By Saba Long
Midway through his lecture, Charles Fishman paused to rest a package on top of his head — 24 packaged bottles of Publix branded bottled water. This, he said, represents the amount of water we use to flush a toilet.
Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water”, was in Atlanta Oct. 26 presenting a talk “Smart Water Solutions for Atlanta” on behalf of two groups — Smart Water Grid coalition and Georgia Water Wise Council.
Fishman’s talk provided anecdotes on water use failures and successes — both domestically and abroad.
In the United States, bottled water, a $21 billion industry, is thriving with sales topping one billion bottles — weekly. By comparison, water infrastructure spending hovers at $29 billion annually.
The overhaul of the City of Atlanta’s wastewater and water system is estimated to be a $4.1 billion infrastructure investment. Required by a 1999 federal consent decree based on combined sewer overflow violations, the investment in the system is being funded by a penny sales tax. The city already has one of the highest water rates in the country.
In his book, Fishman compares Atlanta and Las Vegas’ water woes, specifically Lake Lanier and Lake Mead.
“The real difference between Atlanta and Las Vegas is attitude…Indeed there is no real water leadership,” Fishman said. “Going back 50 years, water planning and water management in the area have consisted of wishful thinking, rain dances, and litigation.”
Currently, metropolitan Atlanta is making progress to adapt to smart water use with “low hanging fruit” solutions such as conservation prompted by education on the financial benefits of conserving water.
Even so, local and state governments are relying on businesses in particular to lead the charge in rethinking water use and it’s effect on both the community and the bottom line.
During the event’s panel discussion, Katie Kirkpatrick of the Metro Atlanta Chamber commented that due to the lack of political leadership on expensive yet necessary public infrastructure projects, the technology startup community must step in to provide better data, water management improvements to move the needle.
Douglas County is home to one of Google’s eight data centers scattered across the globe. Realizing the amount of energy and water needed to power the servers, the tech giant built its own water treatment plant to recycle wastewater from the county and use it to cool the systems.
The wastewater is cleaned once more before finding its way back to the Chattahoochee River. This model of good corporate citizenship and smart water use, coupled with education and incentives to modify consumer behavior, will put the region well down the path of becoming a leader in water efficiency.
When asked which municipality is leading on water treatment and usage, Fishman pointed to San Antonio. The city immediately equates water with recycling. The San Antonio Riverwalk, located in the center of the city, uses nearly 100 percent recycled water.
In the water sustainability world, thought leaders raise the argument that when dining out we trust the used silverware to be clean. Therefore, we should be comfortable with the notion of reclaiming water for potable or other uses.
Fishman noted Atlanta has plenty of water; officials need to think about its usage and plan accordingly. The question is where does this fall on the “causes to champion” list of our leaders at the state Capitol and the Atlanta Regional Commission.