September 2007, Vol. 19, No.9


For Our Children’s Children

Todd Danielson

 There is an often-repeated anonymous quote: “One hundred years from now … it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove, but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.” How does this apply to water quality professionals? Obviously, it is our duty to be good parents. But we also are responsible for sustaining the Earth and helping ensure that our children can enjoy it as we do.

Many of us entered this profession because we were inspired by the Clean Water Act and Earth Day. The environmental movement of the 1970s produced a generation of environmental engineers and scientists who designed and constructed tens of thousands of water and wastewater treatment facilities, stormwater collection systems, landfills, hazardous waste disposal facilities, and countless other engineering marvels using federal grants, low-interest loans, and other free or low-cost funding sources. That was then.

This is now. Times have changed. The momentum of the environmental movement has ebbed, and many talented students are drawn to information technology and genetic engineering, rather than water quality. Major federal grants are not available. At the same time, our infrastructure is in need of repair, and there is demand for greater capacity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the United States must invest $390 billion in the next 20 years to replace existing infrastructure and build new infrastructure to meet demand. There are similar costs for replacing and expanding drinking water, stormwater, and other environmental and public health protection facilities.

Water quality professionals need to take control of this situation. We could petition Washington to provide more grants, but that will only get us so far. The world is more complex today, and we need a bolder, more proactive approach that addresses today’s and tomorrow’s issues. This approach is sustainable design.

John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club (San Francisco), is quoted as saying that when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. This is the heart of sustainability. It is our duty as professionals to ensure that we do not tug too strongly at any one thing, because it affects everything else. The more water we draw from a river for human use, the less that is available for fish, animals, and plants. The more power we consume to run pumps, blowers, and cars, the larger the carbon footprint. The more we collect and pipe water away from areas, the more we affect evapotranspiration and the water cycle, which some say may have as big an impact on local climate as carbon emissions.

We each have several roles in ensuring that our children’s children have at least as rich and abundant a world as we do. We have the individual roles of conserving water and energy by buying water-saving and Energy Star fixtures and appliances, and doing things such as turning off the water when we brush our teeth and turning off lights when we leave the room. We also have the professional roles of designing our buildings and facilities to meet energy conservation standards, such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, ensuring that our source waters are not being consumed at a rate greater than may be sustained and considering other impacts of our systems, such as the lowering of groundwaters that may occur through the installation of gravel pipe bedding around gravity wastewater collection systems.

Much of this can be accomplished by implementing advanced asset management practices, adopting distributed management approaches, and embracing triple bottom-line accounting and reporting, where not just the financial but also the social and environmental costs are considered. It is critically important to incorporate triple bottom-line thinking using full costs during the planning and alternatives analysis stage of a project to ensure that the facilities with the lowest holistic cost are selected for future construction. After all, these facilities are meant to last 40 to 100 or more years. This is one of the best ways to be important in the life of a child and have a positive impact on generations to come.

We must change our thinking to design with nature, not to circumvent it. After all, nature has worked in ways to allow this world to last billions of years so far. We must also change our thinking from a “once through” water mentality to one that uses the appropriate quality of water for the most appropriate use, such as irrigating with reclaimed water. After all, reclaimed water already has the nutrients consumers would ordinarily purchase and place on their lawns anyway. Finally, we must consider energy requirements and how we can best conserve energy at every juncture — during design, in layout and specifications; during construction, in materials sourcing and individual construction practices; during purchasing, in that the wallet affects the responses of producers; and during operation, in the consideration of how our facilities are run.

We are responsible for ensuring that our children and our children’s children can enjoy the world as we do. It starts with us — personally and professionally. We are change agents. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Todd Danielson is manager of community systems at the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority (Leesburg, Va.) and a member of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Small Communities Committee.

Todd Danielson is manager of community systems at the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority (Leesburg, Va.) and a member of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Small Communities Committee.