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Going Local: How a Resilient Approach to Wastewater Could Help Communities Prosper

As America's pipes and plants age, it's time to re-envision urban water services

This story was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project.

In the late spring of 2014, Charity Hicks awoke to find workmen turning off water to her home. Her fierce protests drove them away, but only as far as her neighbor’s house, where the water shutoffs continued. Her efforts to warn others led to a physical confrontation with the workmen in which Hicks was injured, and police were called. Astonishingly, they arrested Hicks and held her overnight for protesting the loss of her community’s water services. She was never charged. 

 photo of water faucetPhoto by Laura Nawrocik In 2014, Detroit's water and sewer utility began shutting off water to homes that hadn't paid their water bills, creating a crisis that threatened health, welfare, and quality of life for some of the city's poorest citizens.

The shutoffs were part of a larger effort by Detroit’s water and sewer utility (DWSD) to solve its financial problems by squeezing the city’s poorest citizens. In 2014 alone, water shutoffs left 30,000 homes without drinking water or sanitation. Many more homes have faced shutoffs since, creating a fast-moving catastrophe that threatens health, welfare, and quality of life, and can quickly lead to children being removed by social services due to the “child abuse” of not having running water. 

To many Detroiters, Charity Hicks is the “Rosa Parks” of Detroit’s water shutoff struggle. Although Charity was killed in a hit-and-run accident in New York City just weeks after the incident, others in her community were inspired to step up, including Monica Lewis-Patrick, co-founder of a local citizen empowerment organization, We the People of Detroit (WPD). Lewis-Patrick, who was shaken to the core by Hicks’s experience, says, “I didn’t find water. Water found me.”

For Lewis-Patrick, water shutoffs amount to the “weaponization” of water. To survive, her community needs secure water services at affordable rates. So she is exploring a small-scale, neighborhood-based wastewater resource recovery system that, through the sale of recycled resources, brings down the costs of wastewater treatment, thus reducing household water bills.

Lewis-Patrick arrived in Detroit in 2008 from Tennessee. Her previous work in education and mental health, and her experience in organizing and running a crisis center and hotline service, were a good fit with the needs of her neighbors. Responding quickly to the city’s aggressive water shutoff schedule, WPD conducted a door-to-door survey and mobilized a hotline for water access. Water stations were set up across the city and a volunteer corps of “Water Droppers” delivered water to those in need but lacking transportation. 

In the four years since the city’s water shutoff campaign began, Lewis-Patrick has seen her neighbors lose water service, and then their health, jobs, homes, and children. She is determined to defend the human right to water and sanitation, believing that “the simple act of drinking a glass of water symbolizes our shared humanity.” Furthermore, Lewis-Patrick and her allies suspect that shutting off water to whole blocks is less about collecting on past-due accounts and more about clearing out poor neighborhoods to make room for Detroit’s much-touted urban renaissance. As the Guardian reported in 2015, Detroit is “a city both collapsing and gentrifying at the same time.”

A chance encounter with Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) in Boston, suggested a potential solution to Lewis-Patrick’s quest for affordable and secure water services. Zimmerman’s organization has developed and modeled a neighborhood-scale wastewater treatment plant, known as a CWERC (community water and energy resource center), that recycles wastewater to produce energy, reclaimed water, and fertilizers. Selling these valuable products is profitable, generating income to defray the plant’s operating costs. This means that wastewater fees, often the most expensive part of a household’s water bill, can be substantially reduced, making water services more affordable for low-income families. Net income can be used to fund emergency water bill assistance to families in crisis, improving water security. 

Lewis-Patrick quickly grasped the many ways in which a distributed network of CWERCs could benefit vulnerable communities — not only by providing affordable and secure water (and power) services, but also local jobs and economic opportunities for small businesses, improved health and safety, and environmental benefits. The small-scale and local nature of this approach could also improve equity by giving residents a meaningful role in managing their community water services. Of most immediate importance, Lewis-Patrick says, Zimmerman’s model “gives us another level of hope for resolving our water problems because, right now, we are stuck just trying to deliver bottled water.”

What Is a CWERC?

Conventional urban wastewater services are provided by huge centralized systems that expend energy to collect, treat, and dispose of wastewater. By contrast, according to the Charles River Watershed Association, a CWERC is a “small-scale water and energy recovery plant designed to fit into an urban or suburban setting and serve as part of a distributed network of water and energy management facilities.” One facility can treat up to five million gallons of wastewater daily (mgd), the amount created by 50,000 people, as well as food wastes from nearby restaurants, schools, hospitals, and hotels. Estimates of recoverable resources from a mid-sized plant include more than two mgd of non-potable water, 150,000  MMBTU/year of thermal energy (enough to heat and cool about 350 homes each year), 700 MW/year of electric energy (enough to power 200 homes each year), plus 10,000 pounds of compost, and 60,000 pounds of nitrogen. The technology used by CWERCs is well-established — the concept’s novelty comes from combining various waste-to-resource recovery methods under one roof and building it at a neighborhood scale.  

The requirements for constructing and operating a CWERC include a two-acre building site, adequate amounts of wastewater and food wastes as inputs to the resource recovery process, and adjacent demand for the outputs of thermal and electric energy, reclaimed water, fertilizer, and compost.  Estimated construction costs for a mid-sized CWERC are approximately $50 million, with annual operating costs of $5-7 million and annual income estimated at $7-10 million.

For the past 10 years, Bob Zimmerman has pursued and promoted this concept, having come to the inescapable conclusion that taking water from one place, using it in a second, and throwing it away in a third — as is done at most conventional treatment facilities — is a losing proposition. Added to that, the failing condition and vulnerability of existing water systems, their myriad social and environmental impacts and the poor economics of repairing and replacing centralized water infrastructure convinced Zimmerman that finding a fiscally responsible alternative is essential. 

Urban America's Failing and Unaffordable Water Services

America’s water infrastructure is an antiquated and brittle legacy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Cities struggle to maintain pipes that leak constantly and sometimes fail spectacularly. In communities with combined sanitary and storm sewers, even small rainstorms cause frequent combined sewer overflows that dump 860 billion gallons of raw sewage into waterways annually. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives America’s wastewater infrastructure a grade of D. As a nation, we face a $3 trillion tab over the next decade to repair and replace outdated drinking water and wastewater treatment plants and pipes, and to expand storm water collection systems.

When assessing the resilience of these aging and overburdened systems to future challenges, the picture gets even worse. Besides being extremely expensive to build and operate, these gigantic, centralized water systems are inflexible (unable to adapt to changing climate conditions), unsustainable (in their use of water and energy), inequitable (unresponsive to the needs of poor customers), and vulnerable (to extreme weather, rising seas, and terrorism). Wastewater collection systems use gravity to get sewage to treatment plants, making the plants especially vulnerable to flooding and sea-level rise because they are typically sited at the lowest point in the watershed.

Most urban water utilities carry an enormous debt burden on their existing assets, not to mention the pressing costs of repairing and replacing their failing systems of pipes and plants. Decades of delivering underpriced water and underinvesting in system maintenance are driving up water rates, which, in the face of stagnant household incomes, means that too many customers cannot afford to pay their water bills. In the absence of a statutory human right to water and sanitation or regulations tying water rates to household income, unpaid water bills lead to water shutoffs. Unpaid water bills can be added as a lien to property taxes which can lead to home foreclosures, which lead to loss of customers — which begins to look a lot like a death spiral.

Detroit is a prime example of what isn’t working in America’s water services sector. Poor maintenance of century-old pipes and aging water plants built for a city that was once more than twice as big as it currently is has led to some of the highest water rates in the nation because far fewer people are paying for repair and replacement of crumbling infrastructure. This for a city that has the highest poverty level (40 percent) of the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas.

To make matters worse, Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July 2013, the largest American city ever to do so. A major contributor to the bankruptcy was the debt of the city’s water system, which was leased to a new regional entity, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), as part of a “grand bargain” decreed by the bankruptcy court. The GLWA will pay $2 billion over the 40-year lease for repairs and replacements to the water infrastructure. But this is far short of the $5 billion needed to fix the problems that are driving high water rates and system failures.

Detroit is a harbinger of nationwide trends. Nearly 14 million US households face unaffordable water bills, and that number is projected to rise nearly three-fold over the next five years, as utilities raise water rates to cover the costs of infrastructure repair and replacement, as well as the impacts of climate change.

 photo of water protest in DetroitPhoto by Kenny Karpov / We the People of Detroit Activists protesting water shutoffs in Detroit in 2014. So far, more than 90,000 homes across the city have had their water shut off.

In the nearly four years since Detroit’s current water shutoff campaign began, more than 90,000 homes have had their water shut off due to unpaid bills. Another 17,000 households are at risk in 2018. For a family of four living at the poverty line, paying the water bill forces untenable choices between essential needs. As Gary Brown, Detroit Water & Sewerage Director, sees it, “the problem is poverty.” But as Monica Lewis-Patrick sees it, poverty is only one piece of the problem. The other elements are unaffordable water rates and lack of protections against shutoffs.

A Better Way

Bob Zimmerman laments that “urban America is heavily invested in single-purpose, gigantic, centralized water systems, making potable water on one end and throwing away massive volumes of treated wastewater on the other.” He implores water managers, “before we repair and replace these systems with more of the same, let’s ask ourselves if there Is a better way to provide affordable, secure and equitable water services in America in the twenty-first century.” Zimmerman and Lewis-Patrick believe that there is a better way and they are determined to demonstrate this by building a CWERC to serve the needs of Detroit’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. 

Utilizing CWERCs to reduce the cost of wastewater services and generate a profit on the sale of recycled resources could substantially reduce overall water bills and avoid water shutoffs. In addition, a local CWERC can improve neighborhood economics. Operating a CWERC creates dozens of skilled jobs. It offers small business opportunities for enterprises ranging from transporting food waste to marketing and delivering CWERC products. Non-potable water and energy can be sold locally at more affordable prices, contributing to better profit margins for local businesses. And a CWERC can also boost the availability of healthy, affordable food. Many low-income Detroit residents have difficulty procuring nutritious produce and could benefit from urban farms that are blossoming in the city’s numerous vacant lots. The fertilizer, compost, and low-cost reclaimed water from a local CWERC could contribute significantly to the financial viability of those farms. 

The scale and neighborhood location of a CWERC favors local influence and, depending on CWERC ownership, even control over decisions that impact secure access to affordable water services.  Community empowerment from a successful wastewater project could increase capacity for collective action on other issues that confront Detroit’s low-income neighborhoods. A recent report published by the Center for American Progress finds that “promoting social cohesion — in which a society’s members cooperate to achieve shared well-being — in communities is an additional and overlooked tool for strengthening climate resilience, with particularly good outcomes in low-income communities.”

In the event of a natural or manmade disaster, a distributed system of wastewater recycling centers producing water and energy is far more robust than one large, centralized plant. Zimmerman observes that, “CWERCs build resilience by providing local supplies of both energy and reclaimed water, the key utilities necessary to recover quickly from catastrophic events.”

A CWERC can further contribute to climate resilience by using reclaimed water to restore streams and wetlands, thus repairing ecological services that reduce the potential for devastating floods or droughts.  Other environmental benefits include energy and water savings from recycled wastewater resources and decreased transportation of food wastes, thus reducing carbon pollution and providing a supply of water for neighborhood gardens and parks. 

What Stands in the Way?

With so many economic, social, and environmental advantages, one might expect to see CWERCs sprouting up everywhere. Or, at a minimum, that civic-minded foundations and social impact investors would want to see the concept piloted in places of extreme and immediate need, like Detroit. 

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Arranging low-cost financing for the construction of a CWERC in Detroit is not easy and Lewis-Patrick is looking for help from innovative funders. Even larger obstacles loom, including the likelihood of strong opposition from water and power utilities who control the wastewater pipes and electricity grid. Many utilities are overbuilt and would be reluctant to give up wastewater flows that sustain their treatment plants. For CWERCs to operate profitably, they must reach a financially and politically viable deal with the water utility to tap their sewage pipes to obtain wastewater for treatment and recycling, and with the power utility to sell CWERC-generated electricity on their grid. 

Transformative change is difficult, to say the least, but staying the course of outdated wastewater treatment systems will be even harder. Some utilities have shown a willingness to use a distributed, neighborhood-scale, multi-benefit approach to resolve issues such as combined sewer overflows. Philadelphia, for example, chose to use green infrastructure (such as rain gardens, street trees, and green roofs) instead of building an enormous underground holding tank. This approach saved the city billions of dollars and provided many other benefits, such as local jobs, more attractive neighborhoods and increased property values. Is there an equivalent opportunity in beginning the transition to a distributed and resilient system for recycling wastewater? 

Lewis-Patrick believes that the struggling neighborhoods of Detroit could provide a good test of this concept. In her view, the biggest obstacles are not financial, but political. And, underlying the political obstacles are long-standing issues of race and poverty. In a precocious display of wisdom, Lewis-Patrick’s seven-year-old grandson observed to her, “Control the water, control the people.”

Of course, one stand-alone CWERCs isn’t the answer. A distributed network is. To serve the 700,000 residents of Detroit would require 20 to 30 neighborhood wastewater recycling centers. To replace Detroit’s wastewater plant, which serves a metropolitan area of three million people and is one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the US, would require as many as 200 CWERCs. A daunting number to be sure, but a valuable alternative to trying to meet twenty-first century challenges with twentieth century technologies. As Lewis-Patrick sees it, “this is the kind of transformative thinking that we all need to be moving toward.”

Rebecca Wodder
Rebecca Wodder is a national environmental leader whose writing and speaking explores how communities can enhance their resilience to climate impacts via sustainable, equitable approaches to rivers and freshwater resources. As president of the national advocacy organization, American Rivers, from 1995 to 2011, she led the development of community-based solutions to freshwater challenges. From 2011 to 2013, she served as Senior Advisor to the Secretary of the Interior. She chairs the board of River Network, a national association of river and watershed conservation groups, as well as serving on the boards of the Potomac Conservancy and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a regular contributor to the Island Press Urban Resilience Project and recently wrote the chapter on water for The Community Resilience Reader (Island Press, 2017).

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