Blog - Charles River Watershed Association

Water Transformation Part 4: Nature’s Principles

Posted by Robert Zimmerman

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2/23/15 12:52 PM

PREVIOUS POST: Water Transformation Part 3: Diversity
Nutirent Cycle - Charles River Watershed Association
Forest nutrient and water cycle (expand image)
No problem can be solved with the same consciousness that created it.

-Albert Einstein

In Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series, I highlighted four principles that CRWA has taken from our examination of forests as water systems. They are:

  • Resource-to-Waste-to-ResourceThere are no wastewater treatment plants or landfills in nature; each waste product becomes another resource.

  • Keep Water LocalWater is slowed down, infiltrated, and used several times.

  • Flexibility, Adaptability, InterconnectednessNature handles catastrophic events by lending the capacity of each to all others.

  • Promote and Support Rich DiversityNature celebrates diversity as a strength, a way for communities to be more adaptable, more resilient, and to gain strength through evolution. 

All of these share a common source, which is, if you will, the nature of nature. And so there is a first principle for CRWA’s water design approach:

  • First Principle: Restore NatureBillions of years of land and water evolution trump our 165 years of water engineering. By using historic maps to trace urban development through time, and overlaying current infrastructure on the land and water history we've altered, we can begin to use our technology to restore the nature we've altered. Such restoration is critical.

In speaking engagements over the past year, when I get to the part about Restoring Nature, I’m often met with blank expressions. In the mind’s eye, I’m suggesting that we replace buildings with white pines and oaks.

The real issue is how we engineer our systems to restore and preserve nature while they sustain us, and those ends are more easily attained when applying these principles to our own engineering and technology. 


"In effect, [CRWA's] desire has been to make human use of water a 'bend in the river,' capturing and using water and then returning it to nature, effectively obviating the impacts of human use."


CRWA has been working along these lines for over sixteen years. It’s been a slow process perhaps because I wasn’t so good at articulating the ends. As my friend Marion Kane, the first Executive Director at Barr Foundation, used to tell me: “Bob, you’re incomprehensible.” Ah, yes, the evasive elevator pitch.

Our first attempt at something that felt a bit like our current Smart Sewering work was in Holliston, MA, in 1997/98, looking more comprehensively at the septic waste and density challenges that still haunt the town. Our second attempt, vastly more focused and informed, was done for Littleton, MA, from 2010 through 2012. That work remains valid and applicable to town issues around sprawl, density, controlled growth, and protection of open space. 

READ: CRWA's Littleton, MA Smart Sewering Strategy Report

But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. The issues we sought to explore in both projects were Keeping Water Local, and Resource-to-Waste-to-Resource. In town or city water use, and wastewater collection and treatment, our focus has been on how to make potable water available to all of us, and then return it once treated to the environment from which it was taken. In effect, our desire has been to make human use of water a “bend in the river,” capturing and using water and then returning it to nature, effectively obviating the impacts of human use.


CRWA's Blue Cities concepts at the Waltham Watch Factory

We also looked more comprehensively at stormwater runoff from pavement and buildings in towns and cities. This led to our Blue Cities® Initiative. Beginning in 2006, we designed and constructed “green infrastructure” to allow water to mimic nature in the built environment, ultimately infiltrating the water to the ground and releasing cleaned overflows to nearby water bodies. True to our strong science roots, we conducted both pre and post-construction monitoring of the effectiveness of rain gardens,swales, and infiltration chambers at capturing and cleaning stormwater.

LEARN MORE: Restoring Natural Hydrology to the Urban Environment

We’ve learned a lot. Foremost, we’ve learned that mapping and understanding historic hydrology, the way land and water once worked in a district – a subwatershed - before we built all this stuff, is critical. Recognizing how nature once worked, and still attempts to work, informs our designs and has led us to restorative technologies. It turns out that replicating nature is made difficult only if we ignore its principles.

I might add, since we’ve recently been blessed with nearly 100 inches of snow in less than a month in Boston, that perhaps it’s time for us to begin anticipating these sorts of “unusual” events as the new normal. In addition to the difficulties dramatic snowfall is causing our transportation systems just now, it would be good to remember that snow is merely frozen water. This spring, with this snowpack and any rainfall, we can anticipate flooding, pressure on some among the 3,000 or so dams remaining in Massachusetts, and all the attendant issues. Our system capacities are limited. We can change that over time as this blog series will detail, but for the moment, our best bet is to prepare.

NEXT POST: Water Transformation Part 5 - Configuring Transformation I   

Topics: Charles River, Climate Change, Climate Change Adaptation, Green Infrastructure, Pollution, Smart Growth, Smart Sewering, Distributed Wastewater, Blue Cities, Water Transformation Series, Environmental Justice

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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.