Using Sewage & Storms to Beautify Communities

Green sewage treatment system at the Omega Institute.  Photo Credit: Simon Gruber   
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Green sewage treatment system at the Omega Institute.

Photo Credit: Simon Gruber

Sewage and storms are problems, unless we think about them differently.

Across the country, communities are struggling with massive price tags to repair failing sewer and wastewater systems.  These systems consist of pipes – either separate or combined – that run to treatment plants.  They tend to work fine until they (a) break down due to age and neglect or (b) are overwhelmed by too much water (such as a big thunderstorm).  Check out this video to see the aftermath of an overloaded sewage plant in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.

The traditional response is simply to build bigger pipes and treatment plants.  In many cases this is absolutely necessary, but it’s not the only way to achieve clean water in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. 

The Hudson River Watershed Alliance recently held a conference on water management that highlighted an excellent alternative:  green infrastructure (a broad term that boils down to using plants and soil to slow and clean dirty water).  Simple examples include green roofs and bio-swales along roads and parking lots, such as those being promoted in New York City and Portland, OR

Complex examples include “eco-machines” like one constructed at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.  Their innovative water-treatment system mimics natural systems and, running purely on solar energy, purifies all of the Institute’s wastewater without the use of any chemicals.  John Todd Ecological Design also converted a sewage laden canal in Fuzhou, China into an aquatic garden that draws, rather than repels, people.

There are, however, challenges to installing green infrastructure, chief among them the human reluctance to do things differently.  Humans are creatures of habit, and we tend to stick with approaches that are familiar often because they are just that:  familiar.  I see this in my town with developers who keep proposing standard subdivisions even when they’re allowed to use conservation designs that give them more units, lower infrastructure costs, and, ultimately, greater profits.

But habits can change.  At the site level, it’s usually through persistence and patience, both of which are necessary to overcome outdated regulations or under-staffed agencies unused to innovative designs.  At the community level, it’s through citizens and organizations effectively reaching public officials who have the insight to think creatively. 

As innovators and leaders demonstrate the many benefits of green infrastructure, it will become increasingly familiar.  And as it does, our solutions to something as gross as sewage will actually beautify our communities.