Choose a social problem that will impact cities in the future and use the healthy cities wheel framework to identify how urban authorities should address this problem – fill out every section of the wheel.
Assemble a diverse and inclusive group
There are many different kinds of stakeholders when it comes to the issue of black water remediation. Let’s take a triple-bottom-line perspective on classifying the stakeholders who want to onboard to the cause. On the one hand, there are the people who live in communities affected by existing remediation techniques, disproportionately BIPOC and people in other marginalized communities. On the other hand, there are those who have limited access to fresh water such as the unhoused. Last there are business interests who stand to profit from the change to reclaiming rather than merely remediating black water. Reclaiming black water means converting yesterday’s waste outputs into tomorrow’s resource inputs.
Generate a vision
The vision will depend on the perspectives expressed by the stakeholders. It will likely include leveraging the change from remediation to reclamation in order to ameliorate the impacts of existing waste management techniques on people in marginalized communities. It will also include addressing water scarcity and the lack of access to water resources in the community. Third it will include finding buyers and building a supply chain to handle the new resources being created in the form of fresh water and compostables as a result of implementing the new process.
Assess assets, resources, and barriers
The current techniques for remediation essentially just dilute black water with up to thirty times as much fresh water, then passing it through aerobic and anaerobic processes to sterilize it before dumping it into the oceans and rivers. One of the biggest challenges will be funding construction of new systems to separate liquids and solids before purifying each through bioreaction and composting respectively. This means not just these two outputs become resources, but also that enormous amount of water which is no longer being wasted diluting black water before dumping it during as a part of the current system.
The triple bottom line has to drive discussions about priorities. We must be certain to address all three perspectives without missing any. It’s not just about implementation cost-savings, increasing protection from harm in marginalized communities, or saving the environment; rather it must be all three.
Develop a community-wide strategy
Every person in the community produces black water every day. This means everyone is involved in both the problem and the solution. Everyone stands to benefit from the improved environmental impact, the implementation cost-savings, whether or not they are in marginalized communities who will see additional benefits. The fact that everyone in the community will be positively affected means everyone can be brought on board with the plan and play a role in pushing the necessary policy changes forward.
It also means the plan will need to be implemented in every current black water facility around the city and eventually the broader region.
Implement the plan
The biggest part of implementing the plan will be retrofitting or replacing existing facilities. Rather than diluting blackwater with enormous amounts of fresh water, we will be separating it, cleaning it, and then exporting each component as a valuable resource. This means in place of several large tanks, we will need special filtration systems to separate the liquids and solids, then holding tanks and an infrastructure for exporting the solid resources.
There are a lot of ways we could go with exporting the fresh water we create. Because many may be uncomfortable directly drinking the reclaimed fresh water despite its purity, it may make more sense to pipe it up to the headwaters of the same watersheds we originally took the water from. In the example of San Francisco, there are already pipelines bringing water down from Hetch Hetchy. Additional pipelines could take the purified water reclaimed from black water and pump it back up to the headwaters. This essentially mimics the natural process of evaporation and precipitation which we are already relying on. We are just skipping the step of dumping the water in the ocean and waiting for some small amount to evaporate and then later precipitate into the Hetch Hetchy system. We can skip this middle-man of mother nature and simply put the water back where we took it from.
There is also the potential to sell the purified fresh water to bottled water companies like Nestle instead of allowing them to drain and destroy the aquifers in order to make bottled water. The purity of reclaimed black water would likely improve the quality of the now totally unregulated contents of bottled water.
Monitor and adjust your effort
We will need to carefully observe the process of leveraging the outputs to make sure they are being used appropriately. Once we see adoption taking off, it may be time to take the fight to a broader geographic area and expand this vital technology into other nearby regions.
Establish new systems to maintain/build on your gains
We should be very vocal about the benefits we see from no longer wasting incredible amounts of water the way we are now. In addition, we should work to emphasize the triple-bottom-line benefits of turning waste outputs into valuable products. This will help accelerate adoption of this new system by other cities.
Celebrate benchmarks and successes
Once the system is up and running, the number of bad-pun-fueled galas and public relations events are endless. Imagine the look on a visiting dignitary’s face when they are offered a pu pu platter at the black water gala. Or when it is revealed that their $25 bottle of Voss water was actually repackaged human excrement. The potential for practical jokes celebrating the success of the system would be endless. We might even reach a point where San Francisco can name its sewer system not after people it doesn’t like (George W Bush), but in honor of people it does like.
Tackle the next issue(s)
The next issue is obvious; it’s the same issue but on a bigger scale! Now that San Francisco has adopted black water reclamation, we need to get Oakland and San Jose and Berkeley and all the other cities in the bay area to do the same. Then the rest of California and then the world!