I arrived at Cascadia's recent all day Come Rain/Shine workshop thirsty for a deeper dialogue about water issues, obstacles to change, and solutions that make sense for Washington. Being a sustainability consultant, I’m well aware of the smart and simple steps –like low-flow fixtures, rain gardens, and bioswales – that we can do on every project to reduce water consumption and restore our ecosystem. I was looking for the giant leaps needed to achieve a net-zero water future. Happily, Come Rain/Shine quenched my thirst.
Living in Seattle, especially after experiencing an “extra wet” winter and spring, it is easy to take water for granted or even begrudge it. The fact is that all water is precious. Whether living in a region of abundant water like Seattle or a place where water is scarce like the high desert east of Cascade Mountains, all water is vulnerable to the same threats of climate change, deforestation, over development, pollution, and unsustainable water use behaviors. What better test bed for creating new ways to support healthy and resilient water systems than the State of Washington? This state’s extreme range of wet and dry climates presents unique challenges and opportunities to innovate. Like other innovations spawned in Washington, these solutions can be exported to wet and dry climates around the world.
A Call To Action: The Replacement Era
Early in the day, Steve Moddemeyer, Collins Woerman, pointed to the root cause of our water crisis saying, “Water connects all life, yet we disintegrate water into silos – potable water, rain water, storm water, gray water, and waste water.” Our decaying water infrastructure model is based on a time when energy was cheap and resources were plentiful. We focus on building “reliable” systems in an increasingly uncertain world. Yet, we have entered a time that compels us to change — and perhaps be more agile than predictable. The Pacific Northwest region has the capacity to navigate and define this change with pragmatism and good-natured idealism.
Design alone won’t save us. The Bullitt Foundation's Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design & Construction, Seattle, is designed to meet the Living Building Challenge, but it won’t be able to treat its black water on site until the City’s health code allows it.
As great as new technology is, it is not the complete or only answer, either. As Katie Spataro, Cascadia Green Building Council, revealed through her research on alternative waste water treatment strategies (Toward Net Zero Water: Best Management Practices for Decentralized Sourcing and Treatment), when comparing the life cycle analysis of a natural system versus an engineered bio-membrane reactor, Mother nature wins again!
We can not overlook the important role of governance in moving us toward a more resilient environment. Chuck Clark, Cascade Water Alliance, stressed the need to look at a full-cost pricing of water systems (with price based on environment, economic, and social values). Full-cost pricing can lead to policy changes that in turn support design changes. In Washington, we allow net metering for solar energy. How about net metering for onsite water reuse?
Probably the most important key to solving this puzzle is our behavior. We need a willingness to experiment, collaborate, and advocate. Come Rain/Shine was a great forum to foster this spirit among a diverse group of elected leaders, public utilities representatives, designers, developers, and members from the non-profit sector and academia.
Katrina Morgan, Fermata Consulting, introduced “the slam,” a brainstorming session on steroids – fast and concentrated. Teams worked on scenarios of differing scales from urban to small city to rural communities with the common goal of envisioning healthy, resilient water systems. There were only a few rules of engagement. The most important was to leave your day job at the door, represent yourself -not your organization. Nametags intentionally left company names off to reinforce this notion. Slam teams explored solutions from the multiple perspectives of design, technology, policy, and behavior.
I facilitated a slam session for a hypothetical new eco-city just east of the Cascade Mountains. Here, rainfall is less than eight inches per year. Although this is a dry and arid city, it sits along an 18-mile long lake. The city has access to a major highway. Our assignment was to invent an eco-city that protects the existing natural ecosystem while creating a healthy mix of industry, residences, and tourism.
We named our community “WOW” for “wise on water”. WOW offers an out-of-the ordinary experience from the moment you leave your car about a ¼ mile away from town at the “exchange and recharge” station. Here, you can plug your electric vehicle into solar powered charging stations and bike or walk into town. The city is compact and walkable with dozens of restaurants featuring local produce, artist studios, boutique hotels, urban farms, year-round residents, and a center for sustainable agriculture.
Scarcity of water drives design, technology, policy, and behavior in this community. Sewage is not conveyed with water. Instead, WOW uses composting toilets and the public utility picks up bio-solids. Waste water and stormwater are treated in beautiful constructed wetlands by the lakeside.There are no individual bathtubs, just stand-up showers with ultra low flow showerheads. But here’s the perk, WOW has a public bathhouse that is free and luxurious.
Organic farming happens within the town center instead of outside of it. This shift from large scale monoculture crops for national distribution to diverse crops for local sales supports a healthy ecosystem and creates an economic draw for WOW. This is a destination for all who want to unplug and enjoy the simple things of life.
The “New” Normal
Current water use is simple and wasteful. Net-zero water use, on the other hand, requires a complex approach–imitating nature’s water cycle–where potable water is sourced from many places, use, reused, cleansed and returned to nature. We won’t get there alone. Nor will we arrive there using a one-size fits all approach. Arrival requires a toolbox filled with design, technology, policy, and behavioral change tools, and individuals qualified and willing to use those tools creatively and appropriately for climate and cultural conditions.
Nora Daley-Peng, AICP, ASLA, CSBA, LEED AP is a Senior Project Associate with O'Brien & Company, providing project management and planning for green building projects. She is a regular contributor to the Building Capacity Blog, and recently participated in a committee reviewing the IP ANSI Standard organized by Vulcan Real Estate. Photo Credits: Miller Hull Partnership (Bullitt Rendering), Buster Simpson (Slam Exercise)
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