Solving Our Water Management Problems

Solving Water Management Problems for the World's Growing Cities

Water is connected to our lives in so many ways. We typically don’t think about how we use our water, we just turn on the faucet and water comes out. Our water system is not just interconnected within itself but also impacts our lives in unnoticed ways. By taking a closer look at stormwater, urban water quality, and drought, we can find solutions that help improve how we live.

Stormwater Management and Runoff

As more and more people move into cities, there is an increase of impervious surfaces: parking lots and building roofs that stop water from being absorbed into the ground.

Stormwater runoff – overflow that occurs during heavy rains -- is increasingly problematic for local governments. Stormwater traveling over the ground collects pollutants from roadways and other sources which enter waterways, contributing to water pollution. Increased stormwater also costs municipalities money, as the cost to run water treatments plants goes up when stormwater floods sewers. If there is too much rain, it can lead to flooding as storm drains fill up.

Mismanaged water impacts every level of society, from local neighborhoods to entire states. A number of meaningful solutions have been implemented already, and areas that are facing the worst problems today can look towards these solutions for guidance on how to fix their own water management issues.To counteract these negative impacts, most municipalities have adopted regulations that require stormwater management for all new construction. Strategies include constructed or natural practices to reduce and contain water, or removing pollutants.

Below, we outline three problems and how they can learn from other cities across the globe.

I. Highline Network Offers Guidance on Urban Problems

Problem: New York City stormwater savings highlights challenges.

Built on elevated train tracks in the heart of Manhattan, The Highline Park put plants and walk ways in place of dilapidated unused train lines. The project is a major success with thousands of visitors a day, becoming a landmark and tourist attraction in its own right.

The urban park uses the same underlying technology that is found in green roofs (roofs with integrated vegetation on top) to water plants and provide soil drainage.

Because of the way the park integrates vegetation, stormwater runoff has been reduced by as much as 80%, lowering the amount of water that goes into the city's sewers.

Soil and plants also remove contaminants from the water to lower water pollution caused by runoff. Projects like green roofs, urban gardens, and urban parks provide excellent solutions for businesses and governments to reduce the impact of stormwater and help lessen the load on city water management.

Despite the park's popularity and benefit towards reducing of runoff, the local community has seen some unexpected results. The park runs through Chelsea, an historically multicultural community, unlike the large majority of visitors. The intention of the Highline was to serve the surrounding communities, yet some worry that the park has become too congested with tourists. Perhaps the biggest impact has been the proliferation of new restaurants, museums, and hotels. Although a huge economic boost for the area, this growth has also raised land values and therefore rent prices, impacting smaller businesses that serve the local community. The higher rent prices also contribute to gentrification, as long time residents find the neighborhood unaffordable.

Solution: The High Line Network  

The challenge is to implement urban reuse parks, like The High Line, into more neighborhoods and cities, without destroying long standing communities through gentrification. Besides serving as a park, these types of installations may be the solution to eliminating a significant portion of runoff in urban areas. Co Founder of the High Line Park, Robert Hammond, is trying to bring the benefits of these parks while minimizing the human cost of gentrification with his new initiative, the High Line Network.

Robert HammondThe national network takes from the experience learned from building Robert Hammond's High Line, sharing best practices with other groups looking to build urban reuse projects. The group positions itself as an information sharing platform encouraging the connection of many urban reuse projects, while making sure local governments are getting the information they need. This peer to peer network is making sure communities have open communication with reuse planners during a project’s development.

One example is the Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston, Texas, which was being planned at the same time that the Buffalo Bayou Partnership joined the High Line Network. To make sure the community was involved, park planners established a stakeholder committee, composed of community members, and hosted small backyard gatherings to keep everyone involved with the planning process.

Another example is the 11th Street Bridge Park, in Washington D.C., a planned pedestrian park over the Anacostia river which will connect Capitol Hill to Anacostia, an area with high unemployment and low homeownership rates. The project’s director, Scott Kratz, is making sure the development doesn't’t become a way for gentrification to overwhelm the existing community, by making sure the park is completely positive improvement to the community. Park planners founded an equitable development task force to understand economic forces in the community and come up with recommendations on how the development could benefit the residents and promote equitable and inclusive growth. They have proposed establishing a community land trust and hosting tenants’ rights workshops. By structuring job training workshops early, the community can gain employment from the construction of the park, and then from on going maintenance and services. The group also wants to work with city leadership to initiate policies that preserve affordable housing within a one-mile radius of the park.

“Throughout our community-led process, it became clear that the Bridge Park had the potential to be more than just an innovative public space,” says Mr. Kratz “In particular, the Bridge Park could symbolize a new unity and connection between a booming area of the city and one that has long been overlooked and excluded from the city’s economic progress.”

II. Israel Holds Answers to California's Water Problem

Problem: California's historical water practices are failing a growing state.

California is a state with huge urban population and a huge agriculture industry. In the last century, rapid growth in California’s cities and industry spurred state and city governments to construct a system of aqueducts to move water from the snowpacks and lakes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the large populations near the coast. Water is also piped all the way from the Colorado River to supply cities hundreds of miles away.

In the past few years California has been grappling with a massive statewide drought caused by years of below average snowfall in the Sierras, where most of California's water is sourced, lowering water levels in reservoirs, underground aquifers and dams throughout the state. Ironically in 2017, the state also faced destructive flooding that has overflowed rivers and flooded farmland. Headlines from earlier this year showed the Oroville Dam at record levels with dramatic outflows from its collapsing spillway.

Periods of extreme drought and intense flooding show that California’s water management policy and infrastructure is not adequate. The traditional approach to stormwater management for urban planners, builders, and policy makers has traditionally been getting water as quickly as possible out and away from buildings and development. While this may be the easiest way to keep puddles out of a parking lot, it means water is wasted running into storm drains, creating huge volumes of water that makes flooding worse, while doing nothing to add to the water supply. As California’s economic and agricultural outputs continue to grow, the state will need to change its strategy. More sources need to added to help supplement overused sources, like the Colorado River, and supply the state's growing water needs.

Solution: Learning From Israel's Transformation

Driven by necessity, Israel has completely reimagined the country’s water network. Facing an extreme lack of water, the country took aggressive steps to reinvent the way they use water. The innovative steps that Israel has taken  hold important keys to providing a water system for the future in California.

In 2009 the country’s primary freshwater reserve, the Sea of Galilee, fell within inches of permanently transforming from freshwater to saltwater. Because of that crisis, the Israeli government decided make water management a priority. Leaders put emphasis on water saving strategies that could reduce water consumption in agricultural and residential settings:

  • Emphasized efficient drip irrigation techniques in agriculture.
  • Installed rain catchment systems at schools and on buildings.
  • The government also encouraged advanced leak detection, and low-flow toilets and showerheads in homes.
  • They also invested heavily in advanced water recycling, along with new treatment plants that capture and treat 86% of the water going down the drain and use it for irrigation.

The next step was to install five massive new desalination plants to supply huge volumes of water to Israel's cities. Desalination plants work by pumping water from the ocean through a series of filters and membranes to remove the salt from seawater, turning the ocean into a unlimited freshwater supply.

The huge investments have paid off for the country. This arid country now produces 20% more water than it uses, and exports the surplus to its Middle East neighbors. The excess of water has also helped to replenish groundwater aquifers and allowed water levels to rise in the Sea of Galilee. New policies and implementation of technology has created a system that can withstand years of drought. Some farmers in the Negev Desert don’t even care about whether it rains or not because water is so consistently available.

Lessons Learned

California can’t mirror the exact strategy used in Israel because of the unique challenges that each location presents. For one, California is much larger than Israel, with many climates, from snowy mountains to arid deserts. Despite this, Israel can serve as a model for how to approach water management with great leadership and driven policy decisions. Most importantly, the aggressive approach on water recycling, irrigation, and desalination technology could be the best way to implement water savings. Investments like rain collection tanks and other improvements to stormwater management could reduce flooding while also collecting water to help mitigate droughts.

As reported by NBC, industry experts argue California’s historic approach to water management is antiquated, and does not allow the state to address serious water shortage needs.

With limited options for sustainable freshwater sources, desalination could be a promising option for the future. Although public opinion is still mixed, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant in California, now supplies 7% of the water for the San Diego County, and serves as test case for coastal communities.

III. America's Cities Seek to Remedy Water Problems

Problem: Jersey City combats flooding and combined sewage overflows.

In the Eastern US, cities don't have issues with drought like California, but instead struggle more with stormwater management and runoff because of frequent rains. In New Jersey and New York, urban areas and cities have been around for over 200 years, and the accompanying infrastructure has been around for decades.

With this aging infrastructure and continued growth, New Jersey is facing a crisis. Dense development, like roads and parking lots, mean that there are few natural areas to absorb runoff. As a result, cities across the state are susceptible to major flooding, sometimes after even modest rain events. The problem is even worse in the 21 cities with combined sewer overflows (CSOs), where raw sewage discharges into nearby rivers and bays. CSO systems work by removing sewage to a water treatment facility, but during rain events stormwater goes into this same system. When the combined sewage and stormwater are too much, the outflow dumps into a bay or waterway. Combined sewer systems were a major innovation in the late 1800s and early 1900s, because they were able to quickly remove sewage and stormwater from flood-prone, disease ridden urban areas. However,  those systems are now outdated.  There are significant human and environmental costs as a result, causing sewers to back up into streets or basements, forcing the closure of beaches, and impairing fish and aquatic life.

Solution: Municipalities work to solve water issues through planning and penalties.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection manages a permitting process which grants permission to municipalities to have outflows. As part of the permitting process, those who have CSO sewers must create a Long Term Control Plan (LTCP). Such a plan includes conducting a system wide evaluation of the sewage infrastructure, including the relationship between sewers, precipitation, treatment capacity, and outflows. The city must then evaluate options to reduce or eliminate discharges, and develop a schedule for remediation. This process helps cash strapped municipalities and utilities plan how to phase out these systems.

Philadelphia, and some other cities, is charging fees to help improve water infrastructure and encouraging property owners to reduce runoff. Residential property owners are charged a flat fee based on the average amount of impervious surfaces on residential properties. Businesses and non residential properties are charged based on the specific square footage of impervious area covering the property and the total square footage of the property. In a bid to reduce the strain on the city’s sewer systems, property owners can reduce their stormwater management fee by installing management controls like cisterns, green roofs, ponds and wetlands, porous surfaces, and basins. These policies discourage property owners from contributing to runoff while encouraging retention of water on the property.

By both requiring plans from municipalities and charging fees for properties with little water management, local governments and property owners must think about the stormwater impact that they are having on the city. This type of approach could accelerate the shift of Jersey City and other areas away from CSO’s.

Water for Tomorrow

With governments and planners rushing for solutions in a crisis, it is important to look back at places that have already achieved success with improving their water systems and see what solutions can be applied in advance, before problems arise. With these innovative water solutions here today, it is beneficial to implement them as quickly as possible.