A decade ago in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I wandered with my bodyboard through the verdant paradise of a beachfront resort. But when I plunged into the waves, I gagged on the putrid seawater. Whereas much of the bay was tropical blue, the water in front of the resort was brown.Two days later I found out why. As my flight turned north, I looked west over the bay. Bisecting the blue a solid stream of brown emitted from the river beside my resort, dispersing with the current along the beach. The river carried untreated black water – sewage – into the bay.
Even recently, centralized water treatment in and around Puerto Vallarta is inadequate and some buildings dump sewage directly into the river. An article in El Informador of Guadalajara in 2007 reported toxicity levels along some beaches around Puerto Vallarta were up to ten times the United States’ EPA’s suggested safe limits. In 2008, Greenpeace rated the beach at Boca de Tomatlan, Puerto Vallarta the most polluted beach in Mexico. No wonder I was sick.
Raw sewage plagues the developed world too. Centralized water and sewage systems increase the risk of accidental contamination. The greater the distance sewers transport black water to treatment plants, the greater the potential for leakage. According to a report last May by the Artemis Project, the EPA reports 73,000 sewage spills a year in the United States. Those sewage spills substantially impact human life. A 2007 Los Angeles Times article reported that a EPA study showed 3.5 million illnesses were caused the previous year by toxins from sewage spills. Further, UCLA and Stanford reported some 1.5 million humans get sick each year from bacterial pollution on the beaches of Southern California.
Easing the Burden — Decentralized Solutions
Centralized water treatment systems in the US have metastasized into 1 million miles of sewers. That’s 1 million miles which must be maintained regularly at cost to taxpayers, for a service that could be decentralized at a much higher level of efficiency.
It’s wasteful to ship sewage a hundred miles to a treatment plant, only to drive to the hardware store to buy compost. It’s equally unreasonable to dump down the drain thousands of gallons of grey water from bathing and dishwashing, only to shower flowers with pure drinking water. In an age of municipal bankruptcy, we’re spending vast amounts of money discarding resources that can be recycled on-site.
Looking back to Puerto Vallarta, the cost to turn that brown valley into paradise must have ruined the sleep of many a resort manager, and yet, the resorts were dumping millions of gallons of wastewater into the bay. Wastewater which, recycled with the proper technology could have made the desert bloom for one quarter the water costs (onsite greywater recycling claims 70-85% efficiency). Resorts can water lawns and flush toilets with greywater from showers. During the rainy season they can refresh pools with captured rainwater. They can compost food waste and black-water to safely fertilize the campus.
The artificially low cost of water and of treating municipal water delays adoption of efficient, on-site solutions. Throughout North America, water and sewage costs are subsidized by taxes. That’s changing. In the US, as those 1 million miles of sewers decay and sewage spills become increasingly frequent, direct costs will increase beyond the offset capacity of municipal governments. A 2007 report by the Earth Policy institute anticipated a 27-percent increase in the US over the next five years.
As the centralized system crumbles and the market price of water increases in the next few years, resorts, companies and homeowners will demand new, affordable ways of improving their on-site water management and water treatment. Municipalities need to anticipate demand by encouraging constituents to transition now, before a shortage of water, a dearth of technology and an overload of infrastructure decay create a crisis.
Ensuring Immediate Innovation
If we are to promote innovation around decentralized water solutions — and reduce adoptions costs enough to make solutions scalable — at least two pillars of support must be established: first, we need a regulatory system to set benchmarks for new technologies. Benchmarks will lead to metrics so we can measure progress in terms of both water efficiency and end user costs.
Second, we need a reduction in proprietary protections. Water scarcity is crouched like a jaguar, about to abruptly encroach on our lives — in the developed world as much as the developing. Every increase in efficiency will alleviate that impact, reducing the chance of catastrophic wars for water, which, again, will affect each of us.
We can accelerate such innovation by sharing research and technologies. Collaboration in this new economy will not harm participants, because the market for decentralized water technology is about to grow universally to such a size that there will be enough cash to go around. Consider Silicon Valley as an analog: beginning in 1992 Joint Venture: Silicon Valley led collaboration to develop the computer technology sector with the understanding that by creating a multi-billion dollar industry collaborating companies would each make tens of millions. They realized that without collaboration they’d remain a small industry and each profit less.
To kickstart innovation, progressive companies should step into leadership roles now. They should share their ideas on benchmarks and technology, and lobby governments for universal regulations. As enlightened capitalists lead, others will follow, and in the rapid exchange of new ideas and technologies, paradigm shifting innovation will occur, and we’ll all — whether in the developed or developing world — have pure water to drink.