Today is World Water Day. Every March 22nd the United Nations uses this day to draw attention to the importance of freshwater and the need to sustainably manage our limited freshwater resources.
This year’s theme is Why Wastewater? Globally, over 80% of the wastewater generated by society flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused. The UN has set a goal to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. The desired targets are universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water as well adequate and equitable sanitation for all. In addition, reusing wastewater as a resource can provide a sustainable source of water, energy, nutrients and other recoverable materials.
In countries like the United States, most of our wastewater is treated but we still have problems with the way we manage our water. Combined sewer overflows are commonplace, making our waterways unsafe for recreators when storms overwhelm sewer systems and raw sewage flows into our waterways. High levels of nutrients from wastewater discharges and agricultural runoff cause problems with algae over-growth in our waterways. Algae can create taste and odor problems for communities that pull their drinking water from rivers and lakes. An over-abundance of algae and aquatic plants in bodies of water can also consume the oxygen in the water that fish and other aquatic organisms need to survive. The largest example of this problem in the USA is the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is the size of the state of Connecticut.
But the news is not all bad. Here in Illinois wastewater agencies are taking steps to improve the quality of the wastewater they discharge and to recover both the water and the resources it holds for reuse. For example, over 300,000 people drink water taken from the Fox River. By 2021, wastewater dischargers will reduce the summertime load of phosphorus going in the river by 75%. Less phosphorus means less algae in the water, reducing costs for treatment by drinking water suppliers.
The wastewater from McHenry County’s Valley Hi Nursing Home is used to irrigate farmland nearby, effectively returning the water to the ground from which it was drawn while the crops reap the benefits of the nutrients in the wastewater. McHenry County is 100% dependent on groundwater as its source of drinking water so aquifer recharge is vital to sustaining the county’s water supplies.
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago is pulling nutrients out of its wastewater and turning it into a saleable fertilizer. The world’s largest nutrient recovery facility opened last June.
These examples of treating wastewater as a resource can be widely implemented. Of course, adapting our current water and wastewater systems to be more sustainable requires investment. Today the Value of Water Campaign released its Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure report. The report concludes that investing in water infrastructure will build a prosperous America while creating high quality jobs. That’s what our Flowing Economy: How Clean Water Infrastructure Investments Support Good Jobs in Chicago and in Illinois report also laid out last year.
Providing safe water for people worldwide depends on all of us to not waste the precious limited freshwater resources we have. Investing in those resources makes sense both to develop a sustainable water future and to create good jobs now. That is why we are so dismayed at President Trump’s budget proposal to eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the fund targeted to protect and restore the source of 20% of the world’s freshwater. You can help by letting your national representatives know you are counting on them to save the Great Lakes.
You can also help by joining our Clean Water Team to help hold our elected officials accountable for protecting clean water and conserving water resources. Sign up here! Together we can create a world where we waste water no more!