Green Fuse

Benjamin H. Grumbles

Celebrate the coming spring with a renewed commitment to water innovation by igniting new ideas for old challenges and keeping in mind this classic Dylan Thomas line: 

The force that through the green fuse drives
the flower,

Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees is my destroyer.

My ancient notes from college say the poet was referring to the invisible life-giving spirit that infuses all, from plants to people, but also how that creative force is naturally destructive. Our green age, our happy youth, is driven by creative forces that eventually set in motion dramatic change, even a death of sorts. A green fuse connects the creative and the disruptive, and as painful as it sounds, leads to new blood, fresh ideas and paradigm shifts. Hardly tragic.

Of course, innovation runs through all of this, and while it means different things to different people, it is fundamentally about disruptive change (in a good way). In environmental applications, “disruptive” can include a technology, practice, or strategy ranging from research to regulation, treatment to recovery, and monitoring to money management.

Call to Action

All of these came together in a recent document, “The Water Resources Utility of the Future: A Blueprint for Action,” authored by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and Water Environment Federation (WEF). Find it at www.nacwa.org/blueprint. Read this road map for shifting the paradigm of how we all view, value and manage water-related utilities. Advocacy, research and education will convert the “treat-and-discharge” facilities of the past to centers of regeneration, in pursuit of full recovery of heat and energy from waste, water reuse and conservation, and watershed-based solutions, through public-private partnerships.

It is happening, at least in part, in some leading-edge utilities today. For example: East Bay Municipal Utility District, Oakland, Calif.; Clean Water Services, Hillsboro, Ore.; Milwaukee and Madison Metropolitan Sewerage Districts, Wisconsin; NEW Water (i.e. North East Wisconsin Water, also known as Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District), Wisconsin; Alexandria Renew Enterprises, Virginia (which, like Green Bay, has changed its name to better reflect its mission); DC Water (also a relatively recent name change for the better), Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia Water Department; and New York City Department of Environmental Protection. There are many more examples, and yet from a national policy perspective, so much more needs to happen to accelerate the practice of innovation.

The Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Assn. and U.S. Water Alliance, the organization that pays my salary, are working together to foster dialogue on water innovation, too. Talk is cheap, but serious discussion to change for the better is invaluable. In a national meeting scheduled for March, with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water and science officials and thought leaders from all water sectors and government levels around the country, the two organizations hope to tap into some of the biggest opportunities and challenges ahead.

Walk the Talk

Discussions certainly will include WERF and WEF’s LIFT (Leaders’ Innovation Forum for Technology) program to identify emerging technologies and reduce potential barriers and risks to their rapid deployment. We’ll also explore pathways to advance information technology for smarter water monitoring, use and infrastructure management. Companies like FATHOM, a part of Global Water Resources, are stepping into this field with technologies to help consumers and utilities measure and model usage and create water supply space for future customers through demand management, reducing the strain on aging pipes and plants along the way.

Other promising areas for continued collaboration and necessary progress include green infrastructure approaches, which environmental organizations such as American Rivers and Natural Resources Defense Council support, and nutrient control and source water protection strategies that state clean water and drinking water agencies are promoting to meet environmental and public health standards more effectively and efficiently.

People like to talk about innovation but rarely can they make it happen, at least in the face of sturdy barriers and broad policy blockades. It takes courage and collaboration to light a fuse. Go team.