Roundtable: Imagining a day without water—with planning, it’s something we can avoid

October 10, 2018

Four experts consider our critical relationship with water and the role we can play in protecting this precious resource


By George Athanasakes, David Pernitsky, Gary Sorge, and Srini Vallabhaneni

The annual observance Imagine a Day Without Water brings a timely reminder for all of us to consider the value of water and the immeasurable influence this resource has on our lives. In our work to support communities in protecting this resource (whether it be our drinking water, coastlines, or streams), we asked leading Stantec experts in water management for their insights.

Read on for thoughts from George Athanasakes, Ecosystem Restoration Services leader; David Pernitsky, global practice leader for Water Treatment; Gary Sorge, discipline leader for Landscape Architecture; and Srini Vallabhaneni, global practice leader for Wet Weather/Stormwater. 


What do you feel are some of the most pressing issues related to our relationship with, and connection to, water as a resource?

George: Water obviously is one of our most vital resources. Urbanization and the demands we place on water usage have severely degraded our rivers, streams, and wetlands. The good news is restoration is becoming increasingly important to the public and in several communities in the Eastern US. Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) programs and MS4 stormwater permitting programs are helping increase funding to restore rivers and streams and enhance water quality. The growing focus on restoration has created a positive impact by reducing erosion and sedimentation, improving aquatic habitat, and enhancing water quality.


The Hatchery Creek Restoration Project, designed by Stantec, is an example of using stream restoration techniques to restore habitat and stream functions. 

Srini: Our global communities have been juggling several water-related issues. This includes resiliency in the face of flood and drought conditions, environmental sustainability to manage pollution, achieving affordable system performance, navigating a changing regulatory environment, and taking a holistic approach on full water cycle management. Among many initiatives to protect and preserve water resources, there is an increasing emphasis on managing stormwater at the source. This is being done through natural means of runoff management, low impact development, green infrastructure combined with conventional grey infrastructure, and stormwater collection and beneficial use.

Gary: The intensity and frequency of storm events have a crippling effect on our natural environment and water quality. Flood waters are highly problematic. They collect solvents (stored in basements and garages), carry sediments, contaminate brooks and streams in aquifers, and carry incredible destructive force. Recent flood events in Houston, Texas, and North Carolina are examples.

As communities work to mitigate the impacts of flooding, sea level rise, and storm surge, they’ve found added challenges. Hardening shorelines compromise valuable natural resources such as marshes, impede recreation along our waterfronts, and are prohibitively costly.

David: Protecting water quality remains a priority. Outbreaks of waterborne diseases have been decreasing in the developed world as our understanding of their causes improves and we take treatment and management steps to protect public health. For example, our understanding of the importance of a full source-to-tap approach has led us, as water engineers, to put equal emphasis on source water protection and treatment.

Risk-based approaches that account for the likelihood of pathogens and other contaminants in our source waters are now being used to help us determine the most appropriate combination of soft and hard infrastructure to meet treated water quality regulations.


Are there certain regions more prone to water issues over others?

David: Growth and densification will present new challenges for our smaller urban communities in the next 20 years. Communities that have historically relied on relatively pristine water sources and minimal treatment will need to reevaluate their approaches as growth potentially increases the pollutant load in their watersheds.

The work done by health authorities, the research community, and our more advanced water utilities to improve our understanding of pathogens and contaminants in our raw and treated water has improved public health protection, but it has also uncovered previously unknown risks. Smaller communities will have the dual challenge of funding additional treatment infrastructure and convincing long-time residents that their historically safe water sources are not as secure as they have been led to believe.

George: Each region tends to have its own unique issues, but all are at equal risk. In the US East, urbanization and water quality are big issues. While in the US West, communities are focused on securing enough water access and managing water rights. Unfortunately, all areas suffer from degradation, and the factors that tend to drive restoration funding are unique in each region.

Srini: I see water management challenges in all geographies we serve, though, the specific local context and risks vary. Overall, the challenges have been increasing in all geographies with no exception—largely driven by changing climate conditions and increased environmental pollution risks—raising the stakes for public safety and health.

Gary: The issue of water quality and the resulting economic impacts to impaired quality has no boundaries.

_q_tweetable:The issue of water quality and the resulting economic impacts to impaired quality has no boundaries._q_Think about what’s happened in recent years with potable water in places like Michigan. While in California, they manage two extremes between heavy floods or drought conditions. Consider the fact that nearly 40% of the world’s population lives along a coast; a significant impact along a coast will have resounding ripple effects. In some major cities, our potable water piping networks are well over 100 years old. These systems can and do fail, resulting in local flooding, loss of water, lack of water to urban populations and businesses, and risks to public health.


In your professional role, how can our work help protect this resource?

Srini: Managing stormwater is integral to full water cycle management. The traditional approach for managing stormwater runoff involved rapid disposal. However, there is a growing understanding that stormwater is a natural resource that—when handled through natural management schemes and harvested—will improve urban water ecosystems, optimize use of conventional stormwater infrastructure, and promote overall environmental sustainability in the context of managing floods, droughts, and pollution.

George: Our Ecosystem Restoration program at Stantec is focused on restoring natural function to degraded ecosystems. We have a very talented team that wakes up every day with the goal of protecting and restoring the natural resources in our communities. We study and understand natural ecological processes and then apply these learnings to our restoration projects. Our goal is to design streams, wetlands, prairies, etc. the way Mother Nature would design them. If we consider natural processes in the design, we can create much more resilient ecosystems that support our vital resources.

David: Stantec has been developing multiple approaches to help our smaller community clients effectively meet tightening water treatment regulations. These include the design of pre-fabricated, packaged water treatment plants that can be easily installed in small, remote communities. This also includes stakeholder engagement and public education to help raise awareness of the issues surrounding public health protection through water treatment.

Gary: One topic that resonates with me is access to potable water. There’s going to be greater demand for potable water as populations shift and we continue to feel the impacts of climate change. In particular, there’s pressure on drinking water quality with the impact of saline from storm surge.

In our communities, resources are dedicated to conveying storm water away as quickly as possible and conveying potable water in, often from great distance, as safely as possible. Landscape architects can greatly influence design decisions and assist in adapting traditional approaches that, in the past, have not always been mindful of a systems-based design. There are opportunities to use the same water more readily and adapting our infrastructure accordingly, especially in cities that face the challenge of aging infrastructure.

Take, for example, Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters Initiative. The ability of green infrastructure to detain and infiltrate stormwater (in addition to the vital recreation improvements they generate) should be examined across all communities. These balanced solutions—systems that can regenerate and heal on their own, while supporting local aesthetics, water quality, and habitat—provide great opportunity to protect our water resources and communities.


Living seawalls use natural filtration systems to provide coastal protection, while preserving community access.


For our coastlines, living shorelines immediately come to mind as a landscape design solution to protecting our communities from storm surge and helping preserve water quality in our bays, oceans, and estuaries. We’re seeing parks and open space increasingly being viewed as critical infrastructure, particularly in urban areas. Parks are ripe for needed investment, which has the potential to generate a triple bottom line benefit to the environment, community, and local economy.


About the authors

George Athanasakes is a nationally recognized expert in stream restoration and leads our ecosystem restoration group. He is one of the driving forces behind some of the nation’s largest and most innovative stream restoration projects … and he’s a trout fisherman.

David Pernitsky is our global practice leader for water treatment. He knows that solving water treatment problems starts with understanding root causes, which are not always obvious. He works to avoid solutions that only address the symptoms of deeper issues.

Gary Sorge is our discipline leader for Landscape Architecture. He understands that resiliency is about public safety and fiscal responsibility, as well as sustaining commerce, recreation, transportation, and environmental infrastructure.

Srini Vallabhaneni is the Global Practice Leader for our Wet Weather Flow & Urban Stormwater sector. With a vision to best serve future generations, he believes our work is an exceptional opportunity to make a real difference by improving water environments around the world.

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