New vs. Old Thinking

Oct. 11, 2004

At the highest policy level there is recognition that our water quality and supply as well as the natural systems and the infrastructure that support our way of life demand attention.

At the highest policy level there is recognition that our water quality and supply as well as the natural systems and the infrastructure that support our way of life demand attention.

The EPA wastewater management initiative has been a supply side strategy. However, despite the success of the EPA grants program the quality of the nation’s water resources continues to decline. We have a common public interest in addressing non-point pollution, the contamination and depletion of groundwater resources, the integrity of the coastal ecology, the preservation of open space, community character, property values and the capacity for timely development. This new world of water and the associated public demands are revealing themselves in a variety of ways.

In the “new world of water” all water issues are inter-related. It is often easier and more cost effective to find a common solution to a number of issues than it is to reduce the issues to individual problems for resolution. In fact, the efficiency of markets is acknowledged to be the only way to effectively address the fragmentary and dynamically variable nature of non-point pollution.

In suburban Boston, zoning for onsite wastewater disposal often requires two acres. One developer offered, “Give me 3.7 homes per acre and I will give you back 50% open space, whatever (wastewater) treatment standard you want and eleven to twenty thousand dollars per home in impact fees.”

He had identified a set of value propositions that would alter the economics of development and create additional advantages for him and the communities in which he builds. For the attentive and responsive community the developer, in exchange for certain considerations, would build a portion of the next infrastructure.

Most value propositions and environmental issues at the site-specific level are the result of prior policy decisions. Change a postulate and new perspectives and value propositions emerge. Change several and an entirely new set of possibilities may reveal themselves. For example, I know few regulators who would argue that a hydro-geological study is universally necessary for flows below 50,000 gal a day.

With this in mind there are environmental as well as economic and community values that may be advanced simultaneously.

This capacity to perceive value, quantify it and introduce it to the marketplace is not uncommon. However, in general public agencies are management driven by a “deficit model” that focuses on specific problems and needs rather than aiming to build upon the variety of assets and local capacities that already exist in a community.

In addition, the tendency for administrative agencies to make policy decisions on environmental issues has left the deliberative process of decision making at the community and watershed levels without the precedents for responding creatively to demand when it presents itself.

These issues do not diminish demand. They obscure it and create additional costs.

I know of no better way to express the watershed agenda than to “practice sustainable hydrology at the site level.” The genius of this conclusion lies in the fact that without federal funding the only point at which we have the will to invest in the watershed agenda is when the value propositions are such that they have already created a demand and the related willingness to invest.

This demand favors a distributed approach, where performance, based processing power is strategically located in a centrally managed network as an expansion of the current capacity for wastewater treatment.

This reverses the supply side strategy of command and control, mandate and fund to a demand side strategy of command and covenant with incentives for beyond compliance for environmental results. We have explored the emergence of a new policy format from the EPA and we have suggested a variety of ways in which demand for a new infrastructure is presenting itself in the marketplace.

In our next and final article in this series we will explore how the regulatory and legislative elements necessary to release the potential of a distributed, performance-based, modular, affordable and readily deployable infrastructure already exists on the fringes of our current codes and institutions.

About The Author: Craig Lindell is chief executive officer for Aquapoint, Inc. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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