Cities, as a concept, are not water friendly. They disrupt the natural water process of replenishing groundwater, serving natural habitats, and supporting local ecosystems. Gathering large amounts of humans in a small place throws off nature’s built-in balances, which is why man-made water infrastructure is necessary to support a healthy, urban lifestyle, and which allows humans to continue being city-dwellers. But as resources dwindle and cities continue growing, the relationship between water and cities is quickly becoming more taxed. A conversation with Organica’s Environment and Technology Specialist, Peter Varga, lays out the five biggest water challenges for cities and suggestions for best remedies.
5. Hitting the Pavement
Pavement and concrete are some of water’s biggest challenges. Concrete canyons eliminate rainwater from naturally soaking back into the soil to become groundwater, and recharge local aquifers. Water runoff, or stormwater, collects solids along the pavement leftover from human use- all sorts of dirty stuff. This is washed quickly away to stormwater catchments or funneled into rivers, streams or other natural water ways without undergoing the natural filtration process nature intended.
This problem can be easily remedied by simply including more greenspace into the urban landscape. Allowing the ground to reabsorb the natural rainfall which then eventually reaches the aquifers seems like an amazingly simply solution, probably because it is. But it really is that simple. Less concrete and more grass means more natural and overall improved water management.
4. Letting it Slip Through the Pipes
Most water purification sites are kilometers outside of cities. In New York City and Boston, for example, water is pumped nearly 60 miles before reaching homes. Additionally, most of these pipe networks are decades old. Their age combined with the distance means thousands of gallons of cleaned water leak out of the pipes before reaching the end users. In London, it is estimated that the sewer system leaks 669 mega liters of water every day.
The obvious answer to solving this problem is to fix or replace the pipes. But perhaps that’s not the best way to do it. What if you eliminated the use of long pipe networks all together? Introducing water treatment facilities into the urban fabric eliminates the need for extensive pipe networks, for delivering water to and taking it from the points of use. Decentralized water management systems update water infrastructure to meet modern societal needs by decreasing the opportunities for wasted water.
3. Keeping it Local
Keeping water close to where it naturally lands is difficult in cities, where it is designed to be drained away and put out of site as quickly as possible. Preventing water from running off pavement this quickly is a significant impact because ushering it into moving water ways and away from where it will be used again in the near future defeats sustainability principles. It also means more pollution from urban runoff in waterways affecting the quality of any receiving water.
Water reuse on location in a tight feedback loop is the best practice for sustainable water infrastructure. This allows the quickest, most efficient and most economical means of handling water. Reusing water where it is most used decreases the amount taken from aquifers and source water, allowing them to replenish and continue meeting water demands. This is very important for allowing the water cycle to continue providing water for human use, since current demand is taking without allowing for natural replenishment.
2. Water is a Low Priority on the Agenda
For decades water has been pushed aside by politicians, municipalities, and residents for other concerning issues. This trend also attributes to the current problems with aging infrastructures, depleting aquifers and overall water misuse. It’s easy to see why this would be, since clean water is still flowing into most modern cities at barely any cost to the end users. But water is running out in places it is needed. Current drought conditions in Texas are a prime example, and the ripple effects of the situation reach farther than anticipated.
Putting water management on the agenda of decision makers is a large challenge, but is absolutely necessary to solve the looming and present water problems. Big and small changes in urban planning can make a big difference, if they are instigated to do so. Increased media attention, studies, facts and overall conversation on the subject can make a difference.
1. Changing Resident Behavior Won’t Recharge the Aquifers
We use to much water too quickly for nature to keep up with our insatiable demands. But, unfortunately, just cutting back on how much we use will not solve urban water woes. Overall, water is mismanaged in a large, inefficient and costly man-made cleaning and using process. Most centralized treatment plants serving cities are out of date, foul smelling, and operating at or over capacity with added harmful chemicals. While attempting to mimic and merge into nature’s natural water cycle, we have instead disrupted and over-taxed it.
Large and inefficient systems are water’s biggest enemy. A new framework is needed, not simply improvements to the old one. By closing the space between water cleaning, using, and distributing- plus adding a component of reuse for potable and non-potable purposes- modern cities can best plan for future needs in a sustainable way. Preserving aquifers and extending the lifecycle of water needs to be done on a large scale, for entire cities, in order to best provide for the future.