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Opinion Articles:

Beyond Ecomilitarism: A New Path For Environmental Activism

Present Value, Future Value: Intergenerational Ethics In Water Supply Planning

Plastic Bottles A Waste: Coke's Broken Promise To Recycle


  Doubling Co-Generation A Productive Idea

By Eric Rosenblum
EcoIQ Magazine Contributing Editor


In 1746 Benjamin Franklin warned, "When the Well's dry, we know the Worth of Water." As difficult as it is to anticipate thirst in the midst of rain, it is even harder to appreciate today the needs of generations yet unborn, and to provide for them. However, when the design life of a project is twice the lifetime of the designer,

"Future generations are the clients who really benefit from our efforts, and who ultimately pay the cost."

future generations are the clients who really benefit from our efforts, and who ultimately pay the cost.

As water engineers, we generally intend to leave the world a better place. Unfortunately, we do not always reach this goal. Some even suggest that the cumulative effect of three hundred years of engineering progress has been not to enhance but to undermine our quality of life and threaten the lives of other species whose numbers are decreasing by a hundred extinctions each day.

Do water supply engineers have an ethical obligation to design our projects for the benefit of our descendants? If so, how do we balance our responsibility to today's ratepayers with our obligation to consider the long-term well-being of tomorrow's customers?

Applying the Principle of Intergenerational Equity

Those who claim responsibility for the well-being of future generations often do so out of a sense of "intergenerational equity." They hold that for us to use the environment in a way that harms our descendants is unfair because it does not accord future humans the same rights and advantages we hold today. As ecologist Wendell Berry puts it in Home Economics, by "using up such goods as topsoil, fossil fuel and fossil water we incur a debt to the future that we cannot repay. That is, we diminish the future by deeds that we call ‘use’ but that the future will call ‘theft’."

Intergenerational equity is closely tied to the concept of sustainability. As defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainability is "the use of resources to meet the needs of today's generation without inhibiting the ability of future generations to meet their needs." But sustainability has a price. So entomologist Edward Wilson observed, "We want health, security, freedom, and pleasure for ourselves and our families. For distant generations we wish the same but not at any great personal cost."

We apply the principle of intergenerational equity to some degree when we select construction materials of proven durability, and when we calculate the expense of maintenance over time in our economic evaluation of projects. However, we frequently minimize the benefits accrued to future generations through the use of discount rates in our "present worth" analyses.

We also express our concern for the future by building projects which are fundamentally safe. However, in an era of global competitiveness there is growing pressure on project managers to reduce costs wherever possible. Even well-designed facilities can fail when field changes

"When Hooker Chemical transferred title of the Love Canal to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for a school site, they also bequeathed to the children of that community the unsolved problem."

are not adequately reviewed, as in the 1981 collapse of the skywalk in the Kansas City Hyatt, where more than one hundred people died.

Chronic consequences are more difficult to forecast, but engineers must not shrink from addressing them. When Hooker Chemical transferred title of the Love Canal to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for a school site, they also bequeathed to the children of that community the unsolved problem of managing the 352 million pounds of toxic waste buried there. A principle of intergenerational equity would reject cost-saving measures that result in increased risk. In that regard we might well adopt the standard of the medical profession: "First, do no harm."

But even our best intentions to provide for the future are constrained by the difficulty of predicting long-term effects. California's arid Central Valley bloomed into the nation's breadbasket when water from the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers was diverted into a network of aqueducts and irrigation channels that now crisscross the state. Fifty years later, these dammed rivers have lost their ability to support wildlife, some varieties of which are now nearly extinct, and today, a dozen state and federal agencies are huddling with hundreds of stakeholders in the "CalFed" program, trying to develop a plan to restore the ecosystem. The cost of this initiative will exceed several billion dollars.

An even more tragic example of inadvertent harm from recent years is the conversion of Bangladesh's water supply from unsanitary surface water to relatively uncontaminated groundwater. Only after hundreds of water wells were constructed was it discovered that naturally-occurring levels of arsenic in the groundwater placed tens of millions of Bangladeshis at risk.

Picking the Right Path

How can we as water resource professionals better plan for the needs of future generations? To answer that question, it may be helpful to examine the efforts of water engineers in Silicon Valley over the last several decades to develop a sustainable water supply.

South Bay Water Recycling, a water reuse program sponsored by local, state and federal water and wastewater agencies, recently completed construction of a sixty-mile network of pipes and pump stations that distribute treated effluent for irrigation and industrial use in Santa Clara County, California. The project was constructed in response to a 1989 mandate from the EPA to protect two endangered species whose salt-marsh habitat was threatened by the discharge of fresh water into San Francisco Bay. In its first full year of operation, the project will provide up to 5,000 acre feet of recycled water at a distribution cost of about $900 per acre foot.

But when we evaluated a similar project in 1974 at a tenth of the eventual cost (about $85/AF), it was rejected in favor of a conventional conveyance project with a slightly lower unit cost ($50/AF) but without any drought reliability or environmental benefits. Mandatory studies published in 1978, 1979 and 1981 all established the feasibility of water recycling, as well as other alternatives like water conservation and local storage. Nevertheless, water planners consistently recommended construction of an imported water pipeline, despite the risk of draining the Sacramento River Delta and subjecting the community to shortages during dry years. (It is worth noting that reuse projects were at the time eligible for federal grants of up to 87.5% which would have reduced the cost of recycling to the local community to about $10/AF.)

While it is patently unfair to criticize the work of others with the benefit of hindsight, we can hardly fail to notice that for twenty years we repeatedly rejected a program which, in the final analysis, proved to be in the long-term interest of our community. We adopted it, years later, at ten times the price. There are, in my opinion, a few techniques

"We repeatedly rejected a program which, in the final analysis, proved to be in the long-term interest of our community."

that might have led us to an outcome more considerate of the resource needs of future generations.

1. Start with a blank sheet of paper. By the time the need for a project has been translated into well-defined alternatives, project sponsors are often heavily vested in a particular result. This is one of the shortcomings of the mandatory environmental review process, which initiate studies only after an alternative is proposed. Although environmental impact statements require us to consider a list of potential negative impacts, they rarely enhance our understanding of our projects' long-term economic and environmental implications, nor do they inspire the development of more synergistic solutions. A better approach is to begin planning as soon as possible, before alternatives have congealed, and regularly review the goal to ensure consideration of a broad range of options from a long-term perspective.

2. Color outside the lines. A narrow view of a problem leads to a narrow solution that degrades the environment. While natural systems span jurisdictional boundaries, the projects sponsored by public agencies generally provide services in discrete areas that fit into their institutional silos. Our studies did not consider the need to treat and dispose of additional used water, or the environmental cost of diverting supply from the delta. As others have noted, integrated solutions like water reuse are only justified by looking beyond agency boundaries and identifying local and remote, short-term and long-term impacts.

3. Find a fatal flaw. Intergenerational equity urges us to consider under what circumstances a preferred alternative might cause problems when future conditions change, and which option is "least bad" should our assumptions prove wrong. This kind of dynamic planning tends to produce staged solutions with multiple components.

Expanding the Toolbox for the Next Generation

There is a growing expertise in planning, economics and decision analysis to support our desire to behave ethically towards our descendants. Value-focused decision-making, for instance helps us discover "soft path" alternatives with smaller ecological footprints. New economic theories internalize environmental costs and benefits to reveal the advantage of sustainable development and suggest opportunities for progressive taxation policies.

Through the stakeholder process the public can express their concern for future generations, and question the impact of proposed projects on the long-term health of the environment and our community. Only by acknowledging our values, our hopes and our fears can we plan effectively for both present and future needs.

Another useful tool, recently added to the water planner's toolbox, is "The Natural Step." A Swedish system imported to the United States by Paul Hawken (author of The Ecology of Commerce), this ingenious strategy invites us to test our projects against four simple questions:

1. Does the project decrease dependence on non-renewable metals, fuels or other minerals?

2. Does it avoid the production of new and persistent substances?

3. Does it increase biodiversity?

4. Does it use relatively fewer natural resources to create human value?

"Yes" answers to these questions indicate that a water supply project-or

"From the perspective of intergenerational equity, water supply plans are not merely maps that show us where to find more water. They are also testaments to our concern for those we leave behind."

any project for that matter-is likely to benefit future generations.

In summary, from the perspective of intergenerational equity, water supply plans are not merely maps that show us where to find more water. They are also testaments to our concern for those we leave behind, and the ultimate test of our success as water resource professionals. As Professor Wilson wrote in his environmental essay Biophilia:

"What do we really owe our remote descendants? At the risk of offending some readers I will suggest: Nothing. Obligations simply lose their meaning across centuries. But what do we owe ourselves in planning for them? Everything. If human existence has any verifiable meaning, it is that our passions and toil are enabling mechanisms to continue that existence unbroken, unsullied, and progressively secure. It is for ourselves, and not for them or any abstract morality, that we think into the distant future."

For More Detailed Information

1. Sheikh, Bahman et al. "Accounting for the Benefits of Water Recycling," Proceedings, AWWA/WEF Joint Conference on Water Recycling and Reuse (Orlando, 1998).

2. Keeney, Ralph Value-Focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decisionmaking, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, 1992).

3. Foster, John ed. Valuing Nature? Economics, Ethics and Environment, Routledge Press, (New York, 1997).

4. Jordan, Jeffrey. "Incorporating externalities in conservation programs," AWWA Journal (June, 1995) pp. 49-56.

Eric Rosenblum is director of South Bay Water Recycling, an urban water reuse system in California's Silicon Valley. Current activities include applications of advanced water treatment technology and the economics of developing sustainable water supplies. He is also an active member of the WateReuse Association and the Bay Area Regional Water Recycling Program.


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