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By Denise Nelson, P.E., ENV SP, LEED AP

Whether you like the “s” word or not, sustainability is here; it’s all around us. The actions we take every day are about living in this moment and planning for the future. We need to be sustainable in order to exist in the future. The difference now, compared with the last 2,000 years or so of human existence, is that now we can see and quantify the challenges we are facing just to continue our existence. We recognize the diminishing resources on earth, the long-term impacts of environmental degradation, and the changing weather patterns. When thinking about our future existence, we realize we will have to put in more effort to maintain the same quality of life. Sustainability is not just about human survival, it is about our quality of life here on earth.

Electric car charging stations serve vehicles that reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: courtesy of Denise Nelson

Electric car charging stations serve vehicles that reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: courtesy of Denise Nelson

What is sustainability? It is not a tangible item but a concept — a general, comprehensive concept to protect our quality of life for the future. That could mean preserving the environment, conserving resources, or forming beneficial collaborations. It could mean using mass transit, recycling, or planting a tree. There’s a wide variety of activities, and there’s also a wide scale for implementation. Conserving potable water ranges from taking a shorter shower to watering your garden from a rainwater cistern to installing reclaimed water piping.

The same is true for infrastructure projects: There are a wide variety of options and each option has a wide scale for implementation. Most of the concepts are the same ones we face at home as individuals, just translated to the scale of infrastructure projects. Buying local, protecting streams and wetlands, and minimizing energy use are just as relevant in a neighborhood as at an airport or water treatment plant and will likely have a greater impact.

Sustainable infrastructure incorporates some of these sustainability options at whatever scale is appropriate. It could be a rain garden for stormwater management and creating natural space, a road made from recycled asphalt on a site that balanced cut and fill, or a pumping station with operational flexibility at an elevation above the floodplain. Yes, it could be the stereotypical building with solar panels on top to generate power or it could be the forward-thinking pipeline to provide redundancy in the water distribution system and support economic development. There are as many types of sustainable infrastructure as there are infrastructure.

Infiltration boxes allow for local stormwater management and support vegetation that improves the air quality and views. Photo: courtesy of Denise Nelson

Infiltration boxes allow for local stormwater management and support vegetation that improves the air quality and views. Photo: courtesy of Denise Nelson

The Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) provides guidance and tools to promote development of sustainable infrastructure. The types of infrastructure projects using ISI’s Envision rating system indicate that sustainable practices are relevant and feasible for all types of projects. Approximately 40 percent of the projects are in the water sector. These include quite a variety of water, wastewater, and stormwater pipelines, pumping stations, and treatment plants. Approximately another 40 percent of the projects are in the transportation sector. Again, we see a great variety, with roadway, airport, light rail, streetcar, and bridge projects. The remaining projects include energy generation and distribution, site development, waste management, and deconstruction.

Based on the success of Envision (http://sustainableinfrastructure.org/envision/project-awards/#3/48.22/-95.80), the advocacy of the American Society of Civil Engineers for investment to rebuild our infrastructure in a sustainable manner (www.infrastructurereportcard.org), the national plan for federal sustainability in the next decade (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/19/executive-order-planning-federal-sustainability-next-decade), the United Nation’s focus on infrastructure in the Sustainable Development Goals (www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals), and many other drivers, it’s safe to say that sustainability is all around us. Guidance, tools, and lessons learned are available for trying new procedures (https://www.epa.gov/science-and-technology/sustainable-practices-science); the days of being the guinea pig for beta testing are over. Luckily though, as the industry progresses, there is still opportunity to be creative and inventive to inspire real progress.


Denise Nelson, P.E., ENV SP, LEED AP, is vice president for public education at the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (www.sustainableinfrastructure.org). Her responsibilities include education and training related to Envision, the guidance and rating system for sustainable infrastructure. She has more than 14 years of experience in water utilities and sustainable infrastructure.

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