Taking Better Care Of Our Water

Categories: Tips & Tricks

Now that you're getting your power from the sun and wind, it's time to get yourself off the city water and sewer line. The great thing about water is that it's everywhere -- it runs beneath your feet as groundwater and falls from the sky as rain. You can tap into both of these resources in order to go off the grid. According to the EPA, roughly 15 percent of homes in the United States get their water on their own, so there's no reason why you can't be one of them.

People are becoming more self-sufficient in terms of energy and food, but what about water? Here's some ideas.

The recent convergence of events has led many people to begin discussing economic and ecological sustainability and local production of food and energy. In the past two years, as the world witnessed financial, economic, political, geopolitical, social, and military turmoil, people have raised critical issues of "peak oil," globalization, and global food and energy crises, and begun to talk about possible solutions and to empower themselves and their communities.

Even large urban mainstream media such as the Los Angeles Times and New York Times have featured stories of people who have started community gardens, replaced lawns with "victory gardens" and raised chickens in their backyards, and established cooperatives for local networks of food producers, among others. While the food and agricultural issues have captured mainstream media's attention at a time food commodity prices soared manifold in 2007 and 2008, few people have yet to talk about water.

What about water? What can people do to exert some control over water -- especially at a time when both water delivery and wastewater treatment have been centralized and controlled by either municipal utilities or private corporations? For the nervous communities and individual "survivalists" who are busily installing their own rooftop solar-power systems and growing their own vegetable gardens, what can they do about their water? How can communities survive and sustain themselves if their water and sewage utilities stop treating water because these utilities simply cannot obtain the essential chemicals and fossil fuel to operate their plants due to a variety of reasons?

Water is the basis of agriculture and industry, and the foundation of sanitation. In essence, humanity can live without oil -- albeit more primitively -- but humanity cannot survive without water. Despite its importance, rarely has the issue of water been integrated into our discussions of food crises and economic crises, except when we briefly talk about global warming and extreme droughts that affect crop-growing regions. Without clean water, we cannot have healthy people and communities.

In this time of uncertainties and chaos, how can individuals and communities help themselves to prepare their water systems so as to keep themselves alive and healthy? The first step is to design and plan for alternatives to the colossal, centralized chemical-intensive, fossil-fuel-intensive conventional water and wastewater systems.

What's Wrong with Our Current Water Systems?

Fossil fuel and electricity from the grid are the lifeblood of conventional water- and wastewater-treatment systems, which are designed and built to rely on fossil fuel as their sole energy source. Without fossil fuel, there simply would be no water and wastewater treatment. When the supply and delivery of fossil fuel run out, one can expect the so-called First World to revert back to the pre-plumbing days of the early Industrial Revolution, not unlike the days when major European cities were literally cesspools of stagnated human wastes breeding diseases, as raw sewage flowed through streets directly into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Chemicals are another lifeblood of the conventional water systems. Here "conventional water- and wastewater-treatment systems" refer to the municipality- or corporate-owned, large-scale, centralized, and highly engineered processes and technologies, which require a constant and substantial feed stream of fossil-fuel energy and chemicals for treatment. These systems generate byproducts and pollutants during treatment (e.g., waste sludge, waste gases, and waste chemicals --- all requiring disposal) and generally cost several million dollars to build, operate, and maintain.

Today's conventional water- and sewage-treatment facilities are multimillion-dollar engineering marvels designed and built by multinational engineering companies with minimal regard to their environmental impact, their resource consumption, and their dependence on energy-delivery and raw-materials-supply systems in their operation and maintenance. Despite being highly engineered, these systems are neither robust nor flexible. In fact, because conventional treatment facilities rely on the complex web of resource production and delivery infrastructure to feed their heavy demand on resources, they are vulnerable to total system failures caused by only a few supply-web components' malfunction.

Despite being highly engineered, total treatment failures and sewage spills still occur with these conventional systems; effluent treated and discharged into surface waters still contain chemical residues from treatment processes, organic nutrients (e.g., nitrogen and phosphorus), residual chemical compounds (such as pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides, detergents) only partially decomposed by bacteria, and some pathogenic bacteria and viruses. Worse, pollutants are produced during treatment, which create additional pollution problems and require disposal. Volatilization of sewage gases often contributes to urban smog problems, and waste sludge requires trucking transport to incinerators or landfills.

This type of conventional water infrastructure is unsustainable in the long term, as it relies completely on energy- and raw-materials delivery and complex networks of manufacturing and transportation (and delivery) infrastructure in its daily operations and maintenance. So our water infrastructure is dependent on shipping tankers and barges, trucks, rail and highway systems, power plants, electricity grid, chemical manufacturers, and disposal places (e.g., landfills, incinerators, farms that accept "biosolids"). It is both a heavy consumer of resources and a significant producer of pollutants in the treatment processes. As a result of this total dependence on fossil fuel, chemicals, and replacement parts, conventional water facilities are defenseless against power outages and delivery interruptions.

Hence, these conventional facilities are only as robust and secure as the manufacturing infrastructure and the delivery system networks that support them. For example, when power outage occurred in one Ohio power plant on August 14, 2003, the electricity grid supplying electricity to the northeastern United States and parts of southeastern Canada crashed, causing sewage- and water-treatment plants in many cities to fail. Large metropolitan areas such as Detroit and Cleveland went without drinking water for several days, while New York's sewage-treatment plants spewed raw sewage into rivers and oceans, forcing public health officials to close several public beaches in the state.

Countries or communities adopting and relying solely on conventional water systems are especially vulnerable to chemicals and fossil-fuel supply disruptions. The good case study is Iraq which suffered a total collapse of its conventional water infrastructure during UN sanctions from 1991 to 2003.

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