John Thackara | Report

Off-Grid Water

Up to 1,500 litres of water are needed to grow enough biofuels to move one car 10 kilometers. Two thousand liters are needed a day to feed each one of us. It takes 140 liters of water to grow enough beans for a single cup of coffee.

It sounds, and is, unsustainable. Over-exploitation has a heavy impact on the quality and quantity of remaining water, and on the ecosystems that depend on it. And it's not just a problem for arid climate areas. Water stress is also increasing in large parts of the rainy north.

Two years ago, when Banny Banerjee and I ran a design clinic on the theme of off-grid water at Stanford University, we focused on entrepreneurs in the Palo Alto region who were developing tools to help citizens manage water sustainably.

One such tool, the Rainwater Hog, had won lots of prizes, but its designer and producer, Sally Dominguez, wanted our advice on the best way to translate celebrity into sales.


Despite the fact that global water consumption is increasing at twice the rate of population growth, and has become a crisis issue in many countries, our design teams at the clinic were told that people in Southern California would pay better more to save their houses from fire, than to save the planet.

We therefore ended up advising Sally Dominguez to rebrand her product as an on-site emergency water supply to be used in the case of bush fires.

That experience highlighted a key dilemma about water: if sustainable practice requires people to spend significant sums of money on green products, then even the well-off will probably balk. The 95 percent of citizens who are not rich will be excluded from the start.

Another dilemma: there's a big difference between concocting design solutions in a studio, and implementing them — literally — on and in the ground.

Over centuries, we have designed and built rapid-transit conveyance piped systems to keep land relatively dry, provide a supply of portable water, and use water to carry away human waste for disposal.

To this day, many billions of dollars are spent annually on costly “hard” solutions like sewers and treatment plants. The results are urban landscapes in which rigid stream channelization, and a preference for impervious over porous surfaces, dominates.

Hard surfaces are usually bad for the water systems they obscure from our view. One measure of watershed health is the amount of man-made impervious surface area (ISA) covers it: roads, parking lots, buildings, driveways, sidewalks and other manmade surfaces.

China has more ISA in total than any other country, but the amount of paved surface per person is only quarter the area per person (722 square feet) compared with the US (3,200).

The total amount of ISA in the world looks tiny as a number — less than half of one percent — but most ISA is found in the primary drainage basins where the greatest damage to watersheds occurs.

Hard water systems have not just been integrated into buildings and streets. As Glen Daigger, president of the International Water Association, points out, a hard engineering paradigm is also embedded in our public regulations, our educational systems and our professional institutions.

It is not a small ask, after one thousand years of such progress, to persuade elected officials, city managers, public health inspectors, designers and citizens that ponds and vegetation, natural stream courses, buffers and floodplains, now be a sign of urban health. Says Daigger, '"I's a complete change to the functional purposes we want our infrastructure to accomplish.

It's a hard ask, but a transition from strictly engineered systems to ecological systems like rain gardens, surface wetlands, restored ponds, and daylighted streams does seem to be happening. The entire water economy is beginning to focus on

"softer" approaches in which closed loop water supply systems are configured, in an integrated fashion, to recover and recycle water and be net energy producers.

Water professionals now talk about urban landscape and drainage systems designed to mimic the natural hydrological cycle. They aspire to recharge aquifers with reclaimed rainwater, and to return the base and flood flows of streams to their pre-development levels.

The idea now is to integrate utility and land-use decisions to improve water — use efficiency, increase the capture and storage of rainwater, lower overall energy consumption, and reduce pollutant discharges — and to do all this whilst restoring natural ecosystems,.

Even the Dutch - the world's most accomplished water engineers - are learning to live with water rather than fight it.

dike relocation  in Nijmegen Waal River.jpg

For more than 1,000 years the natural river basins of the Rhine and Meuse rivers were controlled by engineering works.

Toine Smits, professor of sustainable management of natural resources at Nijmegen University in the Netherlands, says that their new approach is to work with the natural dynamics of the river basin whenever possible, and adapt land use accordingly. As a result, flood plains are being given more space and restored.

A large water equipment industry tends to focus on the development of technological improvements such as advances in membranes and other engineered components of urban systems.


But the new approach for the design of cities — and the water management, treatment and delivery systems that serve them — is not principally a technology problem.

"Water issues are complex and not subject to readily defined solutions because of the multiple and often competing values held by various stakeholders," Glen Daigger explains. For a city to become water-wise, interaction with other infrastructure systems needs to be orchestrated: biowaste, biogas, heating and cooling, transport, fiber optic communication. The city's water behavior must also be "designed" in the larger context of surrounding land (agriculture and food production, energy, aquaculture, recreation).

Some new equipment is needed in this "new water paradigm."  Rainwater tanks like the Hog mentioned above; large bladder storage systems, grey water plumbing; simple cleaning systems such as settling tanks, physical filters, reed beds, worm colonies; smart sensors for systems monitoring; new systems for maintenance.

But equipment is just part of the solution — and with budgets at local and state level under extreme pressure, costly engineering solutions will remain hard to realize.

What's needed most is action on the ground — house by house, street by street.

This is where the idea of green jobs makes immediate sense. Many local economies in the US once depended on the Real Estate Industrial Complex, which by 2006 had grown to 43 percent of all private sector US jobs. As that economy has collapsed, huge numbers of people have lost jobs building McMansions and their support infrastructures.

Could those people help the new water paradigm become a reality?

Tucson, Arizona, is quickly distinguishing itself as one of the leading cities in the promotion of water conservation, specifically water-harvesting practices. With only 12 inches of rainfall per year, residents are learning to make the most of their scarce water supply.

In the forefront of this movement, grassroots groups, nonprofit organizations, businesses and the city government are promoting water harvesting through educational programs, city policies, demonstration sites, technology innovations and green job training.

One pioneering nonprofit organization is the Watershed Management Group. The company started as a tiny seedling of an idea in the minds of five students graduating from the University of Arizona’s Watershed Management program. They noticed that much of the focus of environmental programs is directed at rural areas and protected parks and wilderness areas. This became their focus.


Through its co-op program, WMG helps homeowners harvest rainwater on their own properties at minimal cost. The way it works is that a homeowner joins the co-op, volunteers time on other water-harvesting projects, and accrues a set number of hours. When enough hours have accumulated, the volunteer gets to host a workshop at his or her own house and reap the benefits of the team’s labor.

Between six and 15 people are involved in a typical workshop, including at least one expert staff member. Having started four years ago, WMG expects to do up to 50 workshops this year.

Water-harvesting practices are simple, low-tech activities that conserve water, improve water quality, reduce flooding and erosion, and promote revegetation. WMG now has 12 demonstration sites where citizens can see water-harvesting practices in real-life contexts.

WMG is also developing its own Watershed Technical Trainings in green infrastructure, advanced cistern applications, advanced graywater applications and small-scale erosion control and riparian restoration.

WMG's Water Harvesting Certification Program, for example, with its emphasis on integrated and sustainable design, teaches architects, landscapers, planners, entrepreneurs, educators and community organizers how to retrofit residential and commercial sites with graywater systems, water-harvesting earthworks, appropriate plants, and cisterns.

This intensive course blends both informational lectures and hands-on workshop practice. Theory covered in class is accompanied by 30 hours of field experience.

Right now WMG runs four courses a year but applications are starting to arrive from right across the US. WMG's director, Lisa Shipek (below), tells me that WMG has launched a series of Green Infrastructure webinars.

The next WMG webinar on Community-Driven Green Infrastructure will take place on April 27, 2011, from 4:00 – 5:30 PM (PST)


The design and implementation of such practices varies widely among communities depending on geography, climate, existing urban infrastructure, and local policies. The goal of the webinar series is to share various approaches to green infrastructure with any who are interested in implementing similar strategies in their own communities.

It's not a matter of top-down versus bottom-up. We need both. But the co-op strategy of WMG is an important innovation because it answers the challenge of turning good ideas into work getting done.

Robin Murray, who is writing a book about next-generation cooperation, says co-ops provide a structure that is open to collaborative volunteering. Programs particularly suited to co-operative development —health, leisure, education and the many branches of care — can be greatly enhanced by a mix of paid labor and volunteers.

Meanwhile, back in California, interest in water harvesting seems to be growing. The Ecology Center, located in San Juan Capistrano, has launched a Community Water Challenge as a platform to support community participation in the implementation of watershed specific solutions.

Posted in: Social Good

Comments [3]

The problems with source control/harvesting of rain water at the lot level private property point of capture, are the spatial and temporal vagaries of methods employed, how many people are doing it, and what are the results. Capture and use may actually be detrimental if it prevents and diminishes the infiltration and recharge needed to feed natural systems. The cumulative benefit ideology is good but we are a long way from figuring out and implementing a quantifiable and consistent positive impact. Municipalities will still want and need infrastructure, hopefully greenfrastructure, in accessible and maintainable forms, for some time to come. Agencies actually say that despite any and all lot level source controls that may be proposed with new development, they still want fully sized and modeled end of pipe solutions, corridors etc., as if no lot level controls are implemented.
Rolling Stone

RS, You make an important point. Turning millions of MacMansions into water-capturing - and privatizing - machines will not take us forward. We need to manage rainwater, land and soil as elements of an ecological commons. How to do that, I don't know; but Raj Patel's book 'The Value of Nothing' includes concise and readable examples of how we did this in the past. Maybe you know of other sources?
John Thackara

I'm not familiar with the Patel book, but I agree with the question mark of why in many areas, e.g. North America, do we put so little economic value on water, starting literally when it hits the ground? I don't think we should look at commoditizing it however because I prefer the public resource common law attributes that water has historically enjoyed. In this regard, and in reference to my first comments and comments in an other recent article, I believe that public management for the common good will always be needed and thus there will always be a cost (infrastructure and natural systems in public hands), likely a rising cost, and the value model somehow plays out (taxes, haha). I'm no economist so I'll shut up on this for now.

Other sources of management examples - I think these are being demonstrated and written all over N. Am. As noted before, stormwater management is more wholistic than it's ever been before. What used to be the domain of just engineers just a few decades ago, is now very much a multi-disciplinary effort including biologist/ecologists, landscape architects, geomorphologists, and hydrogeologists. From the point runoff leaves the point where it starts in an urban setting (roofs, driveways, yards) it follows many built and natural pathways and very often the watershed performance criteria (quality, quantity, fisheries) are either established in advance or they are determined on a tributary by tributary basis 'as we go'. Does it work? Monitoring is also important, and adapting and revising will always be needed, but the science is sound and the mantra seems to work.
Rolling Stone

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