9.29.2009

Every Drop Counts


What would you think of an organization that, when faced with trying to figure out how to do the one thing it has been tasked to do, is responding with a $1.6 billion plan to do less of it? Crazy? Lazy? In the case of the Philadelphia Water Department, I say, “Bravo!”

The old school understanding of a municipal water department is to take rainwater and treat and store it so it can be used for drinking, bathing, cleaning, and watering. But those different uses require fundamentally different levels of treatment; so what if the smarter, greener, cheaper thing to do is siphon off the rainwater that doesn’t need to be treated as much or at all, and get that portion directly to those end uses? After all, as a colleague of mine once vividly put it, “I don’t get why we treat water enough to make it drinkable and then use it to flush our toilets.”

Hence, the Water Department’s ambitious effort to capture rainwater earlier, in the form of rain gardens and green roofs and porous pavement, rather than having it all spill into its often over-flooded sewers. Greenies here and around the country are holding their breath to see if it can advance this effort from a regulatory standpoint, and to see how it all plays out. If this works, thus defining economic and environmental viability circa 2050 by how well a city minimizes its use of fossil fuels pumped from the ground and maximizes its use of water falling from the sky, then you have to like Philadelphia’s chances as a location of choice.
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