On a road trip last month, a friend and I decided to turn due west outside of Jacksonville, Florida and take a quicker and much more scenic route to our ultimate destination bypassing Orlando and Tampa.
The route carves through cattle and horse ranches past Gainesville to our ultimate destination on a 40-mile-long peninsula that spans the 4 to 10 miles between the Gulf of Mexico and Old Tampa Bay.
The last leg of the trip dissected several huge wellfields this peninsula began to lease and develop in other counties just prior to the outbreak of World War II. This occurred after it had first been noticed in the late 1920s that the water quality in St. Petersburg on the very southern tip of this Pinellas County peninsula was in decline.
This tiny strip of land had a permanent population of less than 60,000 people when it turned to wellfields in other counties for water. Today, the population is nearing 1 million and everywhere you go, there are glimpses of a dual water system, one for drinking water and the other filled with treated wastewater used for irrigation.
However, this dual system with color-coded hydrants -- the first ever in a metropolitan city -- wasn’t innovated by St. Petersburg and then adopted throughout the peninsula as a means of reducing water consumption, although that certainly has been one of the benefits.
It was spurred by stiffer state regulations in 1971 pursuant to the Clean Water Act. The cities and towns and villages surrounding 2,201-square-mile Tampa Bay including the port of Tampa to the east were told they must significantly improve treatment of wastewater before discharging it into what is actually a series of four distinct and connected bays.
St. Petersburg officials weighed the costs of upgrading its treatment facilities but elected not to discharge into the bay at all. After determining that nutrients were the most stubborn and difficult ingredients to remove, the community elected to team with the federal government through grants to develop a dual system that would utilize reclaimed water.
In this system, wastewater is treated to a point where it is all but drinkable and then redistributed through the dual system of pipes back out to golf courses, businesses, schools and homes for landscape irrigation, where it turns out the nutrients in the water create a savings and added benefit
Today, in Florida alone, more than 650 million gallons of reclaimed water is redistributed each day and used by 525 golf courses, 875 parks, 320 schools and more than a quarter of a million residential irrigation customers.
In the United States, urban reuse of water began more than 100 years ago when it was first used to irrigate the 1,017- acre Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Broad utilization of reclaimed water for irrigation has been around since the 1960s. It is now as clean or cleaner than drinking water in many places and was proven safe to use on crops a quarter of a century ago.
As James Salzman points out in his new book Drinking Water – A History, some communities are now getting around the “yuck factor” by reinjecting reclaimed water back into aquifers and then pumping it back up as drinking water, although it is safe and tasty enough for direct distribution.
Salzman, who teaches at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina where I live, is not the only water-related contribution to Durham’s reputation as a place “where great things happen.” Another example is taking place over a hundred miles to the west of Durham.
For a little more than a year, Duke University has teamed with Duke Energy to develop and operate a pilot project as part of the Durham-based school’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2024.
Aided by federal and state grants, the project teams up with a 9,000-head hog finishing operation near Boonville, NC to capture hog waste in a huge bladder and process it into energy used at the farm and using natural processes to cleanse wastewater so that it can be used to clean out the barns and when ready to water feed crops. The award-winning project has drawn investment from Google which will share in the offsets.
In addition to showing the way to reducing air and water pollution including odors, the pilot project shows the way for other agricultural operations to adopt full-cost accounting, also known as the triple bottom line, as a means to improve the efficiency of free-market capitalism.
While it is ironic that some lawmakers seem bent on exempting the free market from full-cost accounting, also known as the triple bottom line, it is heartening nonetheless to see communities, corporations and institutions that are continuing to pursue a more sustainable capitalism.