Can we make a map for wastewater innovation?
…or perhaps a guidebook?
During one phase of my misspent youth, I travelled by bicycle looking for adventure and insight. (Hang with me, this pertains to environmental management, and I’ll get to that soon.) On one tour, I began in Vietnam, ending up in Pakistan a pair years later, having made some detours and added other technique of transport to the combo.
Once I began riding, I had a guidebook. It was exciting to immerse in culture, language, and so forth, however the guidebook provided empowering structure and a way of security.
Sooner or later, I traded my guidebook, together with my bike helmet, for a map and a sun hat. Traveling by map got me farther off the beaten path, and I had amazing experiences including some that inspired me to embark on my current profession. Traveling this fashion was also more difficult and unsure, especially since back then rural roads and paths weren’t all represented with great cartographic accuracy. Sometimes I needed to make my own path.
I had an incredible time traveling in these ways, but what does this all need to do with the environment?
To my mind, these modes of travel reflect the challenges wastewater managers have with permitting innovation. Hear me out.
Water management generally is a conservative and risk averse decision-making environment. And yet, due to climate change, population growth, changing societal expectations, the wastewater sector goes to need to do more with less. By definition, sooner or later that’s going to involve innovation – the adoption and diffusion latest technologies and management practices, or, more simply, doing things in a different way than the tried and true.
NPDES permitting under the Clean Water Act will not be intended to support innovation. It’s there to supply protections for the environment, human health, and other useful uses of our nation’s waterways. However the intent of the CWA is also not to function a roadblock to doing things which can be cheaper, simpler, and higher for the environment. Unfortunately, in practice it has the effect of erecting quite a few barriers to innovation, for reasons now we have discussed at length (e.g., here and here and here).
Permitting roadblocks notwithstanding, the country’s wastewater systems are going to want to do things in a different way. We’ll need more imaginative, complex, multi-benefit processes. More SWIFTs, more Tres Rios projects, more out of the box, fit for purpose, local solutions, more latest technologies coming out of the pilot phase and into full scale implementation, more creative ideas that we will’t even imagine now.
Our team recently returned from the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, where I helped lead a workshop in regards to the intersection between regulation and innovation within the wastewater sector, together with my colleagues Dave Smith (formerly EPA), Felicia Marcus (Legend), Justin Mattingly (EPA). An all-star group of thought leaders from the regulator and controlled communities, NGOs, and other relevant perspectives hung out together digging in on these issues. The group generated a raft of powerful ideas, centered across the mental framework for effective decision making that Nell Green Nylen recently pioneered.
My principal conclusion is that utility managers attempting to implement latest ways of doing things, the regulators they interact with, and the stakeholders impacted by their collective decisions are all like adventurers traveling with only a compass to guide their way. Only there aren’t even any roads yet. They often have a way of the destination they’d like to succeed in, expressed as environmental and social outcomes they’d wish to see, and technological options they’re considering. But they need to travel through an unknown wilderness and varied terrain to get there.
This all contributes to why innovation on this space is so celebrated, so rare, and so slow to implement when it does occur.
The excellent news is that we will achieve this way more with the system now we have. Our workshop began to point out a few of the possibilities that may occur when creative people begin to think without the constraints of the establishment.
But we do have to make a map. And a guidebook.
With this workshop, we’ve begun that process, constructing on a decade of research. Stay tuned for the way it goes. And drop me a line when you’d wish to saddle up for the journey with us.