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Making city water systems flow


David Sedlak, UC Berkeley:
Water treatment plants and sewage treatment plants were built in the United States mainly after the Second World War, during a time with a lot of building and a lot of investment in infrastructure and these systems are starting to fall apart.

They're reaching the end of their useful lifetimes. Couple that with climate change and increased populations and we're heading for a real crisis. A crisis where we may not be able to provide enough water to our cities or where we're going to be constantly patching these things as they fall apart. You have to think not about the small changes that we need to get through next week's problem, but you have to think about a new system that will be there in ten or twenty years.

The Engineering Research Center is focused in three main areas - the first area is engineer treatment systems, that is thinking about the treatment plants that we have and how they could be redesigned to be more efficient using managed natural systems as part of the treatment process, that is using things like treatment wetlands and soil and groundwater to improve the quality of water and to store water. And then finally, research on understanding the institutional frameworks and how to make decisions more effectively in terms of making a more efficient water system.

The way we'd like to try to go about bringing about change in urban water systems is to show what's possible and the way we want to show what's possible is to work with two regional case studies. Our case studies are the San Francisco Bay Area and the Colorado Front Range. We want to examine the current urban water system and how new technologies could slot into different places within the system and then what the implications of that would be for the economics of how the systems operate, the aesthetics and environment of those cities and the long term sustainability of the water system.

Historically, when we've thought about solving California's water problems, we've thought about the imported water systems, the water coming off the Sierra Nevada mountains, the water that's used in the Central Valley for farming. There may be another way and that other way to satisfy the demand for water within cities is to find local water sources through a combination of water recycling, storm water capture and harvesting and sea water desalination, we may be able to wean our cities off of that imported water supply, which means ultimately, more water for our rivers and environment and more water that they can share with agriculture.