"We've got to stop living in denial," said former Daily Progress owner Tom Worrell in a rare public appearance. "There's a problem with the planet."
The local waterworks will spend about $21 million upsizing its centralized Meadowcreek Interceptor.
file photo by Hawes Spencer
The latest UN-designated World Water Day, according to a panel of environmental experts gathered at McGuffey Arts Center last week, was not a particularly happy one. Among many startling things learned at the March 22 forum sponsored by a new locally-based non-profit were that 900 million people around the world don't have access to fresh water, that every 17 seconds a child dies of a water-borne illness, and that ever bigger centralized systems for water, food, and waste are depleting our resources.
"We are still building centralized infrastructure as the Romans did," said former Daily Progress owner turned water management visionary Tom Worrell, "just under a new regime. Our goal is toward decentralization of our waste/water systems."
As our local water debate heats up again with the recent filing of a lawsuit to block construction of an approved but controversial dam project at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area, the panel of experts gathered at McGuffey criticized gluttonous world water use and emphasized the need for more conservation and innovation.
"We've got to stop living in denial," said Worrell, who, also with several panelists, asserted that fresh water is a finite and shrinking resource. "There's a problem with the planet."
One journalist described attending a historic designation ceremony for a famous spring in Florida– where senior citizens described leaping into the cold waters in their youth. However, by ceremony day, the spring was completely dry, due to over-pumping of the ground water. Even the Hoover Dam, America's premiere symbol of water abundance, could be dry by 2021, the journalist said.
"We're still thinking bigger and bigger," said another journalist, Tara Lohan, a senior editor at AlterNet, "and the biggest thing is a dam."
Lohan, who covers food and environmental issues, said that research has shown that dams have a negative environmental impact, such as blocking fish migration and fragmenting delicate eco-systems, and are counter-intuitive to the idea of water conservation.
"What infrastructure do we really need, and what we can do differently?" she asked. "Communities need to think about that."
That's where Worrell comes in. His company, Worrell Water Technologies, produces something called a Living Machine, which operates as a kind of high-tech estuary that purifies waste water for re-use. Now he's launched a non-profit, Living Technology Institute, with a mission to advance ecological water treatment strategies and technologies.
Centralized systems may once have been seen as great feats of engineering, bringing water in and waste out of cities and towns, and supplying massive amounts of food on a large scale. Such industrial systems– which may maintain what a panelist called the "illusion of abundance"– may now threaten the source.
Conspicuously absent from the McGuffey event were any representatives from the local waterworks, though Albemarle Supervisor Ann Mallek attended. Neither Worrell Water officials nor Rivanna Water & Sewer officials have uttered any criticism of the other– though they're clearly pursuing missions at odds with each other.
At one point in the McGuffey event, nearly all the audience members taking a water usage test found they fell into the "water waster" category. More surprisingly, the audience learned that until they make decisions to change their infrastructure, even the best intentions can backfire.
For example, Jerry Yudelson, a renowned author and green-building consultant, pointed out that low-flow toilets may seem like a great idea, but that most sewer infrastructures weren't designed to handle them.
"In San Francisco, for example, they were doing so well at water conservation that there wasn't enough water to push the sewer through the sewer pipes," Yudelson said, "and they had to spend millions flushing them out with chlorinated water."
It's not enough to take short showers, cease lawn watering, or install low-flow toilets, the panelists said; we need to think about replacing the systems we use to supply water and get rid of waste water. If we don't, the experts say, water will become a new and vicious battleground.
"Water is the 21st century oil," said Yudelson. "As the earth's population grows, and as fresh water becomes more scarce, we're going to be fighting over this for a long time. To avoid a crisis, something dramatic needs to change in the next 15 years."
That change, said the panelist, needs to be the widespread acceptance of conservation, even if it means making it more expensive to use.
"We still have a high-water-use lifestyle," said Yudelson, "and water is still cheap. That's an inhibiting force to conservation."
While researching for her book, Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis, journalist Cynthia Barnett discovered there were 63,000 square miles of grass lawns in the United States, basically a 51st state of fescue. However, as Lohan pointed out, there are places in the world where people wait 10 hours to get two buckets of water from a dirty well.
"We need a new water ethic, a set of shared beliefs," said Barnett. "Otherwise its going to take a major crisis."
Barnett pointed out that crises has already hit.
In October 2007, following a prolonged drought, Lake Lanier, the primary source of water for greater Atlanta, had only about a two- to four-month supply of water. That created a water war among Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. According to Barnett, $30 million was spent on lawyers, with the water problem still unsolved (and officials are considering building a new dam) while Atlanta-area water prices are among the nation's highest.
"Water is the next big green thing," said Yudelson, and while the challenges are great, so are the opportunities for water-related businesses, he said.
To that end, David Andrews, a representative of non-profit advocacy group Food & Water Watch, said that local communities need to learn to live in harmony with nature, sourcing both food and water from local sources in smart and innovative ways.
"We have to change our culture," said Andrews. "Food and water security should be considered together, we need to talk about this holistically, and to appreciate the complexity of our ecological systems."
Instead, Andrews pointed out, governments tend to coerce nature into serving needs with centralized farming operations that only produce three or four things, or damming rivers that had served surrounding ecological systems perfectly for eons.
"We have to have a better relationship with the earth," said Andrews.
Could be, however, that the desires of so-called civilized cultures too often clash with nature. As Barnett pointed out, Thomas Jefferson is often applauded for building a rainwater-catching cistern system at Monticello. The problem, Barnett explained, is that the visionary Jefferson never really got the system to supply Monticello with sufficient water.
"He had to work against nature, particularly gravity, to get water to Monticello," said Barnett, "because he had decided to build his house on top of a mountain."