin in 2012, or its contamination of the Kalamazoo River two years before that? Those are just the ones that come immediately to mind, but there are probably untold and uncatalogued numbers of smaller spills that happen each year like this ammonium hydroxide spill in Berkeley, Mo. Compounding the spills and leaks are the permitted inputs offracking chemicals, agricultural pesticides and widely used fertilizers that are becoming more and more of a problem in our water supply. If you think it’s not a big deal, ask the Des Moines Water Works how much it costs them to remove nitrates and atrazine from the public water supply.

My point here is that we are treating water contamination as if it’s a series of individual accidents that we have no control over. But if we zoom out to take a broader, and longer, view, we see that these “accidents” are a systemic and chronic problem that demands our attention. In so many of these cases we hear the same cries for better enforcement of existing regulations, better oversight and inspection, better understanding of the impacts. Creative minds may arrive at additional insurance measures (rain barrels suddenly became much more appealing in the wake of the Freedom Industries event), but at the core we need collective vigilance. Water is our common trust. We all pay very directly, when our trust, both literally and figuratively, is breached by someone else’s negligence.

If “Safety is No Accident” in the workplace, then surely the same can be applied to our water. Clean water is no accident. And it’s no joke either.

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.