Proposing the “Healthy Waters for the 21st Century Act,” or H21

In the winter issue, #27, of Democracy (a Journal of Ideas) George S. Hawkins explores how “Four decades after the Clean Water Act’s passage…To ensure that our waters remain clean for another 40 years, we need to update the Clean Water Act for a new era“.

He also identifies some key features of this enhanced approach, which include;  targeting  “nonpoint-source pollution” (such as agricultural runoff), techniques for “low-impact development” and new watershed level fees or taxes.

Mr. Hawkins argues, H21 would actually have positive economic benefit(s) as a result of a new attention to infrastructure and a corresponding shift “from expensive capital projects to decentralized installation of water quality protection at thousands of individual suburban and rural parcels accentuates a key economic change“.

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Cypress domes, H. Odum and soft engineering

Speaking of springs

At my Alachua County EPAC (Environmental Protection Advisory Committee) meeting last night, we received a presentation from Dr. Bob Knight about springs and springs protection. He currently serves as the Director of the Florida Springs Institute. Anyone who has lived in North Florida a length of time can’t help but be partial to the (it’s true declining) beauty of these natural wonders. We discussed a number of interesting issues. I had never before read up on the ecologist H. Odum for instance and the discussion touched on a range of concepts such as cypress domes, ecological restoration, biofilms, wetland creation and management. Dr. Knight is currently teaching the first and only course on Springs Ecology to be offered world wide. This graduate-level course is offered at the University of Florida’s Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences .

The institute is also on Facebook

Simply as a resident it has become obvious after 20 years living here that the springs are not what they used to be. Flows are down and nutrient loads up. The work of groups like Florida Springs Task Force or the Florida Springs Initiative have resulted in things like Florida Planning Toolbox which developed tools for springs protection planning. The Toolbox (read manual) was coincidentally developed by The Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University which has recently shut its doors as a direct result of the ongoing state budget reductions for higher education.

The causes and fixes for spring and aquifer degradation have been roughly known for decades. At least since the pioneering work of H. Odum at Silver Springs and his contributions to the fields of Ecological economics and Ecological engineering.  Odum founded the first and long running Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands (CFW) at University of Florida.

Steps for protecting and restoring the springs and the underground aquifer range from on-going scientific research, biological and water quality monitoring, regulation and management, education and outreach, and landowner assistance and land acquisition projects.

A key factor in degrading spring health is simple. Too much water is being drawn from the aquifer and watersheds of North Florida. As Bob Knight made clear even the “green” city of Gainesville’s utility is a culprit in this, we need to get better at conservation.

Water usage and conservation is about reduction of use but also recharge enhancement and protection. It is here that concepts that Odum explored like ecological engineering are valuable. Things like engineered wetlands or Tertiary treatment of municipal wastewater by cypress domes. As Mark Brown (Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville) wrote in an 2005 essay entitled  Landscape restoration following phosphate mining: 30 years of co-evolution of science, industry and regulation the difficulties of wetland restoration require a shift in restoration research to the landscape scale. Such projects rely on ecological engineering and adaptive self-organizations and management practices.

This includes the sort of soft approaches so of interest today. John Thackara recently highlighted these sorts of approaches in Off-Grid Water, where he looked at strategies and resources for water conservation.

It’s a hard ask, but a transition from strictly engineered systems to ecological systems like rain gardens, surface wetlands, restored ponds, and daylighted streams does seem to be happening. The entire water economy is beginning to focus on

“softer” approaches in which closed loop water supply systems are configured, in an integrated fashion, to recover and recycle water and be net energy producers.

This soft approach though also extends more metaphorically towards “designing” through social practice or action. Developing things like working groups, co-ops and other community watershed focused efforts.

For more information check out Thinking big with whole-ecosystem studies and ecosystem restoration—a legacy of H.T. Odum which has a whole section titled 3.4. Whole-ecosystem wetland experiment in self-design (1992–2004) or download the SpringsTaskForceReport

Frequently used LID practices

·        bioretention cells, also known as rain gardens

·        cisterns and rain barrels

·        green roofs

·        pervious concrete or permeable paving

·        bioswales

·        manufactured (proprietary) devices that capture pollutants and/or aid in on-site infiltration

Some of the benefits of using a LID approach are:

·        no loss of land to water detention

·        no overburdening of existing infrastructure

·        manage storm events on site

·        cost is equal to or less than conventional construction

·        no impact fees associated with new development

·        promotes environmental stewardship

·        can add to the fabric of community

Via this ArchNewsNow interview with James Anderson, LEED AP

Note: See also the University of Arkansas Community Design Center’s recently published book Low Impact Development: A Design Manual for Urban Areas. Or visit their website for more info on LID.