We live at an incredible juncture in the history of water management — we are facing new water-supply challenges, a growing world that is more globally connected than ever, and dramatic variations in climate and precipitation patterns.

Some of the world’s driest regions are growing the most rapidly and often experience deep, prolonged droughts with periods of intense flooding — events that take place almost simultaneously.

As the world continues to grow, our population will reach 9 billion within the next generation’s lifetime. This growth is limiting our resources and real-estate options, and traditional urban-growth models no longer meet our cities’ needs.

Because of these reasons and more, our traditional thinking about water management must quickly evolve. Throughout history, nearly every major urban area — from ancient Rome and Athens to Jeddah, Hong Kong, Singapore and Los Angeles — has required policies, planning, engineering, construction and operations of its major infrastructure to be dedicated to bringing “water to the people.”

As we cast our minds back to the development of our water systems and how they have developed, we realize that our ancestors and ancient cultures recognized the vital role the natural environment plays to ensure a safe and reliable source of drinking water. They worked to import high-quality water along tens and hundreds of miles to ensure economic prosperity, while maintaining a pristine environment.

Nature and tech working hand in hand

What was sufficient in the past is not adequate for today’s complex water supplies. In many ways, human development has undone the vital natural protection and barriers that benefited our ecosystems. Balancing the need for livable communities, while preserving our vital natural habitat, is the ultimate challenge facing our communities and planned water-system development in the 21st century. To address this challenge, we’ll need to combine natural solutions with technology.

As industry professionals, we compartmentalize water management into the following key priorities:

  • Source-water protection;
  • Land acquisition to limit human impact;
  • Diversification of supplies; and
  • Advanced treatment — using technology that removes naturally occurring and human derived pollutants to make our water safe.

Natural solutions are part of the fix, yet they cannot adequately protect public health. We seek more sustainable approaches using technology, whether that is increasing our reuse of surface or groundwater, or leveraging desalination when water demand exceeds the natural ability to replenish our traditional sources of water. Water distributions systems — essential for the delivery of high-quality water — rely on chemicals and corrosion inhibitors to preserve and limit dissolution of materials during storage and distribution, while ensuring water remains disinfected.

With climate change and the introduction of new water sources, salt management becomes critical. As water sources containing elevated concentrations of salts are treated to potable standards, technologies will need to evolve to treat waste streams where simple deep-well discharge and dilution is no longer sufficient.

Presently, such technologies are highly energy-intensive. However, many promising techniques are evolving. For instance, many facilities treating such high salt content are located in climates with abundant sunshine. Therefore, they are harnessing solar power and other renewable energy sources to off-set the increased energy requirements.

The future of our water supplies is indeed challenging. However, with skillful management, non-traditional thinking, and the intelligent and appropriate use of technology in tandem with natural solutions, the issues can be resolved. A focus on resilience, diversification and appropriate investment is necessary to sustain our water supplies for future generations.

This blog post celebrates World Water Day 2018. Follow the conversation online using the hashtag #WorldWaterDay.

(Caption for main image: Roman Empire expansion, Pont du Gard, supplied ancient city of Nemausus, modern day Nimes)

Originally published 03.28.2018