We’re all paying — BIG — to waste water

$8.1 million, just to move a water resource “away” – REALLY?!  Just to move it about 3 miles, to get it into a pipe system to take it far, far “away” for treatment there, because this resource is conceived of solely and exclusively as a nuisance.  And “away” from a facility that is to include a LEED-certified office building and a research campus that is purported to be all about pushing the “green” envelope.


Austin is supposed to be this “green leader” city, right?  How then to explain this very un-green – and unsustainable – action?  This cash contribution by the City (which is to say, by you and me) for facilities to make go “away” the “waste” water that would be produced at the Formula One site near Elroy, in the developing SH 130 corridor.  Not to mention taking money from people who, in the main, are not fabulously wealthy and contributing it to help very, very well off people to so gratuitously flush this perceived nuisance “away”.


Beholden to an infrastructure model rooted in the conditions perceived to be of paramount concern in the 19th century, this is Austin Water’s one and only view of how the “waste” water generated in the developing urban hinterlands can be addressed.  Why is this not understood to be silly?


Okay, let’s back up a minute and look at the bigger picture.  As I reviewed in “Water Conservation vs. WTP#4 – The Unexplored Territory”, there is an emerging awareness within the water engineering community that we need to move away from that 19th century infrastructure model and toward a 21st century model of integrated water management.  For example, in Cities of the Future, Paul Brown of Camp, Dresser, McKee – a voice from the very heart of the mainstream – offers this key observation:  “[In the future] all components of water supply, stormwater, and wastewater will be managed in a closed loop. … Closing the water loop may require decentralization of some components of the urban water cycle in contrast to the current highly centralized regional systems employing long distance water and wastewater transfers.”


That is, we can maximize water sustainability by using integrated management strategies that “close the loop”, addressing all water as a resource to be conserved, not as a nuisance to be sent “away”, to be wasted.  As Brown suggested, sustainability is maximized when you “tighten up” the loops of the hydrologic cycle, instead of sending “away” – wasting – those resources, and then importing water to make up for what you’ve wasted, creating long water loops.


And I suggest that, in the course of doing this, the developer, the eventual users of the project, and the community-at-large will realize fiscal, societal, and environmental benefits.


One place where this whole idea of integrated, decentralized management absolutely applies is the extension of “waste” water service into the expanding urban fringe.  A small example of this is an on-site wastewater system – popularly known as a “septic system” – that treats and reuses the water by dispersing the treated effluent in a subsurface drip irrigation field, arrayed to serve the highest value landscaping on the lot.  This offers a significant savings in water demand, particularly during the peak irrigation period, the period of peak water demand in Austin.  So this practice reduces need to expand water treatment and distribution capacity, providing long-term, systemic savings.  I’ve been designing and overseeing the installation of that type of on-site wastewater system for over 2 decades.  So clearly, we can integrate water supply with wastewater management like this at the home scale.


But, obviously, if we just did this in low-density residential developments, we’re not likely to make much of a contribution to water supplies on a broad scale.  So we need to apply these same concepts to collective wastewater systems on larger, denser projects.  But on that kind of project, the mainstream – that is, Austin Water – pretty much knee-jerks to a conventional centralized scheme, one that focuses on making what is perceived solely and exclusively as a nuisance to go “away”.


Which brings us back to that $8.1 million of our money being dedicated to making “waste” water go “away” from the Formula One complex.  This is water which we are also ponying up to treat and pump out there in the first place, so our total contribution is really much greater than $8.1 million.  Money paid to THWART sustainability.


Because, you see, that sort of event-driven venue is perfect for distributed treatment and reuse.  Wastewater would be flush-water dominated, so flush water recycling – like they’re doing, for example, at Gillette Stadium where the New England Patriots play – is a natural fit.  Other flows could defray irrigation demands.  Combine this with rainwater harvesting off the large roofprint this project will entail and we might approach water independence on this sort of project – through point of use generation and reuse, the project lives largely off water falling on it.


Why don’t we consider those strategies instead of pumping potable water out there to serve these non-potable functions?  Why don’t we shorten the water loops as Brown suggested?  Why don’t we save a whole lot of energy that wouldn’t be needed to move that water to and from this project?  And, in turn, save the water consumed to produce that energy?


Bottom line, why aren’t we pursuing sustainable water, recognizing the conditions and constraints facing us here in the 21st century, instead of clinging desperately to strategies rooted in concerns considered paramount in the 19th century?  This is what Austin Water is doing, as it insists on installing a 3-mile long wastewater main, draining to a lift station out at the edge of their current system.  Again, a line they’re telling us ratepayers we have to pay for, to the tune of $8.1 million.


The justification for that?  Austin Water says because it sets them up to provide wastewater service to this whole basin.  Well, first, yeah, by installing a whole bunch more high-cost trunk mains – we see a few of them on the graphic above – that all us ratepayers will also pay for.  But more importantly, what they’re saying is, they WANT to manage wastewater over this whole basin on the basis that it’s a nuisance and they HAVE to make it go “away”.  They appear not interested in how to manage it, right from its point of generation, as a RESOURCE.  Austin Water is, in fact, reported to have said about the very idea of distributed reuse, “Oh no, we don’t want to do that.”


So, because Austin Water doesn’t want to question the infrastructure model it extends and perpetuates to serve development on the expanding urban fringe, we are all paying to install facilities which have as their sole purpose to WASTE WATER, and then paying more for the capacity to treat and pump potable water out there to serve uses this wasted water could readily provide, in a globally more cost efficient manner.  And everyone just sits there and accepts this as “normal” behavior by a water management entity in a region that is facing severe long-term water sustainability issues, and a severe problem in paying for facilities that will be needed to blunt those problems.


Yes, it is silly that we’re all paying – BIG – to continue wasting water.




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