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C200: Getting Serious About Water Will Take A City-wide Effort

2011 March 28
by Katie Spataro

For over a decade now, cities across the nation have been competing for recognition as the greenest place to live and work. Healthy competition has increased momentum and political support for more sustainable approaches to building and land development practices.

Seattle’s Living Building Pilot Program is a prime example.

The first city in the nation to formally adopt the LEED standard for municipal buildings, Seattle has been pushing the boundaries ever since. In 2009, their Living Building Pilot program identifies regulatory obstacles within their land use code and provides flexibility for those trailblazing the path towards not just higher-performance, but restorative goals for the built environment.

But while the growing awareness around energy use and climate impacts has largely been the driving force, the emergent national crisis around water scarcity and water pollution will require a huge leap forward in the shaping of our cities of the future.

Places like Orlando, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, and San Francisco are amongst the cities that are most likely to see large imbalances of water supply and demand, according to recent studies. But even cities with an apparent abundance of fresh water like the Pacific Northwest will be impacted by changing climate patterns, increased pollution from stormwater runoff, and overflows of combined storm sewers discharging untreated sewage directly into local waterbodies.

With many communities now facing bankruptcy as they consider upgrading or expanding their existing water infrastructure, cities have an important and increasingly urgent role to play in how water is used and how it is regulated.

In 2007 Arizona tax credits encouraged residents to install greywater re-use systems on their properties as a means of conserving water. Tucson and other cities in the state have since mandated that all new homes be plumbed for beneficial use of greywater onsite. In 2009, Washington State removed a nearly century-old requirement for burdensome water rights permitting for collection of rooftop-harvested rainwater, opening the door for cities to actively promote the practice. In the last few months, Seattle/King County Public Health has taken the next stride forward in establishing standards for collection of rainwater as drinking water for residential use.

Cities around the globe, in deeper troubled waters than our own, have taken conservation and reuse even further.  Water-stressed South African cities are considering paying residents for collecting urine from their waterless toilets as an incentive for not using precious water for flushing.

But we have a long way to go before the adoption of composting toilets or water reuse systems become more widespread practice in our cities. In urban areas, current regulations and lack of support by water utilities present the greatest hurdles. Strong leadership is needed at both the city and state levels for addressing regulatory obstacles and cultural bias for on-site water systems, whether as a supply source or for treatment and reclamation of the valuable resources contained in our water and wastes.


< The Oregon Health and Science University Center for Health and Healing in Portland, OR, treats 100% of its wastewater on-site. The reclaimed water is then combined with rainwater and re-used in toilets, cooling towers and for irrigation. Image Credit: Interface Engineering >


Katie Spataro is a Research Director at the Cascadia Green Building Council.