Trend-setting Northern Virginia Companies Deliver Smart Water Savings through Sustainable Design

January 25, 2010

Jane Siegel is an international trade specialist in the ITA Services division focusing on environmental water infrastructure. She has twenty years of experience in trade and environment policy.

The world is facing a growing water emergency.  By 2035, the World Bank projects that “3 billion people will be living in conditions of severe water stress,” especially including those in different countries sharing water supply.  Seven hundred million people live in countries under water stress.  Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, told the Council on Foreign Relations on November 23, 2009, that water resources would be the limiting factor on economic growth.

The United States has its water problems too.  This year in its “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” the American Society of Civil Engineering estimates that total investment needs to repair, expand and upgrade water infrastructure at $255 billion. A New York Times front page article proclaimed: “Sewers at Capacity, Waste Poisons Waterways.”

A new set of policies and customer demand for resource efficiency are reshaping the market for sustainable technologies.  Concerns about climate change are supporting this trend.  We are used to hearing about energy, rather than water efficiency.  But energy and water efficiency are tied: designing and engineering was to conserve water is a twofer: conserve water and you save energy.

Solutions to the world’s water problems require innovations in infrastructure design, engineering, management, operation, and finance.  Companies already working on solutions have brought these technologies innovations to the marketplace in the water sector.  Last year, I got to see some of those solutions developed and marketed by small companies located in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Worrell Water Technologies (WWT) sells a patented technology called The Living MachineTM.  According to the company, The Living Machine TM is a “natural, ecologically-based water treatment system.”  Will Kirksey, Senior Vice President of WWT showed Bill Fanjoy, Director of the Northern Virginia Export Assistant Center and me an example of the technology, a natural, ecologically-based water treatment system,” using “plants in porous gravel to create a large surface area for microorganisms” that can treat wastewater from municipal, agricultural and other sources.  In simpler terms, The Living MachineTM is a man-made swamp.

Kirksey, a civil engineer by training, cites the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) numbers, and believes that a significant part of the solution resides in rethinking the entire design of U.S. water infrastructure along a more natural, decentralized and sustainable model.  According to Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, better water systems will be increasingly necessary as the world deals with climate change.  It takes a lot of energy to treat and deliver water, and a lot of water to produce energy.

The Living MachineTM has been installed in urban and rural settings in the United States, and in Ghana, where it is being used to treat heavily polluted water from the Volta River.  People were sickened from crops irrigated with river water.  Now, farmers in the area can use the treated, cleaner water to irrigate their crops instead.

Another company Bill and I visited is called Rainwater Management Solutions (RMS).  Benjamin Sojka, a Principal of RMS, says he comes from a long line of Virginia farmers.  His company has developed a system that catches, holds and distributes rainwater, a “naturally clean, soft water,” which can be employed for all non-potable uses, such as washing clothes, and flushing toilets.  According to Sojka, rainwater harvesting can reduce or eliminate pollution from stormwater runoff; limit disruption and pollution of natural water flows; reduce potable water use for building sewage conveyance by 50 percent; and maximize water efficiency by reducing the burden on municipal water systems.  Properly harvested rainwater can help expand water resources.

The last stop of the day was to the architectural firm of McDonough + Partner.  William McDonough, an icon in the world of natural, sustainable architecture, had been the Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, and most recently in 2002 published a book entitled “Cradle to Cradle” with Michael Braungart, a German chemist, with whom he founded McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC).  According to Phillip Bernstein, a vice president at Auodesk, Inc., “Bill is the granddaddy” of the most forward-looking sustainability paradigm, which rejects the cradle to grave approach in which more waste than value is created.  McDonough’s clients include Google, GE and Wal-Mart to name a few.

McDonough’s firm includes eco-effective water systems.  In the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin University, includes a marsh system for the wastewater, and landscaping that avoids the use of pesticides.

These eco-designs are fully exportable.  WWT is negotiating a deal with Mexican authorities.  McDonough + Partner have done concept a master plan for the city of Liuzhou in southern China, where roof gardens include rice patties.  Green roofs retard water-runoff with the pollution that entails, as the water feeds the plants.

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