UNESCO water conference at USF emphasizes sustainability

05/25/12 Janelle Irwin
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A group of researchers is coming up with ways to make sure that people in the Tampa Bay area and throughout the world continue to have enough usable water. During an international research institute conference at USF this week, water experts mulled ways to keep water from becoming a scarce commodity.

Tampa Bay Water’s water quality assurance officer Christine Owen said the region’s water deficit until 2009 was more than 70 million gallons. Now they are implementing ways of getting more water from more places.

“We’ve developed alternative supplies – is a step in that process.”

Those alternatives include a desalination plant to tap into the salt water that surrounds Pinellas County and state of the art surface water treatment facility. The director of the School of Global Sustainability at USF, Kalanithy Vairavamoorthy said an ideal water system would only treat water to the level consistent with its use.

“The unit, not only from a public health perspective, like this water comes in and I have to treat it to this one grade and it’s only the water and the think retroactively, what else can I do with it? It’s actually saying, what if I wanted to design it to maximize my energy potential? What if I designed it from scratch so I can recover nutrients and then also produce water of these different grades.”

The problem is implementing those ideas in areas that already have well-functioning systems who don’t want to fix what isn’t broken.

“And the energy involved in that movement of water probably makes it not very cost effective. It probably appears on paper that it’s more effective to just extract more water. And so that sort of fact that we have these linear systems where everything is far away from where you need to use them makes it not as interesting.”

And that’s exactly the reason Tampa Bay Water hasn’t implemented some more sustainable programs. Owen, their water quality assurance officer said there would have to be a massive influx of infrastructure.

“That’s a lot of piping and a lot of engineering that has to be done to change that.”

Water experts from around the world are at USF Tampa and St. Pete this week for the 2012 UNESCO IHE conference. The group functions as a leading water education facility and works worldwide to tackle issues like sea level rise and water sustainability. Vairavamoorthy, who also works with UNESCO IHE, said water agencies in urban areas tend to just find other ways to cope with growing consumption.

“And so what we tend to do is retrofit. We try and do something small here and something small there. And we do get some returns, but the returns aren’t as dramatic as they would be if you had designed the system from scratch.”

Owen said that the path to sustainability is a long one. She said it takes time, planning and money. Their first step was in reducing groundwater use. But the agency does consider ways to improve efficiency like encouraging the use of reclaimed water.

“We’re statutorily – we’re prohibited from touching reclaimed water. That’s the purview of the government, but we’re very supportive of development of reclaimed water projects because of the offset to the potable supply.”

But building a sustainable system from the ground up isn’t as much of a challenge in developing areas. Vairavamoorthy is working with some emerging urban centers in Africa.

“They don’t have mature infrastructure. They don’t have mature institutions that you really have the opportunity to make a huge step change you know, this sort of notion of a leap frog, the ability to leap frog. Africa also has some very good institutions – water utilities that are quite progressive and good academic institutions. So, the enabling environment – A. to develop some of these innovations is there because you have the good knowledge creators. The opportunities in these emerging towns is also there.”

The ideas used to build new water infrastructure in developing cities is being studied by USF. A group of researchers including James Buckingham is using the USF campus as a sort of mini-city. They are compiling data on energy and water consumption and traffic flow to determine how to best plan utility use.

“We have goals in mind in terms of using solar energy up to 35% of campuses energy. Or we have goals in mind of using rain water harvesting for the full irrigation system on campus.”

Individuals can do their part without shelling out a fortune by conserving water. Restrictions are currently in place throughout the region that includes set hours when people can water plants and wash cars. Those regulations will likely be lifted as the rainy season gets underway, but continuing them voluntarily could help fill the region’s reservoir.

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