A non-partisan, neutral perspective supporting diversity in the color of water

Friday, March 26, 2010

Post-modern Protect the Public Paradigm

Recall that the Graywater Advisory Committee’s primary goal is to develop recommendations for the treatment, disposal, and reuse of graywater that are protective of public health and the environment (emphasis added). I often hear members casting votes for or against different topics of discussion within the Graywater Advisory Committee based on "protecting the public".  But what does that mean?  Is there a consistent definition within Oregon? And does the definition change with changes in "values" or "climate"?

The Graywater Advisory Committee is composed of professionals in many different disciplines within the water and wastewater industry, wrapped up in government, including state, county and municipal; watershed councils; private industry, including consultants in wastewater treatment, architecture, landscape architecture; law; non-governmental organizations; and the academies.  In order to get a feel for what "protect the public" means within a few of these disciplines, I examined the mission statements, duties, and definitions of some of the participating disciplines.  Apologies to those disciplines which were left out as I could not locate some of them.  

Let's start with attorneys since there are two on the committee.  According to Section 9.460 of the Oregon State Bar, Duties of attorneys. "An attorney shall: (1) Support the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this state; (2) Employ, for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to the attorney, such means only as are consistent with truth, and never seek to mislead the court or jury by any artifice or false statement of law or fact; (3) Maintain the confidences and secrets of the attorney’s clients consistent with the rules of professional conduct established pursuant to ORS 9.490; and (4) Never reject, for any personal consideration, the cause of the defenseless or the oppressed."

Not much about protecting the public unless you interpret "the cause of the defenseless or the oppressed" in the definition of "the public".

There are a couple of architects on the committee.  According to the Oregon Board of Architect Examiners, the objectives of this group are "To safeguard the health, safety and welfare of the public, to eliminate unnecessary loss and waste in this state."

I am not differentiating much between the architects and Registered Landscape Architects since I am not certain about the committee members practices, but the according to the Responsibility to the Profession, one "Could stop an act which creates a significant risk to the public health, safety or welfare, and could not otherwise be prevented."

There is at least one engineer on the committee.  According to the mission of the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, it is "to regulate the practices of engineering, land surveying, and photogrammetry in the State as they relate to the welfare of the public in safeguarding life, health and property."

Environmental health specialists are represented on the committee. According to Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR) 338-005-0020 Duties of an environmental health specialist "means activities which include, but are not limited to, the enforcement of regulations and statutes; planning and/or conducting surveys, investigations, and inspections; interpretation and utilization of data to promote environmental sanitation as it affects the health of the public or the quality of the environment".

There are a few professionals working in the field of municipal wastewater treatment on the committee who are apparently covered under Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR) 340-049-0005 where "The purpose of these rules is to help protect public health, the environment, and the water resources of Oregon."

As the sole academic representative, the mission of one of the many public universities in Oregon - Oregon State University -  has many goals, but desires "maintaining a rigorous focus on academic excellence, particularly in the three Signature Areas: Advancing the Science of Sustainable Earth Ecosystems; Improving Human Health and Wellness; and Promoting Economic Growth and Social Progress." I am an Oregon-registered geologist who is also certified in Engineering Geology which focuses on "geologic work that is relevant to engineering, environmental concerns, and the public health, safety, and welfare".

So, it sounds like "protecting the public" means many things to the committee members: health, safety, welfare, the quality of the environment, sustainability, water resources, property, unnecessary loss or waste, wellness, economic growth, and promoting social progress. It comes as no surprise that there is confusion when someone pitches a cliche like "protecting the public".  Is there room for changing perceptions of what this means?

One of my graduate students in public policy recently examined a "wicked" water problem using the Cynefin framework as a tool for conceptualizing issues in knowledge management.  It has been applied to a range of fields “primarily to consider the dynamics of situations, decisions, perspectives, conflicts, and changes in order to come to a consensus for decision-making under uncertainty.”  As shown in the diagram from her Masters in Public Policy paper defended yesterday, the framework features five domains – chaos, complex, knowable, known, and the central, unnamed domain (also referred to as disorder).  Each describes a decision-making context and features a decision model (e.g. probe-sense-respond or sense-analyze-respond).  These domains imply no values or hierarchy.  Here is a video describing the framework.

This model assists in understanding the interaction of science and policy by providing a framework to consider how scientists and policy makers make decisions.  Scientists tend to operate within the knowable and known domains, drawing on the complex domain to infuse new ideas, while policy makers tend to operate within the complex and knowable domains.  More importantly this model assists by providing a framework to consider how policy makers hope to be able to make decisions.  For policy makers, operating within the known domain may be a goal, but achieving certainty and predictability in public issues is difficult.

What does all of this mean for "graywater" and "protecting the public"? Changing perceptions is hard work.  For graywater, the challenge is to think outside of the box and break the mold as described in this article, where the author states "...state and local government agencies and water utilities are about the most staid, conservative organizations around. Water treatment hearings and lunchtime at a retirement community: I've been to both and still can't recall which was which."

Is there another way to "protect the public"?  Most of the discussions regarding "protecting the public" have focused on what can best be described as "downstream" approaches.  The blog Clean Water Action indicates we should "look upstream to protect water and health: prevent pollution and health harm before toxics enter our water".  The old ways of tackling one pollutant at a time and behaving as if water pollution is somehow separate from what’s in our air, on the land, in our food, in our bodies, affecting our health and that of the planet, are no longer up to today’s challenges – if they ever were". 

Consider, for example, this recent article titled "Environmental Effects of Bathing and Showering: Underappreciated Sources of Water Pollution From Medicines" regarding active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), which has been the source of growing concern (and did not make the list of threats developed from our colleague, a state toxicologist). "These two sources can result in residues being washed off the body and down bathroom drains. These include steroids (such as cortisone and testosterone), acne medicine, antimicrobials, narcotics, and other substances". The author of the study explained "that some APIs in topical medications enter the environment in a form that has the potential for having greater impact than those released in feces and urine."

The recommended solution?  More of an "upstream" approach rather than a "downstream" approach. The author "cited steps by which consumers can reduce the potential environmental impact of these skin-based pharmaceuticals by following directions and applying only the recommended amount, rather than thinking that 'if a little is good, more must be better'" (emphasis added). And when should this "upstream" training start? Consider this article about an elementary school.

Does protecting the environment have parity with protecting the public?  According to the Oregon Legal Graywater Association  "Sustainable communities reflect a balanced interplay among the environment, the economy, and social systems. Water use is a perfect indicator for this concept: human use of water resources is quite necessary, but such use must be mindful. Consuming water from, and disposal of processed water into, natural systems can negatively affect them (emphasis added). Water transmission and purification uses a large amount of another limited resource-energy". And this article titled "Rivers are Carbon Processors, not Inert Pipelines" indicates that rivers have a large role in the greenhouse gas situation, one of the bigger threats to the public if one believes Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Wastewater treatment is a neccessary but energy intensive business.  According to this article, the authors reference the advanced bioremediation process to reducing greenhouse gases associated with wastewater treatment.  But if graywater reuse reduces the quantity of wastewater that needs to be treated at the wastewater treatment plant, aren't we protecting the very things that are within the myriad definitions of protecting public health, safety, welfare, the quality of the environment, sustainability, water resources, property, unnecessary loss or waste, wellness, economic growth, and promoting social progress?

The post-modern "protect the public" paradigm considers multiple ways of knowing about what constitutes protecting the public.  The new paradigm goes beyond the traditional downstream approaches of using rivers for "waste" disposal and by writing rigid rules which are difficult, if not impossible, to enforce, especially in these challenging economic times.  It reaches upstream to the public, holding them accountable for protecting not only themselves, but also the environment they need and cherish, through outreach and education about what goes "down the sink", too, and the environmental impacts associated with sundry goods that we use on a daily basis.

And no week would be completed without the Greywater Gadget of the Week, the strange square-shaped W+W toilet for those greywater lovers with a quadratical hiney, designed by the greywater experts in Australia.

Next posting on Greywater Grifting...


  1. Hmmm, you cover huge territory in this post, but a couple of interesting points pop out...

    Why do we keep hearing that a dichotomy exists between protecting public health and protecting the environment? The OARs talk about both in the same breath and yet many in the profession of upholding the OARS talk only about public health. Hence we get decisions made about sewers that leave out discussion of groundwater mining or interbasin transfers...or habitat destruction...

    My other query relates to the concept of redirecting greywater to reduce the amount of wastewater that needs to be treated. Does that necessarily correlate to lower energy costs for treatment? I have heard researchers, designers and operators say that the more concentrated the wastewater stream is (as it would become with a significant amount of greywater diversions) the more work it takes to renovate the wastewater. I don't have any data either way, but it's a question that keeps lurking in the back of my mind.

  2. OWT:

    Both good questions. In my opinion, the environment and health are not mutually exclusive.

    I asked your question regarding *loading* of wastewater treatment plants to the audience during the Salem AWRA presentation. One WWTP engineer from one of the largest engineering companies in the world indicated that the WWTP can handle variable loads, no problem (less wastewater delivered to the plant than originally designed, say 10 to 20%, no problem. The energy costs question I cannot answer with a reasonable degree of certainty. Thanks for your continued comments!

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  4. Thanks for reading, marry. More greywater gab coming this week given that the first week of school is over. Whew!