Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Flushing our sewage into waterways unacceptable

 By Jim Mosher

Wastewater treatment has advanced since the halcyon days of ancient Rome — with a noted exception. As did the Romans, we continue to dump sewage into our waterways.

We remove the obvious bad stuff but are forced, by technological limits and a lack of political will, to leave a whole bunch of bad stuff in the treated sewage we discharge into our waterways. If the Romans treated their sewage at all, it was by incidental dilution because its sewage system was combined with its drainage system.

The combined sewer system in Winnipeg isn’t much different; seems we haven’t advanced much since ancient Rome. During heavy rainfalls, snowmelts and watermain breaks, Winnipeg’s system simply overflows. That results in raw sewage entering the Red and Assiniboine rivers. It is well documented that such events cause nutrient loading of waterways and can lead to fish kills in the receiving waters.

This situation is no longer tolerable.

One cannot blame the members of Winnipeg’s current city council entirely. They were not around when the city’s combined sewer system was built decades ago. But they can be blamed for dragging their feet on construction of a new system. Yes, the price tag is in the hundred of millions of dollars — it’s a price we should all share. Let’s get on with it.

Though the sewage of the modern moment has been ‘treated’, it continues to foul our lakes and streams with a host of contaminants. It’s not as noxious as the pollution that flowed into the Tiber River from the sewage systems of long-ago Rome but it remains a toxic brew.

The effluent that comes out after sewage is treated contains nutrients that stress out waterways, as well we know; but that effluent also contains pathogens, toxic chemicals, household products, hormones, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals and road salt, according to the 15th Biennial Report of the International Joint Commission (IJC), released in January 2011.

“The sources of these threats include: failing septic systems, leaking underground storage tanks, hazardous waste sites, abandoned wells, leaking sanitary sewers, confined animal feeding operations, de-icing practices, landfills, land application of manure, agricultural practices, spills, atmospheric deposition, vehicle fluids, cemeteries, petroleum refineries and injection wells,” the IJC report states.

But that’s not all, there are ‘chemicals of emerging concern’, chemicals that are unregulated or inadequately regulated. “Wastewater treatment plants, one of the leading conveyors of these chemicals to the nearshore [of waterways], are not designed to remove them,” the report notes with some understatement.

Dumping ‘treated’ sewage into waterways then is a game of ecological Russian roulette. While there is no ready solution, there are alternatives available, including composting and combustion toilets — choices that are out of the financial reach of many. Constructed wetlands  absorb nutrients and take up microorganisms that otherwise foul our waterways; they have proved effective in some locales. These man-made wetlands offer an additional level of treatment, but they’re usually only suitable for smaller communities; city-scale use of constructed wetlands would consume too much land.

The chemicals we know are washed out with our effluent and the others of ‘emerging concern’ can probably be removed with additional, likely costly, layers of treatment. Those innovative design approaches may be decades away.

In the absence of a ready solution, municipalities will continue to treat their sewage to the standards now in place then allow that effluent to run into our waterways, whether from lagoons or wastewater treatment plants.

We have become too accustomed to ‘washing away’ our sewage with water, says David Schindler, Killam professor of ecology at the University of Alberta. Is there an alternative? Not in the short term, says Schindler.

“I really think, though, that in the long term we need to get away from the 19th-century notion that water is just there to wash away sewage,” Schindler said in an interview with the author in 2007. “Composting and combustion toilets — I think we really need to be turning to that on a large scale.”

Many jurisdictions offer modest incentives to switch to low-flush and alternative toilets. We could adopt a more aggressive approach. New-home builders and sellers should be required to install toilets that reduce or remove both water and organic material from the wastewater stream. This would not increase the price of a home by a lot, but it could make a difference over a few decades.

The incremental nature of fundamental change is frustrating because it will take years for our actions to have a measurable impact. Staying with the status quo will only exacerbate the problem. We must, at the least, take the baby steps that are required. And soon.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Flailing away at the Second Law

By Jim Mosher

One of the laws of physics says that everything is always getting less organized. It’s a conclusion embodied in what’s called the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The law basically tells us that ‘entropy’ is always increasing. ‘Entropy’ is a more technically refined term for what we laypeople would normally call disorder or the random arrangement of stuff.

I understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics because I was on holidays for two weeks — and everything simply got less organized despite my best-laid plans.

I stared down the Second Law — and lost.

We have a garage-studio building that we ‘converted’ to a storage shed. I decided I would try to ‘organize’ things in this building. All I achieved was a random reordering of stuff. I rearranged the deck furniture on my storage shed Titanic.

Instead of putting the sandpaper on the shelf to the right of the door; I put it on the shelves to the left of the door. And I put screws and nails I’ll probably never use in a plastic Folgers coffee container (partly because it cannot be recycled locally, and I wanted to find a use for it).

In the end, I achieved nothing, except to prove the ultimate truth of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

I sullenly meet the Second Law every day. No matter what a good little recycler I try to be, there’s still a bag full of garbage at week’s end. And even at my recycling best, I continue to contribute evidence to support the Second Law.

The Second Law is frequently illustrated using the mechanical model. This model suggests that there is no process that is 100-per-cent efficient. When we use gasoline in our car engines a certain percentage of that energy is ‘lost’ as heat that cannot be used for so-called useful work.

The Second Law is often evoked when people talk about perpetual motion machines.

Imagine a machine that, through its own processes, captures some form of energy and uses it, with 100-per-cent efficiency, to keep itself going, and going and going … forever. A sort of Ever-ready bunny on steroids.

The mechanical holy grail of perpetual motion will forever elude us, states the Second Law. We can only ever speak of optimal efficiency … because some energy will be lost to the universe outside our best-designed machines.

The Second Law is a theoretical refinement of what we all know intuitively.

No matter how fit we are, we will, eventually, die. We can extend our lives by doing all the right things we should know about. But we cannot cheat death.

But even in death, some of what is left of us will serve the universal greater good — and temporarily increase local order — whether adding to the foodchain or entering the atmosphere as a useable gas. But much of our moldering remains will dissipate randomly as heat energy.

One might imagine, then, that my holidays were disheartening, as I harkened back to my university days and my study of thermodynamics.

In the frame of thermodynamics, life seems an almost worthless exercise, bound only to increase the universal sink of disorder.

Ever the optimist, though, I shun this notion of futility and the fatalism and almost nihilism that’s bound up in it.

It’s the temporariness and fleetingness of life that imbues it with such value. How precious the moment that cannot be revisited. How sweet the first kiss, that first love. The second kiss or second love may be qualitatively better, but it is still lost in second place.

And so the mathematics that is the very underpinning of physics and our other great sciences is also home to our greatest hopes. Instead of the dire and meaningless, we find the essential values that make us human.

So there! I have recovered from a holiday briefly spent trying to face down the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I failed but the effort — in spite of the fact the studio-shed is no better organized than before — was worth it. The studio-shed looks better in my eyes, though proof of that must be set against the fact of our uphill struggle against disorder.

I believe, if naively, that my energy was not wasted.