I started to get grey hair when I was in my 20s. My grandfather always had white hair – my father said that he never knew my grandfather when he didn’t have white hair. Premature greying runs in my family. Maybe that’s why I get a bit sensitive when people talk about problems with traditional “grey infrastructure,” you know, the traditional things such as water treatment facilities, pipes and tunnels, storage tanks, etc., Fortunately, as spring comes upon us, talk about grey infrastructure is being supplanted by a revolutionary new “green infrastructure” approach that is more resilient and likely to provide a greater economic benefit over time.
As I read this great commentary, “A new generation of water management,” it occurred to me how refreshing it would be this time of year to write about this emerging “green” approach focused on nature-based systems and processes, including bio-retention, development of coastal wetlands, and preservation and enhancement of forested headwaters. These innovative practices can protect and enhance ecosystems, increase resiliency for urban areas and provide water treatment at a lower cost, all at a greater long-term economic benefit.
Getting back to nature – and looking at ways that ecosystems have survived since far before our industrialized world – hasn’t been the only big change happening in the water industry over the past 20-40 years. As the article points out, the significance of point source and non-point source pollution on water quality has done a 180 degree turn since the Clean Water Act of 1972. Whereas 40 years ago point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants and industrial waste, carried 85% of the water pollution “blame,” today, point sources account for only about 15% water pollution. In 2016, non-point sources, namely land runoff, have been charged with being the cause of 85% of water quality issues.
On the one hand, this reversal is encouraging, as it demonstrates the success of awareness and cleanup efforts focused on point source offenders. However, it still leaves the issue of urban storm water and agricultural runoff polluting water sources… and at significantly and continually growing rates!
Some nature-based systems proving their effectiveness to help combat the growing non-point pollution problem include:
- Bio-retention basins: slow down the rate of runoff entering the water system while simultaneously purifying the water
- Wetlands: natural or manmade, use vegetation and microbial action to “treat” polluted water
- Forests: spongy forest cover acts as nature’s water filter before releasing runoff into rivers, etc.
Since these systems have been around, well, since the beginning of time… and we know they are “built to last.” The big question is how we can recreate them in engineered “green” infrastructure systems. Moreover, water treatment is far from their only benefit. They are economical and put no strain on electric or other such resources. In many instances they are self-maintaining or require little maintenance. They contribute to other healthful environmental factors, including wildlife preservation and growth. And, last but not least, I think we all can agree, we’d much rather take a leisurely stroll or relaxing vacation in the beauty of a wetland or forest setting, than in the dank reaches of a water treatment plant!
The best solutions will require both grey haired (and sometimes no hair!) professionals as well as commitments from the growing ranks of young professionals to both the gray and the green infrastructure needed to solve the looming water crisis – but I do believe, with growing advocacy for nature-based systems, more and more people worldwide will be getting “spring fever” year-round thanks to greener solutions!