Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Happy World Water Day?

Water is playing several starring roles in the news these days. However, none of these roles are happy ones. It is playing the bad guy in Japan's devastating tsunami; the victim in the GOP-backed proposed cuts to federal funding for clean water; and the perpetual underdog in the numerous ongoing water-related environmental issues, from looming water shortages around the globe to the creeping threat of fracking.

Despite this sad cast of characters, water is something to celebrate today, March 22: World Water Day.

This global event hatched at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Around the world, communities host activities focused on the importance of fresh water and the sustainable management thereof. To find out what activities are being held in your neck of the woods, check out WWD's event page.

This year's theme is "Water for cities: Responding to the urban challenge," and is a call to nations to think strategically about meeting the water needs of the world's rapidly growing urban population (apparently one in two people are city dwellers these days). To celebrate this theme and in an attempt to uncover some more hopeful water stories, I scoured the Internet for as long as my patience lasted, asked a few enviro-minded friends for ideas, and then patched together this meager list of promising urban water conservation ideas and initiatives.

Saving gray water for a not-so-rainy day
Gray water reuse, or the use of wastewater from showers, baths, sinks and laundries, is getting some attention as a potential conservation strategy in urban areas. To clear any initial confusion, this method is not promoting the reuse of yucky water for drinking or bathing; rather, gray water is used to quell your garden or lawn's thirst (i.e. irrigation) or for flushing toilets. Of course, attempting this method involves safety measures to prevent contamination (the meaning of "safe" varies by state). While building codes and laws still prohibit individuals and businesses from collecting and reusing graywater in many places, grassroots groups and some states, especially the arid ones, have made progress in enabling the practice. Though, it is still unclear to me whether or not watering your lawn with bathwater is a good thing, considering some of the questionable ingredients in many soaps and shampoos. The following video tells the story of a guy in Sonoma County, CA who designed a pretty complex, but legal, gray water system.

Paving city streets with green
The city of Portland, Oregon implemented a stormwater management policy called Portland Green Streets, which it incorporated into the city's overall plan in 2007. The rainy city seeks to not only to better manage its stormwater runoff, but to also enhance livability and create habitat corridors, among other objectives. A "Green Street" is decorated with vegetative patches or strips, which suck up stormwater and/or prevent the water from flowing through the streets, picking up pollutants, and then dumping them into the watershed.

Wetland restoration is for people too
A 30,000 acre swatch of degraded wetlands abutting New Orlean's Lower Ninth Ward is getting some TLC from a collection of stakeholders that are trying to return it to its glory as a working swamp and storm buffer. Bayou Bienvenue had lost its cypress trees and swampiness to saltwater intrusion as a result of years of flood management engineering--mainly the surrounding canals that connect the Mississippi river to the Gulf of Mexico. Too much saltwater kills many picky wetland plant species, which require the right balance of fresh and saltwater. Several teams are trying different tactics to bring the wetland back to life. One team is piping in semi-treated wastewater and biosolids to revive the ecosystem (piping in sewage might sound icky, but the hope is the nutrient-rich freshwater will be inviting to wetland species, who will in turn clean the effluence from the water). Another team launched floating islands, on which they are trying to grow wetland grasses. If successful, these restoration efforts could not only resurrect an ecosystem, it could also provide natural storm protection to the people in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Lower Ninth Ward with Bayou Bienvenue in 2008. Photo: UW NOLA Group

Making the Mediterranean waters bluer
Horizon2020 is an initiative to de-pollute the Mediterranean by the year 2020. It targets urban sources of pollution, such as municipal waste, waste water, and industrial pollution, which account for 80% of the sea's pollution. (I realize the Mediterranean is not freshwater, but I nonetheless found this initiative noteworthy).

Swearing off the (water) bottle
A gaggle of colleges and universities around the U.S. have banned plastic water bottles--a rebellion led by Washington University in St. Louis, which instituted its ban in 2009. While this isn't a water conservation measure, per say, it's all part of the bigger picture nonetheless. Perhaps Congress, which reportedly spends at least $860,000 on bottled water annually, should consider following suit, especially in light of our budget woes?

City farming with wastewater
Urban agriculture is getting a boost in Ghana with support from the International Water Management Institute. An increasingly common urban ag practice in developing countries is the reuse of wastewater for crop irrigation. While a boon for water conservation, if done improperly, this practice can be a bust to human health. So, IWMI is working with urban farmers in Accra, Ghana to implement safe wastewater practices, explained in this video by WorldWatch Institute.

Photo: IWMI

For further reading...

I also found these two informative articles related to urban water conservation: Putting water conservation in the bottom line (re: sustainable business), and Building the way to water efficiency (re: green building). 

...and for kicks
Bananas might become the new trick for removing heavy metals from contaminated water in industrial settings.

So, will water have a happy ending? Save natural disasters and now-irreversible changes to the climate, we are largely in control of that storyline.


  1. Nice to see some positive initiatives are taking place, Jenny. Do you know if any other US cities (even Madison??) has any of these ideas in their future plans? Seems the reuse of gray water and the green city streets would be things many cities could manage.

  2. Fascinating post, Jenny. I think it was NatGeo's April feature story that really got me thinking about water and its limited availability.

    My home state of Georgia has waged "water wars" with surrounding states for the resource. It's unfortunate that politics played a larger role than science. It definitely highlights the need for water resource reform, especially through efficient and eco-friendly projects.

    Also, you've probably heard of the documentary "Tapped." I highly recommend seeing it if you haven't already!