Blog - Charles River Watershed Association

Water Transformation Part 14: Reality Assessment

Posted by Robert Zimmerman

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1/26/16 1:02 PM

PREVIOUS POST: Water Transformation Part 13 - Blue Cities Exchange

Charles River Watershed Association’s vision for transforming our urban landscape, the work I have discussed in this blog series, recently received some coverage in the local media, first with an article in the Boston Globe, and later the same day on Radio Boston. These pieces begin to scratch the surface by introducing the basic concepts. Given the recent media attention, I would like to respond to a few elements of the coverage and ensuing discussion, clear up some misconceptions, and give a direct report on where we are now.


Over the past two years, we’ve come a long way. Working with our technical advisory committee,  we have made considerable progress in moving from a high-minded vision to an on the ground reality.  Re-imagined infrastructure distributing wastewater treatment and creating renewable energy, linked to restored  natural hydrology, even in urban neighborhoods, makes sense for the challenges we face now, and is essential for the climate change issues that lie ahead.


The reality is, however, that most people listen to the opportunity for urban water transformation politely, and then dismiss the notion. I’ve heard comments like “unworkable,” or “too expensive,” or simply “unnecessary.” I will admit that CRWA’s pioneering efforts to design a future that fully restores urban rivers and much of our urban environment, that is financially desirable, and that builds significant resilience in the face of climate change, is also radically different.


Which is why we’ve taken the time to do full conceptual designs, hired Natural Systems Utilities and Industrial Economics to do the financial modeling and economics, and are working through the issues associated with restoring urban streams and installing blue/green infrastructure.


Annual Benefits

Annual Benefits of Community Water and Energy Resource Center and Green Infrastructure. View larger chart

Everyday, we throw away 300 million gallons of water and organics in “wastewater” as undesirable, when in fact what we are doing is throwing away 300 million gallons a day of resources. By first breaking up our vast centralized wastewater system into Community Water and Energy Resource Centers (CWERCs), using wastewater to generate electric energy, thermal energy (to heat and cool our homes and buildings), create fertilizer, and reclaim clean water for process and cooling water, irrigation, washing, and the like, we create new sources of significant income. CRWA and our consultants have conceptually designed two such facilities. Their average cost of construction is $50 million, and before charging a single dime for the wastewater treatment, they would generate $8.4 million annually in sales of electricity, heating and cooling, water, fertilizer, and food waste treatment. The financial and economic benefits of this new source of revenue are significant.


There is the knee-jerk reaction, of course, that few people want to live next to a wastewater treatment plant. But CWERCs are not traditional wastewater treatment plants. CWERCs are almost entirely contained in buildings, have sophisticated odor and noise controls, and rather than being nuisances are huge community benefits. The two CWERCs we conceptually designed, one in the Seaport Innovation District, and the other in Mission Hill, an environmental justice community, were located over 21 other urban sites we identified because they would support new development, affordable housing, and other neighborhood desires in those locations.

visualization of wetland

Visualization designed as part of a conceptual plan for a CWERC

Further, CRWA has linked CWERC design in Boston to new blue/green infrastructure that recreates rainwater-to-groundwater connections and restores urban streams we managed to bury over the past 150 years. In so doing, we dramatically enhance the City’s ability to handle floodwater, as much as 400 times greater capacity than existing circumstances.


The most significant imminent threat we face from climate change in our region is from severe precipitation. Across the country, an unprecedented six 1,000 year rain storms (a storm with a 0.1% chance of occurring in a given year) occurred since 2010You likely saw news coverage of these events in South Carolina, Colorado and Hurricane Irene in Vermont. In fact, the likelihood is that New England and the Northeast will face more severe precipitation events than other regions of the United States.


CRWA has established that the design combination of CWERCs and restored streams and blue/green infrastructure can be done, and CRWA strongly believes should be done. To that end, CRWA is working to inform, seeking partners to pursue the construction of one or more CWERCs together with restored natural hydrology.


Attend the Massachusetts Water Forum  


We invite you to a full discussion of CRWA’s work at the 4th Annual Massachusetts Water Forum on March 22nd at 1:00 pm at the Boston Society of Architects, 290 Congress St., Boston. Hosted by the Foundation for a Green Future, we will provide a complete review of the work we have done, the options, the finances and economics, and the opportunities.


We hope you will join us.

View the Complete Water Transformation Series

Topics: Charles River, Stormwater, Stormwater Management, Green Infrastructure, Pollution, Smart Sewering, Distributed Wastewater, Blue Cities, Water Transformation Series, Stormwater Runoff

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About Charles River Watershed Association:

One of the country's oldest watershed organizations, Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) was formed in 1965 in response to public concern about the declining condition of the Charles. Since its earliest days of advocacy, CRWA has figured prominently in major clean-up and watershed protection efforts, working with government officials and citizen groups from 35 Massachusetts watershed towns from Hopkinton to Boston. Initiatives over the last fifty years have dramatically improved the quality of water in the watershed and fundamentally changed approaches to water resource management.