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Rethinking Municipal Water Systems & Infrastructure

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Flint, Michigan needs to replace it’s damaged water supply pipes. Even with properly treated water they will continue to carry lead to their supplies. While estimates vary and range up to $400, the city will receive $100 million from EPA1, and there is a legal settlement ruled by a federal judge to allocate $87 million from the state for replacement of pipes2. Flints system will continue to need capital improvements over the next 20 years.

"Tunneling Through the Cost Barrier" by Hawkins et al, notes that theoretically in order to save resources, there is a continuous increase in cost. For example, energy efficient homes and energy efficient cars tend to cost more that the average options and in order to increase savings in energy, added features will continue to add more cost. However, they note that in real practice, and if done well, the investment in resource savings eventually “tunnels through the cost barrier, “ saving more money and making return on investment go even higher than initial investment levels.3 Flint could invest in new greener infrastructure projects, which would have cost benefits that may exceed typical upgrade benefits.

Flints large scale pipe replacement project as well as it’s troubled wastewater management system could present an opportunity for greener infrastructure implementation.The city of Flint has a separate stormwater system but many building footing drains are connected to the sanitary system, which means there is still runoff during wet weather and flow variation. Flint River water is already very polluted and it’s water is difficult to treat. In order to help with runoff during wet weather, Flint can implement bioswales, similar to those implemented in NYC by DEP. Bioswales are city rain gardens in which the top serves as a surface ponding layer and then the soil layer stores and passes water through to the stone layer. The stone later stores and transmits water for infiltration to underlying native soils after storm is over, which prevents it from going into the sewer system altogether. NYC has made large investments and has already seen the cost benefit, as it’s prevented it from needing a new $10 billion plant. These can be built in sidewalks surrounded by impervious areas, but Flint can also construct man-made retention ponds in areas where this permis, which would also act similarly. To help mitigate the pollution that already exists, Michigan could implement upgrades with BNR, (biological nutrient removal), which is process used for nitrogen and phosphorus removal from wastewater before it is discharged into surface or groundwater that significantly improves the water. Upgrades are expensive, but also provide cost benefits.

Flint’s drinking water is beyond repair, pipes need to be replaced completely. We learn through experience that professionals, engineers, environmental scientist, and other related experts in decision making. In addition, regulatory agencies need to be reformed to be able to catch and stop problems sooner.

Possibilities beyond replacement of pipes, are that Flint may become a model city for smaller decentralized water supply systems. Biomimicry can be used to allow homes, campus, and communities to supply water with their own systems. BulliTT center in Seattle, WA is an example of how this can be done in a commercial building. The building has some key features that make it work well, for example, waterless composting toilets. The waste goes down waterless tubes eventually into one of ten composting systems, each (84” x 40” x 61”). The system uses oxygen and wood chips instead of water to keep it from going septic and eliminating the release of methane gas and dangerous odors, byproducts that would occur in a typical waste treatment. Implementation in homes on a citywide level can be possible particularly in a small city like Flint. It is the only 6 story building with such a system. Another component is its greywater system. Graywater systems use water from sinks and showers to be recycled. The BulliTT center cycles about 300-4000 gallons per day and it’s system can cycle 500. The water is held in a greywater tank and then reaches a constructed wetland, and dripped to gravel and soil. The water is filtered through and returned to through the local aquifer. The last component is rainwater harvesting. Rainwater is collected in a 56,000 gallon cistern underneath the building. The building uses micro filters and UV light, small amounts of chlorine and activated charcoal to then remove the chlorine to filter the water for all purposes, including drinking. Overflow from the cistern is returned to the stormwater. BulliTT is waiting for regulator approval. The building in general and its self sustaining engineering use biomimicry, which models nature.

Because of Flint’s population of under 100,000, it presents an opportunity for Flint to implement this on a small scale, perhaps beginning with it’s schools, community centers etc. Flint could be a model for other cities.

Our municipal water systems, infrastructure systems require the right investments in new innovative green technologies, the proper professional studies should be included in political decision making, and proper monitoring and regulation should be in place. While we continue to upgrade existing plants as well as invest in new facilities and systems, it’s important that we take proactive measures, investment in new green infrastructure programs and invest in biomimicry building models as part of creating decentralized systems in our communities in order to improve our communities and create a more sustainable future.

1 Volcovici, Valerie “EPA awards $100 million to upgrade Flint water system” Reuters March 17, 2017 2 Bosman, Julie, “Michigan Allots $87 Million to Replace Flint’s Tainted Water Pipes” The New York Times January 2020. 3 Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, "Tunneling Through the Cost Barrier", in Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (1999) 4 Buillit Center