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Science & Environment

Is Water Technology Innovation Happening Fast Enough?

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AP Photo
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Passersby walk past large digester tanks at Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, in Winthrop, Mass.

There are people in Africa who have to walk hours to get to clean water, and then carry it back to their family.

The students of Morse Pond School in Falmouth learned about them in a book. They decided to try it out themselves as a class project. So they put water bottles in backpacks, slung them on and … it was raining, so they walked around in the halls for about two hours.

Afterward, Elizabeth Rosbach and Tierney Roggiolani were exhausted.

"I definitely feel grateful," Rosbach said.

"Yeah, because if you look at the third world countries, they’re much less fortunate than we are," Roggiolani said. "Like I really never knew about Africa until now. So I was kinda taking it for granted and stuff."

But the kids still don’t think they have to worry about water in New England.

"No not really, no," Roggiolani said.

  Compared to Africa, with its scarcity; or California, with its drought; New England doesn’t seem to have it so bad. But our water’s got plenty of problems. It’s polluted, acidifying, flooding, and eating away at our coastlines.

There are a growing number of potential solutions to those problems, many being developed in New England. But are those "solutions" coming fast enough? If you look at history, societies often don’t address problems until they have no other choice.

"We follow this impair-and-repair model," said University at Albany, State University of New York assistant professor Chris Pastore. "We live in a place and maybe we mess it up. And then we use an extraordinary amount of energy to fix it. Why do we do that?"

Pastore has been looking for the answer to that question in the past.

"The question is, when is that moment when people say enough is enough?" he said.

Generally, he says, it’s a dramatic event that’s a catalyst for change. And Boston’s had at least one: In 1991, a huge storm called “No Name” hit as a new wastewater treatment plant being built on Deer Island, just east of Logan Airport.

Today it’s one of the most innovative wastewater plants in the country, the size of several city blocks. Director David Duest drove me around the facility, pointing out an energy-dispersing sea wall sitting in a concave position toward the surface.

"If a wave hits it, it's not going to hit it and just blow up over, it's going to actually deflect," Duest said. "It’s a little bit more expensive to put in but the benefits that we see are tremendous. All of that energy-dispersing sea wall was designed as a result of the No Name Storm that occurred in 1991."

 

We live in a place and maybe we mess it up. And then we use an extraordinary amount of energy to fix it. Why do we do that?

 

The No Name Storm made the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority completely rethink Deer Island. The agency spent $3.8 billion on the facility, which included building its own electricity grid, so it could continue to operate during power outages.

"They actually went back to the drawing board and said 'we need to address this,'" Duerst said. “Basically every engineering firm that was the brightest and the biggest out in the industry was working on this project in some manner or form. So it’s good that that No Name storm actually hit the Boston area because we lived and learned it.”

The problem is maintaining that demand for new innovation when the seas are calm and the skies are clear. Even in Massachusetts, where economists estimate water innovation companies have a $1.7 billion direct economic impact, business owners say they’re having trouble financing their work.

"Young innovative companies cannot wait a decade,” said Nadav Efraty, CEO of Desalitech, one of many Massachusetts-based companies working to make desalination more energy efficient. Even with the obvious changes in water and climate, Efraty says the challenge is getting investors.

"That’s so imminent and that’s clear and there’ll compelling return on investment, and still it doesn’t happen and drives me crazy and it doesn’t make sense," Efraty said. "Here in New England we do have a unique cluster of companies that are collaborating in order to make this message heard, and in order to generate some of the success stories that are so needed in our sector.”

New England has an economic interest in water issues because the market for solutions is growing. States that act fast can grab a share of the growing water industry. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick realized that during a trip to Israel in 2011. While speaking to a group about energy, another potential industry caught his attention — water. Karen Golmer was there.

"What happened was somebody in the audience said, 'Energy? You guys need to work on water,'" Golmer said. "So Deval Patrick said, 'Let’s do water.'"

Golmer’s part of an industry group that grew out of Patrick’s visits to Israel — the New England Water Innovation Network. She says Israel became a leader in water conservation and desalination long ago — not because of climate change, per se, but because of its desert location.

"Their municipalities actually work with the new techs," Golmer said. "So they help test, evaluate, accelerate their pace to market. We all came back and said, 'You know, we have to do things differently.'"

Golmer’s group is trying to develop those public-private partnerships.

"Technologies are being developed at an accelerated pace," she said. "And our objective really is to help those technologies get to market faster. So either get vetted faster so they can tune the technology so it’s more appropriate. Or fail faster if that’s the case."

Scientists aren’t exactly sure how climate change is going to change water, and consequently, our lives. New England could wait to see how it plays out — wait for a moment of truth. Or, Golmer says we could choose to see water's changing nature as an opportunity.

Stanford University global ecology professor Chris Field says all the upheaval surrounding water also could be an opportunity to change ourselves.

"We really need to dig deep and turn to our better sides," Field said. "Our sides that can allow us to be ethical and moral and philosophical about the way the world works and really ask ourselves: 'How do I think about prospects for my children and grandchildren?'"

Field says we’re capable of change. We just have to prove it. And the reward may not just be clean, plentiful water, or restored groundwater aquifers, or less flooding. The reward also could be jobs and a stronger economy.

To explore the simple yet vast subject of water, WGBH News has partnered with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — this is the last of five installments.