Governing common shared resources such as water supplies relies on layers of resource management. Each level of management has different roles and responsibilities, from neighborhoods and cities through to regional, state, national and international governance. Currently, the way many cities approach water quality is inefficient because resource management is not regional. Water agencies ignore problems upstream, where water quality problems start. Applying funds to upstream problems is a marketing decision related to how we price our social goods. Fixing those upstream problems reduces costs downstream for water treatment.
Our surface water flows across the landscape to reach our tap. This means that water quality is harmed by landscape degradation such as deforestation, agricultural chemical runoff, soil erosion, and polluted surface water runoff, mainly from roads. Currently, most cities deal with low water quality once the water arrives at a treatment plant. There, the water is subjected to industrial filters and chemical treatments to make it safe for human consumption.
Holistic Water Quality Management Starts Upstream
To increase water quality and treatment efficiency, dozens of cities worldwide are placing some of their water treatment budgets into funds to support upstream improvements. The goal is to raise the quality of water before it arrives at the treatment plant. Upstream measures are often cheaper than water treatment. This lets cities earn a higher rate of return on their water treatment budgets.
Upstream improvements include
- Protecting existing forests.
- Replanting deforested areas.
- Reducing soil and chemical runoff from agriculture.
- Restoring wetlands.
These measures also regulate stream flows in times of downpour and drought.
A recent Nature Conservancy article profiles holistic water quality management projects by Sao Paulo, Nairobi, Albuquerque, San Antonio, and Savannah. The Nature Conservancy began this approach in 2000 in Quito, Ecuador. Since then, it has facilitated 29 more projects worldwide, and has another 30 underway.
For example, in China, Jack Ma of Alibaba Group and the Nature Conservancy have established a water fund near Hangzhou, China to invest in upstream resource management practices that improve downstream water quality. Hangzhou is a city of 9 million residents that’s been working on improving its water quality.
Fresh water is a finite and precious resource. Of all the water on Earth, less than one half of one percent is fresh water that is accessible for human use.
What steps is your city taking towards holistic water quality management?