Water Sustainability in Rural Environments: Vision for a Pipe-Less Society

water sustainability

A vision for decentralized green infrastructure.

In recent decades, urban sprawl has significantly affected the natural characteristics of rural environments due to increased losses of agricultural and forest lands to urban development. Changed rural environment and urban sprawl has significant societal consequences:

1. Increased water demand – where needed water is mostly imported from centralized water delivery systems that are located outside boundaries and usually long-distance from the affected areas – and it has encouraged the expansion of centralized water and wastewater systems to rural environments.

2) Urbanization typically involves alteration of land and natural water systems – land grading, removing vegetation, soil compaction and creating impervious surfaces that increase surface runoff and reduce underground infiltration – and therefore a primary source of increased contaminated surface runoff from developed areas and degradation of water quality of lakes, streams and rivers.

3) Centralized water systems are energy intensive – about 3-4 percent of energy consumption in the U.S. is attributed to centralized water and wastewater systems.

There is a critical need to consider a holistic approach to address water demand in rural environments and its associated problems. Small to medium scale operations where localities use local water sources and reuse and dispose of wastewater and urban runoff at the local level are an example of decentralized infrastructure. It would be ideal if these decentralized wastewater and stormwater runoff management systems gradually replaced our conventional systems. Such change is the vision for a pipe-less society where water and wastewater import and export via pipelines can be minimized.

For example, with the emerging concept of sustainability and the looming shortage of earth’s water resources, rainwater harvesting technology plays an important role in developing sustainable water management strategies. This technology collects and stores rainwater from the rooftops and impervious land surfaces and repurposes it for various indoor and outdoor uses such as flushing toilets, supplying fountains, irrigating landscapes, and recharging groundwater. Other decentralized technologies include underground water storage and recovery, rain gardens (technically known as bioretention cells which are typically composed of a mix of components such as buffer strip), vegetation, organic layer and pond areas, and onsite wastewater treatment which relies on natural process and/or mechanical components to collect, treat, and dispose or reclaim wastewater from a single dwelling/ building and small communities.

As we proceed to design self-sufficient rural systems, it is essential to consider the vision for a pipe-less society by integrating decentralized water infrastructure into rural environments and encouraging state and local agencies to incorporate these sustainable practices in zoning ordinances and building codes.

This post is guest-authored by Dr. Tamim Younos, Water Resource Specialist and President of the Cabell Brand Center and edited by Risa Pesapane. 

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.

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