Cleantech investors have been stymied by the US water market. In 2015, water tech accounted for only 2.2% of cleantech funding, and 0.07% of the broader technology start-up market. While green building has driven the installations of renewable energy and new materials over the last decade, distributed water solutions have struggled to establish themselves in high-performance buildings. At the same time, US water utilities have piloted a host of promising technologies that treat water in buildings and tap into the energy potential within water infrastructure, but they have not succeeded in deploying at mass scale. After successfully piloting in here in the US, many of our best technologies have deserted home markets for Asia and Europe.
The City of San Francisco has been stepping forward to break the log jam of pilots and public debates with a comprehensive policy for distributed water. Last July, it enacted the first mandatory requirement for onsite water reclaim. All new buildings over 250,000 sqft must treat and recycle wastewater for toilet and urinal flushing as well as irrigation. In addition, all new buildings must identify potential sources for reclaimed water. “We have the opportunity to create a new water management paradigm by incorporating innovative strategies to conserve, reuse, and diversify our water supply,” the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) states in its 2014 Blueprint for Onsite Systems. “One of those strategies is integrating smaller, decentralized, onsite water systems into our broader centralized systems.” *
Integrated civic policy: Water, public health and urban planning
Since 2012, San Francisco’s water program has brought three local agencies – the SFPUC, the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection – to work together to develop a streamlined permitting process and regulatory framework. In 2013, the SFPUC expanded the program to allow buildings to share non-potable water across property lines. During the first two years of the program, twenty projects formally submitted water budget applications to the SFPUC.
After an initial series of pilots, SFPUC’s Director of Water Resources Paul Kehoe notes that “we came across a number of other developers who wanted onsite water treatment in their buildings and districts in San Francisco, so we created a non-potable water program.” Through that program, the city has aligned policies for public health and public spaces to develop a process for private property owners to install onsite water systems. Kehoe states that over 40 buildings are proposing plans to collect and treat water onsite for non-potable applications such as toilet flushing and irrigation. “We’ve been learning and working with others throughout the country to show that you can successfully integrate decentralized onsite water treatment systems into your broader, centralized infrastructure to reduce the use of potable water.”
Public Health, Public Spaces
SFPUC has sought input from architects and engineers to examine how integrated design can achieve new levels of efficiency and build resilience in the face of severe storms and the earthquakes. These discussions have gone beyond the basics of installing water reclaim systems to look at synergies between water and energy management, public spaces and public health. Water is seldom seen in tUS buildings beyond the fountains at the entrance. The pipes that deliver water from remote centralized water systems are hidden. In installing its own onsite reclaim system for its new headquarters, the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) chose to showcase water treatment.
In a recent presentation at the Aspen Global Change Institute, Kehoe spoke about the role of “process-focused and context-sensitive principles” in building resilient cities.
Building on a legacy of trailblazing policy in San Francisco
San Francisco has a long history of trailblazing new kinds of legislation that have led national trends. In 1983, San Francisco made global news with the first mandatory requirements** for all workplaces to accommodate non-smokers. Yes, there was a trend toward limiting smoking in theaters and public places, but had the city gone too far? In retrospect, San Francisco was among the cities that pioneered a sea change in public policy around smoking. Within a decade, smoking bans outside of buildings as well as inside of them, became common throughout the US. Will distributed water systems also become ubiquitous in a few years?
Green Building has redefined energy and materials in public buildings, but it has left water largely untouched. Urban sprawl and car-centric cities are rapidly being replaced by towns that integrate natural spaces and ecological corridors that bring people together and promote a sense of well-being.
*Connor, Theresa. BLUEPRINT FOR ONSITE WATER SYSTEMS: A STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE FOR DEVELOPING A LOCAL PROGRAM TO MANAGE ONSITE WATER SYSTEMS. Publication. WERF, WRF, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, 23 Sept. 2014. Web. 17 June 2016.
**Source: NELSON PADBERG CONSULTING. POST-ELECTION REPORT. PROPOSITION P SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA.. 1984 January. RJ Reynolds. https://www.industrydocumentslibrary.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/nlpm0096