“How can we reduce floods, droughts and water pollution?” The United Nations’ World Water Day works to create awareness on the importance of water. Held on March 22nd each year, the United Nations (UN) selects a theme to focus attention on a specific idea or question. The UN designated the 2018 theme, ‘Nature for Water’ to hone in on nature-based solutions to global water problems. While reducing floods and droughts is not feasible considering climate science that projects an increase in severe weather in the coming decades, reducing the impact on humans from such events is possible.
As one of the oldest cities in the United States, founded in 1630, Boston faces significant challenges when it comes to managing its old – and in some cases crumbling – infrastructure. Recognizing the limitations of the 412-billion-gallon Quabbin Reservoir, which is fed by the Chicopee River drainage basin in central Massachusetts, a watershed area of over 100,000 acres; the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (established 1984) launched an aggressive conservation strategy to manage water demand in Boston’s growing metropolitan area. This program included raising water rates, detecting, and repairing leaks in the aging pipes, retrofitting homes with water-efficient plumbing fixtures, and a public education program that highlighted the importance of water conservation. Water demand in Boston peaked in the 1980s as the region grew, and has since fallen over 43 percent due to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority's conservation and water efficiency programs.
In addition to conserving water, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and Boston Water and Sewer Commission (formed in 1977) have also focused on water quality, particularly on water pollution in the Charles River from urbanization and industrialization. The dated infrastructure was engineered in a way that combines both stormwater (water coming from irrigated properties, water flowing down the streets during a rainstorm) and sewer water (domestic sewage and industrial wastewater). This poses a problem when rain overloads the system and causes overflows – which discharges to the Charles River untreated. Employing legal action, an EPA settlement with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority in 2006 has reduced these discharges from 1.7 billion gallons per year (1988) to 6.88 million gallons per year.
Conserving water helps address issues related to drought and water scarcity, while controlling water pollution addresses problems related to flooding. Contaminated floodwater poses significant public health consequences in addition to the property damage and business operation impacts of flooding alone (of non-polluted water). Water solutions in Boston are happening across scales, including at the business/individual property level and at the city-wide level. Two examples include innovative water use at Boston’s Harpoon Brewery and the city’s Climate Ready Boston plan, which includes strategies for flood control, open space, public access, education, and economic development.
Businesses are uniquely positioned to invent and pilot new ways of conserving and cleaning water. More agile than bureaucracy, the private sector can create strategies that work not only for business operations but also fit into the larger water picture of a city. Harpoon Brewery is one such example. Under the “Brew the Charles” initiative, Harpoon, along with a few other local breweries launched a plan to brew beer with purified Charles River water.
While the initiative itself may not be long-lasting, the buzz it created around water recycling promotes public awareness on the value of water, and particularly local, clean water. According to the leaders of the initiative, the “overarching goal is to highlight the need for sustainable resources” for residents, business owners and decision-makers alike, and according to the chief executive of the reverse osmosis water purification company involved, that “we as a society need to think of our water resources.”
Climate Ready Boston forms the basis of Boston’s climate preparedness strategy that acknowledges the significant threat of sea level rise and seasonal flooding, among other hazards. The city’s efforts include data gathering and mapping to 1) educate the public on the need for Boston to strategically plan for the inflow of water in coming decades; and 2) establish a data-driven approach for city planning focused on both nature-based solutions (such as rain gardens and wetland restoration) and protective engineered strategies (such as seawalls). Through green infrastructure and building code updates, the city is taking on a broad city-level approach to managing water.
The Climate Ready Boston report recommended the installation of a seven-foot-high deployable wall for the East Boston Greenway, which experiences regular nuisance flooding already, and is projected to be significantly affected by sea level rise in the coming decades. This wall will provide protection to nearly 4,300 residents, at least 70 businesses, and critical infrastructure at the price of about $100,000. The “as-needed” piece of infrastructure is one solution in a suite of many options that works protect neighborhoods from three feet of sea level rise - Boston’s sea level rise projection by 2070 under moderate to high emission scenarios.
Solutions at all scales are necessary for cities across the world to deal with water management in an age of extreme weather and urbanization. The number of people living in cities, combined with infrastructure in need of significant repairs, means a diversity of projects are required to address water scarcity, water treatment, and water inundation. For cities like Boston with decaying infrastructure, maintenance and upgrades of the existing distribution system must be an important part of the preparedness plan.
Cities, like Boston, are dealing with challenges both at the city edge and within the city center with both hard infrastructure, like water pipelines and combined sewer systems, and natural phenomena like flooding and sea level rise. Addressing water leaks, designing landscapes to accept an inflow of water, and providing incentives for individual businesses and property owners to pilot innovative ideas for water use and reuse are all elements of promoting a ‘nature for water’ within our cities. While cities may not be able to reduce floods and droughts as the UN asks, they certainly can take steps toward protecting human health and property in the face of water challenges.
At the end of the day, humans can’t fight nature. The powerful forces of our climate can only be defended against for so long, so it is up to city planners and designers to chart out the course of long-term strategies that promote residents’ safety and security – as difficult as it might be to convince waterfront property owners they must retreat inland. Examples from both private sector innovators like Harpoon Brewery and city-wide initiatives and strategies including mapping and deployable floodwall projects demonstrate the importance of adapting to nature. As our planet’s climate continues to warm and increase in variability, it is up to humans to explore the ways in which our systems, operations, and settlements cope with rising seas and extreme weather conditions.
Today, climate science is well-documented and increasingly understood -- and requires immediate attention by engineers, planners, public officials, entrepreneurs, and citizens alike. The global phenomenon we face as a species in this era is connected to human activity. As a part of nature, humans must recognize how we fit into broader ecosystems and how we must adapt to reflect more natural processes to preserve fundamental conditions that support human life - including that composition of the atmosphere and the quality of our water. The United Nations’ World Water Day serves to generate awareness on the importance of water and the critical need to design with nature (to reference environmental planner and landscape architect, Ian McHarg) - not against it. Incrementally, cities like Boston and the businesses within them are accepting this understanding and beginning to put strategies into action to promote
What businesses or city-wide strategies are happening in your city that promotes efficient water use? How do you think cities can best manage extreme weather like floods and droughts? Which nature-based solutions stand out to you as effective? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.