TECHNOLOGY has come full circle

For years governments have dictated that we treat our wastewater with an array of chemicals using complex, high tech systems built of concrete and metal, tanks and tubes (see photo above). This “treated” water is then deposited into a natural body of water or directly onto the ground. Ultimately, the communities of microbes that transform waste in these high tech systems are the same as those used in nature.

Scientists are now recognizing the simplicity and effectiveness of nature’s processes and are blending technology with natural systems to create more efficient wastewater management.

Natural wetlands purify water by acting like a sponge, soaking up rainwater that runs off the land before it enters rivers and streams. Particles of sediment and metals are removed as the water flows through wetland vegetation. Other pollutants such as nutrients and pesticides are partially extracted as the water percolates through wetland soils[Waterwise, Winter 1995]. Sand dunes also act as natural soil filters, trapping particles which later become food for microorganisms.

With the goal of managing wastewater effectively, economically, and ecologically, scientists are mimicking nature’s processes in the design of ecosystems for wastewater processing based on sand dunes and natural marshes. Combinations of designed ecosystems, such as a constructed wetland and a soil filter in the same system, are known as hybrid systems. These designs have already been shown to effectively process wastewater, and at a much lower cost than conventional systems (WWW).

Mimicking natural environments to treat wastewater is especially important where conventional treatment is not possible. The home of EMJ America and Neon Impressions is located in a 50 year old renovated school on the shores of Jordan Lake, the water supply for nearby communities. A standard septic system (WWW) is not an option because of the potential for contaminating the nearby water supply. This natural model for purifying, reclaiming and reusing water enables the restoration and use of an abandoned and historic school house.

This is one of only two sites in North Carolina where designed ecosystems have been implemented to reclaim and recycle water near their source. Approximately twenty sites in North Carolina are using constructed wetlands and other designed ecosystems for wastewater treatment and disposal.

Government regulators, charged with protecting public and environmental health, are being challenged to provide avenues for the development of these important technologies