By Tamim Younos
Younos is Founder and President, Green Water-Infrastructure Academy and Former Research Professor of Water Resources at Virginia Tech. He lives in Blacksburg.
In our complicated world demonstrated by global spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), one eternal fact “Water is Life” still remains the most critical fact to fight the deadly virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “The COVID-19 virus has not been detected in drinking water. Conventional water treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection, such as those in most municipal drinking water systems, should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.” Wash your hands with clean water and soap is considered a life-saving action for self- protection and controlling the germ spread. We, in the U.S., are fortunate – a significant majority of people have access to clean water to wash our hands. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 3 people globally do not have access to safe drinking water. Some 2.2 billion people around the world do not have safely managed drinking water services — drinking water from sources that are free from contamination and available when needed. And about 3 billion people lack basic hand-washing facilities — having a protected drinking water source that takes less than thirty minutes to collect water from and having hand-washing facilities with soap and water in the home.
The coronavirus pandemic will pass but it’s likely that the U.S. and the world will face other pandemics in the future. The million dollar question is: are we really prepared? Current U.S. population — over 330 million – demands significant volumes of water for domestic, agricultural and industrial consumption. But we also affect the quality of available freshwater resources, as well as ocean waters, due to discharge of low quality used-water to these water bodies. In 2019, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) published the State of the Water Industry (SOTWI) survey. The report lists 30 major problems that water professionals in the U.S. face in providing safe drinking water. Most critical challenges noted in the report are (1) long-term water supply availability; (2) watershed and source water protection; (3) groundwater overuse and management; (4) water conservation; (5) drought or periodic water shortages; (6) water loss control; (7) energy use efficiency and cost; (8) expanding water reuse & reclamation; (9) climate risk and resiliency; and (10) cybersecurity of large water infrastructure. On the top of the list are problems associated with aging water infrastructure and financing of the water infrastructure.
Water infrastructure problems, noted above, demand a paradigm shift toward innovative approaches to effectively cope with existing and emerging problems. For example, a major component of the futuristic water management will be integrating the reuse of locally available alternative water sources into water management systems. According to the EPA Water Reuse Action Plan (2019), possible sources of water for potential reuse include municipal wastewater, industry process and cooling water, stormwater, agriculture runoff and return flows, and oil and gas produced water. Examples of reuse applications include agriculture and irrigation, potable water supplies, groundwater storage and recharge, industrial processes, onsite non-potable use, saltwater intrusion barriers, and environmental restoration. Rooftop rainwater capture and use, which is not included in the EPA water reuse category, also has significant potential as an alternative water source in urban areas – building rooftops constitute 30-40% of impervious areas in urban settings — for various uses including indoor potable and non-potable uses. Major advantages of using alternative water sources are (1) reducing demand on natural freshwater sources and less discharge of low quality water into natural water bodies; and (2) less pressurized pipe network and consequently less energy use.
Coronavirus crises bring significant opportunity to reevaluate our direction and priorities in water management. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, we need to pay special attention to water, our planet’s most precious resource. Immediate tasks include upgrading college curricula that include innovative concepts for water management, promoting water policy incentives and regulations for holistic water management at the local, state and national levels, and citizen education and activism to be directed toward water conservation and meeting futuristic goals in water resources management.