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Orca Mom Sends an Urgent Message

September 5, 2018
Orca mother J35 pushing her dead calf in Puget Sound. Scientists say unhealthy water is partially to blame for orca decline. (Ken Balcomb/https://www.whaleresearch.com)
Infrastructure
By Egils Milbergs

The vigil for Tahlequah,the mother orca who carried her dead calf around for days, is a message and a call to action. Scientists have concluded that a large part of the blame for the decline in orca population and related salmon runs lies in the water quality of Puget Sound — contaminants, toxic chemicals and noise. If we want healthy water, we must have a healthy water infrastructure.

Our water infrastructure is under stress. It is aging and not keeping up with a fast-growing population, extreme weather events, waste discharges, stormwater runoff, new contaminants, vessel traffic, earthquake risks and cyberattacks. Our economic dynamism is also at stake. About one-third of Puget Sound economic output and jobs are water-dependent. It is estimated that $23 billion of water infrastructure projects are on the books, but financing this investment is unclear.  

We are at an inflection point — we can continue to pursue incremental improvements or begin to re-imagine a new kind of water infrastructure. We should think, plan and manage water in all its forms as ONE WATER. The water infrastructure needs to be holistically managed and water technology better aligned with the natural watershed and hydrological cycle.

· Water should be treated as a resource rather than waste — zero discharge, recycled and used again and again.

· High-energy-cost water-treatment systems should be redesigned to be more efficient and even to generate energy.

· Nutrients should be recovered from wastewater and be a source of revenue (e.g.fertilizer).

· Smaller and distributed water-treatment systems boost resilience to extreme weather and disasters.

· Rainwater should be managed where it lands through green infrastructure, rain gardens,pervious pavement.

· Real-time field sensors can help make predictive control decisions for water storage,treatment and flows.

· Cloud-based systems, artificial intelligence, machine learning and visualization can enhance decision-making.

· Water DNA can be cheaply analyzed to detect harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi, toxic algae and to identify where the contamination came from.

· Urban vertical greenhouses can reduce water requirements by 90-95 percent.

What’s holding us back?

 It turns out that innovation is difficult in the water sector and faces significant barriers.

Cost of failure is high Water operators are inherently conservative in considering innovation and focus more on regulatory compliance,established practices and service reliability. There is little incentive to be an early adopter.

Legacy Constraints Water infrastructure lasts a long time so opportunities to innovate do not emerge very often. The tendency is to extend the life of existing infrastructure.

Fragmented Data An enormous volume of water data is collected by government agencies. However, the data is balkanized, difficult to access and non-interoperable, diminishing its utility.

Regulatory Risk Water technologies can be stalled by multiple regulatory requirements, approval delays, litigation, adverse publicity or eventual stoppage. Regulations should encourage innovation, not be a barrier to it.

Workforce Gap Water operators face a retirement wave and need to recruit a workforce that is technologically trained, sophisticated and savvy.

Legislative Gridlock Federal infrastructure proposals in the trillion-dollar range to finance modernization appear to have faded. Fortunately, progress in water legislation benefiting Puget Sound has advanced with the help of the Washington Congressional delegation.

What can we do?

We need to develop a One Water Roadmap for the entire Puget Sound Region. With such a roadmap,water entrepreneurs and investors will have a guiding long-term context for investing in water technologies and helping reduce the risks for early stage adopters in the water industry.

 Another important step is overcoming geographic, jurisdictional, organizational and regulatory silos in managing water resources, This is the  time to create a Water Innovation Collaboration around anchor institutions such as: Washington University, Center for Urban Waters,Puget Sound Partnership, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, EPA, NOAA,Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, Urban Clean Water Innovation Partnership Zone, Washington State University, Washington Stormwater Center, Tacoma Environmental Services, Seattle Public Utilities, King County, Pierce County, Joint Base Lewis McChord, Readiness Acceleration & Innovation Network (RAIN), Aqualyst Water Accelerator, PureBlue, Ports of Tacoma and Seattle, Chamber of Commerce and many other organizations.

The Water Innovation Collaboration places the One Water approach as the centerpiece for modernizing the water infrastructure.The strategic intent would be to design the world’s leading water infrastructure right here in the Pacific Northwest. The quality of water and our economy will benefit immensely. The world will have proven examples of solutions to evaluate and adopt.

Our beloved orca and salmon will thank us.

 Egils Milbergs is former executive director of the Washington Economic Development Commission and co-founder of PureBlue and manager of the Aqualyst Accelerator.


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