Orca Mom Tahlequah (J35) Sends An Urgent Message

Orca mother Tahlequah (J35) pushing her dead calf in Puget Sound

Orca mother Tahlequah (J35) pushing her dead calf in Puget Sound. Scientists say unhealthy water is partially to blame for orca decline. (Ken Balcomb – https://www.whaleresearch.com)

Orca Mom Tahlequah (J35) Sends An Urgent Message

The vigil of Tahlequah, the mother orca who carried her dead calf around for days, is a message and a call to action. Scientists have concluded that a large part of the blame for the decline in orca population and related salmon runs lies in the water quality of Puget Sound — contaminants, toxic chemicals and noise.

If we want healthy water, we must have a healthy water infrastructure.

Our water infrastructure is under stress. It is aging and not keeping up with a fast-growing population, extreme weather events, waste discharges, stormwater runoff, new contaminants, vessel traffic, earthquake risks and cyberattacks.

We are at an inflection point

We can continue to pursue incremental improvements or begin to re-imagine a new kind of water infrastructure. We should think, plan and manage water in all its forms as ONE WATER. The water infrastructure needs to be holistically managed and water technology better aligned with the natural watershed and hydrological cycle.

  • Water should be treated as a resource rather than waste — zero discharge, recycled and used again and again.
  • High-energy-cost water-treatment systems should be redesigned to be more efficient and even to generate energy.
  • Nutrients should be recovered from wastewater and be a source of revenue (e.g. fertilizer).
  • Smaller and distributed water-treatment systems boost resilience to extreme weather and disasters.
  • Rainwater should be managed where it lands through green infrastructure, rain gardens, pervious pavement.
  • Real-time field sensors can help make predictive control decisions for water storage, treatment and flows.
  • Cloud-based systems, artificial intelligence, machine learning and visualization can enhance decision-making.
  • Urban vertical greenhouses can reduce water requirements by 90-95 percent.

What’s holding us back?

It turns out that innovation is difficult in the water sector and faces significant barriers. The cost of failure is high. Water operators are inherently conservative in considering innovation and focus more on regulatory compliance, established practices and service reliability. There is little incentive to be an early adopter.

Legacy Constraints

Water infrastructure lasts a long time, so opportunities to innovate do not emerge very often. The natural tendency is to extend the life of existing infrastructure.

Fragmented Data

An enormous volume of water data is collected by government agencies. However, the data is balkanized, difficult to access and non-interoperable, diminishing its utility.

Regulatory Risk

Advancements in water technologies can be stalled by multiple regulatory requirements, approval delays, litigation, adverse publicity or eventual stoppage. Regulations should encourage innovation, not be a barrier to it.

Workforce Gap

Water operators face a retirement wave and need to recruit a workforce that is technologically trained, sophisticated trillion-dollar range to finance modernization appear to have faded. Fortunately, progress in water legislation bene􀀁ting Puget Sound has advanced with the help of the Washington Congressional delegation.

What can we do?

We need to develop a One Water Roadmap for the entire Puget Sound Region. With such a roadmap, water entrepreneurs and investors will have a guiding long-term context for investing in water technologies and helping reduce the risks for early stage adopters in the water industry.

Another important step is overcoming geographic, jurisdictional, organizational and regulatory silos in managing water resources, This is the time to create a Water Innovation Collaboration around anchor institutions such as:

Tahlequah and the Puget Sound Orca show us the way

If we step up and do the work, right here in Washington, we will lead water infrastructure research, development, and implementation right here in the Pacific Northwest. The quality of water and our economy will benefit immensely. The world will have proven examples of solutions to evaluate and adopt.

Our beloved orca and salmon will thank us.

Egils Milbergs is former executive director of the Washington Economic Development Commission and co-founder of PureBlue and manager of the Aqualyst Accelerator.

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