Water pressures: 7 hopeful signs

Aarhus treatment plant will generate pumping power for distributing drinking water to citizens across the city.

From New Orleans and Venice to Flint, MI, and Sydney, Australia, cities across the globe are frantically racing to upgrade their fragile water systems ahead of the cresting tsunami of urban repopulation. And to call it a race against time is not hyperbole. It is an understatement.

Barely a week goes by, it seems, without yet another story about a water-crisis flashpoint somewhere in the world. Last month, Al Jazeera reported that Iran is now scrambling “to save (its) water, before water scarcity dries out entire cities and displaces millions.” Kaveh Madani, an environmental policy expert at London’s Imperial College, told the news organization, “Water is linked to so many things, and unless we understand and appreciate the linkages, … we cannot solve this crisis.” He added, “Rivers and lakes (in Iran) are going dry one after another; we’re losing wetlands; we’re seeing land subsidence. We’re seeing desertification, which is really sad.”

Mothers of invention

Of course, crisis also breeds creative solutions. So there are signs of hope amid the global alarms. In Denmark, the 200,000-person city of Aarhus “is about to become the first in the world to provide most of its citizens with fresh water using only the energy created from household wastewater and sewage,” New Scientist reported last week. “The Marselisborg Wastewater Treatment Plant has undergone improvements that mean it can now generate more than 150 percent of the electricity needed to run the plant. … The surplus can be used to pump drinking water around the city.”

  • According to the American Water Works Association, the cost of fixing just the problem of lead pipes in the US is in the range of $30 billion nationally. AGC of America estimates that needed upgrades to safe drinking water and wastewater treatment systems could cost up to $600 billion through 2036.

In the US, thanks to mishandling by the State of Michigan and the US EPA, the poisoned city of Flint has become the canary in the coal mine for a national crisis involving lead-contaminated municipal water pipes that in older cities may be more than a century old. Writing in US News & World Report last June, former San Antonio, TX, mayor and US HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros said, “As streets are dug up for construction projects and new housing, many cities are finding wooden water pipes laid down a century and a half ago. In NYC, for instance, over 8 million citizens rely on drinking water delivered primarily by two tunnels, one of which was completed in 1917 and the other in 1936.”

“As streets are dug up for construction projects and new housing, many cities are finding wooden water pipes laid down a century and a half ago.”

— Henry Cisneros, former Secretary, HUD

But Cisneros and others are optimistic that the US and much of the world may be on the verge of marshaling the public-private resources and collective will needed to tackle this crisis. Wrote Cisneros, “There are going to be ways to bring private-sector capital to this issue. We can (try) novel approaches to financing, such as REITs and master limited partnerships. This will be necessary not just to triage our immediate crisis but to take on the longer term question of replacing infrastructure writ large.”

With all that in mind, here are seven hopeful signs that our industry is answering this urgent call:

1. WEFTEC this fall returned to New Orleans. Highlights below … #MyWaterLegacy


2. MWH Global describes how it has helped Colorado Springs to be more water-resilient.


3. Black & Veatch offers its Asset360 platform to help transform Smart City water management.


4. CH2M has been a major player in this market for decades, sustainably focused on “water reuse.”


5. WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff is revitalizing existing infrastructure by making it greener.


6. AECOM and IBM are partnering to help cities generate key data for managing water better.


7. ‘Grey water’ may be the key to our water future. Here, from September, one expert tells why.