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Three new water books (3: Sedlak)

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indexThe three water books the KPU library recently acquired make a nice complement. If Everard’s is focussed on social fairness of water projects, and Tvedt’s marvels at how water projects have transformed our world, the third of the lot, by David Sedlak, takes a historical approach.

Sedlak, a professor of water resources at Berkeley, wrote his 2014 Water 4.0 by drawing on his experience with students constantly asking “why” type questions – and his realization that the answers are all grounded in history give the book a strong and compelling narrative.

Sedlak’s story focusses strongly on wastewater, surprisingly for a book that tackles water resources and drought problems. But Sedlak is convinced that water recycling holds the key to the future, hence the title Water 4.0, where the first three steps make up the bulk of the historical narrative.

Some of the historical topics have a contemporary ring, for instance, when one Frontinus, a water commissioner in first century Rome, complains that illegal sewer connections are a constant headache in his job; when Vitruvius is already aware of the dangers of using lead pipes; or when emperor Vespasian allegedly coins the saying “money doesn’t stink” when describing water collection.

At the same time, though, the enormous distance that separates us from these folks is clear. When Vespasian was talking about the smell of money, he was referring to the lucrative business of collecting urine to treat and clean wool. Or consider this anecdote from Japan in the shogun era:

Human wastes were separated prior to recycling. Fecal matter was the more valuable commodity, because solids are easier to transport. In the first stage of the recycling process, landlords sold the feces in their tenants’ cesspools to merchants who were members of a guild that had secured the right to collect the wastes from that part of the city. The wastes were so valuable that the rent of an apartment would increase if the number of people living in the house, and hence the amount of solid waste produced, decreased.

Imagine that: human waste is so precious that the more is produced, the less the rent. Wish we valued our own waste half as much!

In Sedlak’s scheme, the second phase in water management evolution was piping: aquifers and sewers, while the third phase was disinfection. A large part of the book deals with our various attempts to make water and wastewater safe, highlighting the differences between Europe and North America (as in, between chlorine and ozone, with a very thorough discussion of their various implications for health: cancer-causing chlorination by-products such as haloacetic acids, trihalomethanes, NDMA, or even increased levels of lead, versus the bromates formed by ozonation; and a mention that European cities, which sprawl less than their US counterparts, invest more in the maintenance and safety of their water systems, so need less costly disinfection).

Sedlak goes on to discuss wastewater pollution issues such as combined sewers overflows (noting, for instance, that Boston now having good wastewater treatment plants, half of the pollution in the harbour is due to CSOs), pharmaceuticals and other exotics in sewage (the best indicator of the amount of treated sewage in rivers is the concentration of artificial sweeteners), or that water and wastewater treatment in the US consume a whopping 4% of all the power produced in the country.

All of which leads Sedlak to advocate for what he terms Water 4.0: the closing of the water circle with conservation and recycling. Dipping a toe in the politics of water as right v water as commodity, the author notes with interest the progressive household water taxes of Seattle, which triple for any amount over the (still generous) 450 gallons/day. He also mentions the vacuum-flush systems that save water while allowing for energy recovery (a system being built in the Jenfelder Au development in Hamburg, for instance). Unfortunately, most of his material consists of drawing lessons from failed initiatives; for instance, he recounts how after Jay Leno quipped that Miller beer would need to change its “beech-wood aged” to “porcelain aged”, the (admittedly poorly named) Toilet-to-Tap Los Angeles program that would have recharged groundwater with treated sewage was dead on arrival.

If one is merely looking for a description of our current water issues, this book is competent, but not outstanding. However, using the past to shine a spotlight on our current issues and perceptions makes the book outstanding. For instance, consider this anecdote recounted early in the book:

In 1950, after suffering from a cholera outbreak attributed to pigs being fed on the town’s trash, local officials in Jasper, Indiana, passed a law requiring residents to install in their kitchen sinks the device that came to be known as the garbage disposal…The savings associated with the elimination of garbage pickups allowed the city to invest in a larger sewage treatment plant to handle the additional load of reduced organic compounds.

Using the sewers to dispose of garbage isnow  a complete no-no, and not only because much of our modern garbage is comprised of plastics; using garburators to dispose of food wastes is actively discouraged and even banned in most municipalities. This is because of the extra load that food waste would impose on wastewater treatment plants. But what if we used our waste to generate energy, using vacuum systems? This approach would actually benefit from using garburators (more energy would be available) while helping with garbage disposal issues. This is not an approach discussed by Sedlak, but it resonates for me (I’m a big fan of vacuum systems). Likewise, readers are bound to develop similar insights from the historical breadth and context used by the author to illustrate his material. If only for that, this book is a must anyone interested in water resources.

Sedlak, David 2014. Water 4.0: The past, present, and future of the world’s most vital resource. New Haven: Yale University Press

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Written by enviropaul

February 15, 2015 at 12:15 pm

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