The vigil for Tahlequah, the mother orca who carried her dead calf around for days, is a message and a call to action. Scientists have concluded that a large part of the blame for the decline in orca population and related salmon runs lies in the water quality of Puget Sound—contaminants, toxic chemicals and noise. Healthy water means we must have a healthy water infrastructure.
The fact is our water infrastructure is under stress. It is aging and not keeping up with a fast-growing population, extreme weather events, waste discharges, stormwater runoff, new contaminants, vessel traffic, earthquake risks and cyberattacks. Our economic dynamism is also at stake. About one-third of Puget Sound economic output and jobs are water dependent. It is estimated that $23 billion of water infrastructure projects are on the books but financing this investment is unclear.
We are at an inflection point-- we pursue incremental improvements or begin to reimagine a new kind of water infrastructure. We should think, plan and manage water in all its forms as ONE WATER. The water infrastructure needs to be holistically managed and technology better aligned with the natural watershed and hydrological cycle.
- Water should be treated as a resource rather than waste—zero discharge, recycled and used again and again.
- High energy cost water treatment systems should be redesigned to be more efficient and even generate energy.
- Nutrients should be recovered from wastewater and be a source of revenue (e.g. fertilizer).
- Smaller and distributed water treatment systems boost resilience to extreme weather and disasters.
- Rainwater should be managed where it lands through green infrastructure, rain gardens, pervious pavement.
- Real time field sensors can help make predictive control decisions for water storage, treatment and flows.
- Cloud based systems, artificial intelligence, machine learning and visualization can enhance decision-making.
- Water DNA can be cheaply analyzed to detect harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi, toxic algae and sources of contamination.
- Urban vertical greenhouses can reduce water requirements by 90-95%.
What's holding us back? It turns out that innovation is difficult in the water sector and faces significant barriers.
- Cost of failure is high. Water operators are inherently conservative in considering innovation and focus more on regulatory compliance, established practices and service reliability. There is little incentive to be an early adopter.
- Legacy Constraints. Water infrastructure lasts a long time so opportunities to innovate do not emerge very often. The tendency is to extend the life of existing infrastructure.
- Fragmented Data. An enormous volume of water data is collected by government agencies. However, the data is balkanized, difficult to access and non-interoperable, diminishing its utility.
- Regulatory Risk. Water technologies can be stalled by multiple regulatory requirements, approval delays, litigation, adverse publicity or eventual stoppage. Regulations should encourage innovation and not be a barrier to it.
- Workforce Gap. Water operators face a retirement wave and need to recruit a workforce that is technologically trained, sophisticated and savvy.
- Legislative Gridlock. Federal infrastructure proposals in the trillion-dollar range to finance modernization appear to have faded. Fortunately, progress in water legislation benefiting Puget Sound has advanced with the help of the Washington congressional delegation.
- What can we do? We need to develop One Water Roadmap for the entire Puget Sound Region. With such a roadmap, water entrepreneurs and investors will have a guiding long term context for investing in water technologies and helping reduce the risks for early stage adopters in the water industry.
Another important step is overcoming geographic, jurisdictional, organizational and regulatory siloes in managing water resources, This is a time to create a Water Innovation Collaboration around anchor institutions such as: Washington University, Center for Urban Waters, Puget Sound Partnership, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, EPA, NOAA, Corp of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, Urban Clean Water Innovation Partnership Zone, Washington State University, Washington Stormwater Center, Tacoma Environmental Services, Seattle Public Utilities, King County, Pierce County, Joint Base Lewis McChord, Readiness Acceleration & Innovation Network (RAIN), Aqualyst Water Accelerator, PureBlue, Ports of Tacoma and Seattle, Chamber of Commerce and many other organizations.
The Water Innovation Collaboration places the One Water approach as the centerpiece for modernizing the water infrastructure. The strategic intent would be to design the world's leading water infrastructure right here in the Pacific Northwest. The quality of water and our economy will benefit immensely. The world will have proven examples of solutions to evaluate and adopt. And our beloved orca and salmon will thank us.
Egils Milbergs is former executive director of the Washington Economic Development Commission and co-founder of PureBlue, a Seattle based non-profit organization accelerating water innovation and manager of the Aqualyst Accelerator.