Treading on thin water: lessons in sustainable water management
June 20, 2023
By Eric Torraca and Victoria Yauch
Human societies were built around water, and the need for available water has grown in step with these societies over millennia. The growth of urban centers and their peripheral sprawl has put ever-expanding pressures on the technology and infrastructure required to provide people with access to water. The necessity of water is universal, but the solutions for accessing, using, redirecting, and often reclaiming this resource are diverse and distinct.
As the population grows and puts strain on local, regional, and global water supplies, it is important to understand how to sustainably manage these resources for longevity. Some sustainability tactics include scalable and replicable solutions while others are tailored to satisfy unique criteria or cultural values. These efforts are influenced by everything from precipitation to politics, and it is important to consider this spectrum of criteria when evaluating any community’s water management.
Finding commonalities across seemingly different regions
Two places that differ greatly in precipitation, politics, and much in between offer a valuable perspective on the depth and breadth of water management in a changing climate. The Mediterranean coast of Spain and the central Piedmont region of North Carolina both have an enduring agricultural heritage, and increasing urbanization and tourism. Notable differences between the two include dramatically different climates and political structures. Central North Carolina is considered politically “purple” by the locals, having liberal population centers but many local offices held by a strong conservative majority, and is certainly conservative compared to the liberality of the Catalonian and Valencian governments. Despite their differences, both of these locations are striving to meet the resource demands imposed by a growing and changing population.
The volatility of accessible water in these regions will only be further exacerbated by increasing populations and developing commercial and tourist sectors. In both scenarios, contamination and availability pose challenges to sustainable development.
History and threats to Raleigh’s water supply
North Carolina’s Neuse River basin provides drinking water to about 1.4 million people within Raleigh and its surrounding municipalities. Around Raleigh, surging development and construction place immense stress on stormwater management, and erosion threatens watersheds. Hurricanes pose a substantial threat but are also relied upon to fill reservoirs. The area is dependent on consistent rainfall, much of which is provided by seasonal tropical storms and hurricanes and amounts to around 47 inches per year.
History and threats to Barcelona’s water supply
Southern Spain receives an average of 23 inches of annual rainfall. This water scarcity has made collection, treatment, reclamation, and conservation high priorities. Groundwater and the Llobregat River and its tributaries supply water to Barcelona and surrounding areas, traveling through populated communities, agriculture, and industry along the way. Given the proximity to the Mediterranean, saltwater intrusion is a serious concern as the city of Barcelona draws down its relatively small groundwater supply.
Applying sustainability strategies
Sustainability strategies aim to achieve very objective goals in completely subjective environments. The unique populations which rely on vital resources consist of diverse cultures and lifestyles which heavily influence the prioritization and implementation of these strategies.
Solutions in Raleigh
In Raleigh, watersheds are protected by riparian buffer regulations which have been enforced over the years to variable degrees. Falls Lake is in a desirable location and has attracted affluent community members, including the county’s sheriff. The buffer regulations here are conveniently unenforced. Lake Benson, on the other hand, is in a more rural area and has not been subject to many developmental pressures. Riparian buffers in that area have been preserved and are actively protected as the value of the lake and watershed become more apparent. That being said, there are large developers slowly but surely encroaching.
Closer to the ocean, potable water treatment plants like the one found in Bellreguard are using converted agricultural land to ensure the surrounding communities have sufficient drinking water. Remunicipalization has allowed them to reclaim previously commercially held water treatment plants and modernize their methods to provide clean water to their own people and surrounding communities.
Solutions in Barcelona
With scarcity top of mind, Barcelona’s wastewater treatment plant, Baix Llobregat, takes a modern approach by providing wastewater services to the city through large-scale, aerobic and anaerobic processes. The plant fights saltwater intrusion by strategically injecting treated water into specific areas to maintain water levels and keep salinity at bay. It also recharges the river by returning treated water to the Llobregat river.
A water-conscious way forward
The value of resources like clean and available water cannot be overstated and far outlasts even the longest-lived economic interest. When these interests are not required to consider the potential damage to ecosystem services, these costs are passed along until a municipality or nonprofit picks up the tab. Municipalities and coalitions can also leverage governments to require disclosure of the true cost of development, including the impact on nearby water sources and adjacent communities. In the private sector, there are already efforts to require that publicly traded companies disclose their climate risk, and this lever has benefits far beyond the S&P. Communities would benefit from climate disclosures from large development projects in the same way that investors benefit from clearly understanding the climate risk of their investments.
The Chinese philosopher Laozi once said, “Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” In the same way that no life can resist water, no society can resist development. Regardless of the geography, politics, or climate of a region, sustainable development is achievable to all communities that are able to advocate and account for the complete cost of development.
Eric Torraca is a Supervisory Immigration Officer with United States Citizenship & Immigration Services. As a twenty year veteran in the immigration world he has worked firsthand with immigrants and visitors to the United States from nations all around the world. Eric holds a B.A. from Houghton College in Spanish and International Studies and a Master of Natural Resources degree from Virginia Tech. He loves being in wild places and exploring the world through his experiences in travel, photography, amateur astronomy, electronics, hiking, and camping.
Victoria Yauch is a motivated professional who has taken on diverse responsibilities in her career, ranging from parks and recreation to law enforcement and, presently, data analysis. She is a rigorous problem solver who thrives where hard work and positive impact intersect. Her desire to pursue the XMNR program was inspired by her summers spent in Costa Rica, working alongside educators to facilitate students conducting valuable wildlife research and embolden them with a broadened perspective on our global ecosystem. She earned her Master of Natural Resources degree from Virginia Tech in 2021.