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Younos: The shift toward using alternative water sources

Younos: The shift toward using alternative water sources

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Water is life!

Ancient communities were established in close proximity to streams and rivers, lakes, springs and oceans, where water was readily available for human consumption.

In modern times, the 18th century Industrial Revolution triggered energy production in the form of fossil fuels (i.e., coal and petroleum) and enabled water transport to distant consumers and helped create high-density population centers.

The 20th century witnessed significant modernization in water resources development and infrastructure.

The 20th century technological accomplishments include building dams and reservoirs, using powered pumps to extract deep groundwater and surface water resources, construction of centralized water treatment plants and water delivery pumps and pipelines to transport clean drinking water to homes and public and commercial buildings, and installing sewer and stormwater pipes to move wastewater and stormwater runoff away from population centers.

Despite these advances, communities today are being challenged with significant water-related problems, such as ecosystem degradation, groundwater depletion, natural and anthropogenic drought (water scarcity), floods, and water borne health issues.

These problems are exacerbated by climate change, a phenomenon that is largely accelerated because of human intervention in natural systems since the Industrial Revolution.

The impact of climate change on water resources includes, but is not limited to, changes in precipitation patterns and intensity; the severity and length of droughts; sea level rise and associated consequences (e.g., flooding of coastal cities and encroachment of saline waters into freshwater aquifers).

In 2003, the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Reclamation, along with the Sandia National Laboratories, created the Desalination and Water Purification Technology Roadmap to meet future water demand in the United States.

The 2003 Roadmap correctly anticipated that future water treatment technologies will be expected to treat a variety of impure waters, such as urban runoff, wastewater treatment plant discharge, and saline water for possible reuse or underground storage.

Using alternative water sources – locally available water sources—is now considered a major component of the water management strategies to address complex water management issues in the 21st century. Alternative water sources include rainwater, stormwater runoff, wastewater, salt water & brackish water. Mine cavity water – water stored in old mine cavities and discharged freely through the portals—is a unique alternative water source in the coalfield counties of southwest Virginia.

In recent decades, advances in water treatment technologies has enabled uses of alternative water sources in urban, as well as rural areas, and has been documented through successful case studies across the U.S. and other countries.

For example, large scale wastewater reclamation and reuse in Singapore provides significant learning experience. However, at present, alternative water sources are not being sufficiently developed in the U.S. and can still be categorized as ‘wasted waters’ due to several impediments.

Unfortunately, from a water management perspective, we still mostly depend on traditional water management technologies (for example, stormwater runoff management) and college curricula which were developed in the 20th century. And policy making, a tedious task, is not keeping up with the advances in science and technology of water management.

There is a significant need for community based water management strategy and planning which takes into consideration using alternative water sources.

Basically, we should consider and plan community development projects with focus on sustainable water management strategies which also integrate using alternative (locally available) renewable energy resources and food production at the local level in the form of various scales of community food production systems.

There is a significant need for establishing statewide, regional and local task forces to create guidelines and policy for effective use of alternative water sources. And there is a need for developing water management college level courses that focus on innovations and holistic water management strategies.

Younos is founder and president of Green Water-Infrastructure Academy and Former Research Professor of Water Resources at Virginia Tech. He lives in Blacksburg.

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