Our nation’s water systems, where more than 45 percent of rivers are impaired, 13 percent of the national electricity use goes toward pumping water, and the aging infrastructure requires more than $1 trillion in upgrades, desperately need a radical overhaul. This was the conclusion of the panel, “Elevating Green Building to the New Sustainable Water Paradigm,” which was held on Friday, October 15 at the ULI 2010 Fall Meeting in Washington, D.C.

“We must close the loop on everything,” said panelist Patrick Lucey, president, Aqua-Tex Scientific Consulting Ltd. Today, most of our water infrastructure is centralized, segregated, and linear—a configuration that leads to a great deal of waste and inefficiency. The new water paradigm, as proposed by the panel, would be the opposite: decentralized, interconnected, and multifunctional, using excess heat for energy production and recycling wastewater for multiple uses.

The panel, moderated by Kimberly Brewer of Tetra Tech, proposed a number of solutions that could work at the building, neighborhood, and regional level. Emphasis was placed on natural systems that could change the economic equation of water and waste treatment. “Plants and bacteria work for free; people and machines do not,” Anthony Sease, Director of Business Development at Natural Systems Utilities, pointed out. Membrane biological reactor systems, already in use in projects such as Battery Park City’s Solaire, a residential high-rise, can treat wastewater on site and return it to use for irrigation, saving an estimated 40 percent of water use. Moreover, a Solaire-like system deployed at a neighborhood scale could be cost-competitive with municipal providers.

Both Lucey and the Philadelphia Water Department’s Glen Abrams discussed the city-level applications of the new water paradigm. Cities, which account for 2 percent of the world’s land mass but 80 percent of energy use, are where the bulk of integrated resource management will need to be conducted. Philadelphia’s Green City Clean Waters program seeks to break down the regulatory silos and bring together public officials on drinking, waste, and stormwater policies. Lucey offered case studies on projects such as Dockside Green and Millennium Water, the site of Vancouver’s Olympic Village. The latter features a fully integrated, closed-loop energy, water, and waste system where energy is drawn from what is thrown out: sewage provides much of the LEED-ND Platinum mixed-use community’s energy needs.

The panel concluded that if the new water paradigm is to be established, it will have to be funded by the private sector. Lucey put it simply: “We must make waste profitable.”