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World Water Day: Valuing a finite, irreplaceable resource

March 22, 2021

By Babak Bozorgy, Melissa Carter and Dominic Murray-Fiume

Water is universal, but our experiences are unique. What does water mean to you?

Water is essential to life … for everyone, everywhere.

As designers, we are focused on conserving and managing these critical resources through sustainable design. Water is an important part of our sustainability spectrum.

And as a design firm, we are committed to sustainability. Recently, Corporate Knights―which recognizes companies that implement responsible business practices based on environmental, social, and governance indicators―named Stantec the fifth most sustainable company in the world and first in North America. We’ve also continued to illustrate our commitment to sustainability by pledging to reach carbon neutrality by 2022 as a first step in achieving operational net-zero by 2030.

In honor of World Water Day—an annual observance on March 22, with this year’s theme of valuing water—we talked to three Stantec practitioners to learn what water means to them professionally, socially, and personally.

A rainstorm in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. In dry regions, powerful storms create stormwater challenges.

Professionally: Water is a riddle to be solved

Dr. Babak Bozorgy, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Science and engineering inspired me from an early age, and I was drawn to water engineering specifically because of its complexity. Almost everything is uncertain in water engineering. That uncertainty is amplified in the fast-developing countries in the Middle East, a place where landscapes are changing from desert to urban areas at an astounding pace.

When many people think of the Middle East region, they imagine dry, dusty deserts. That’s true—the Middle East is one of the most water-scarce parts of the planet, and it doesn’t rain often. But when it does rain, it can create massive problems. Most rainfall events in this part of the world occur in the form of short and high-intensity storms, making stormwater management challenging and important for the safety and convenience of our communities. Climate change has worsened the issue, with more severe storm events in the region over the past few years.

That’s why the work I do with my teammates is so vital. We’re working with clients to address stormwater and flood management issues.

As we recognize World Water Day on March 22, it’s important to think about—and then make positive decisions—on this most essential of resources.

In many cases, we’re starting from scratch. We have a lot of new cities without infrastructure or cities with relatively young systems, which provide us with options. We can work with clients to determine what’s practical rather than be limited to what can be done to retrofit aging assets. This provides the opportunity to apply the principles of sustainable drainage systems (suds), low impact development, and water sensitive urban design by managing stormwater at the source. This saves our urban utilities money by allowing stormwater discharge from the new development areas into the major urban stormwater collection systems at predevelopment rates.

New cities also bring challenges, though—specifically, a lack of historical data. Cities are making large investments based on our models—so we must get them right. Calibration and verification of hydrologic and hydraulic models with limited data, especially rainfall and flow data is extremely challenging and in many cases, almost impossible. So, we must make assumptions, rely on anecdotal information, and consider factors of safety.

Working through challenges is the most rewarding part of my work. Spending hours—sometimes late at night and for weeks—to think through a problem, put the numbers into a calculation or lines on a drawing, and then see it come to life to resolve one or more difficulties for a city and the people who live there is rewarding. 

Providence, Rhode Island, sits on Narraganset Bay, which for years suffered from combined sewer overflows.

Socially: Water is a conduit to create equity

Melissa Carter, Providence, Rhode Island

Early in my career, I got involved in the Clean Water Atlanta (CWA) program. This US$3.9 billion undertaking to address water quality concerns and improve aging infrastructure in Georgia’s capital is one of the largest wet-weather programs in the United States.

A project with a scope as large as CWA affects the community in significant ways. Naturally, it creates a financial burden. Part of the program involved determining how to make the cost as manageable as possible—especially for lower-income ratepayers. Funding these programs can be difficult, but it’s amazing to see the water equity and opportunities that result from the investment. Clean water programs make streams fishable and swimmable again, increase neighborhood pride and revitalization, and lead to economic growth.

I remember doing site checks on a pipeline under construction. There was a retired man who lived adjacent to the site, and he would pull out a lawn chair and just watch the work each day. He even invited friends to join him. He talked about how glad he was that we were there. He was tired of having sewer water behind his house. When I think about those moments, I remember how I make a difference.

After my experiences in Atlanta, I was motivated to identify similar large programs where we could provide that same level of service, using our technical skills and financial services to help utilities drive equity in an affordable way. I moved to the Boston area and became involved with the Narraganset Bay Commission’s (NBC) Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) program.

Since the 1980s, the Narraganset Bay has struggled with sewer overflows that threaten the local shellfish industry and make the water unpleasant for recreation.

Over the past 20 years, NBC, which operates wastewater collection and treatment facilities for 10 member communities, has been leading a three-phase program to address CSO volumes and resulting environmental impacts. Program goals include a reduction of annual CSO volumes by 98% with no more than four overflows per year, an 80% decrease in shellfish bed closures, and a 98% reduction in fecal coliform loading.

Most recently, we used advanced analytics in conjunction with hydraulic models and total expenditure planning to optimize Phase 3 of the project, a second deep-rock CSO storage tunnel. The result? A detailed model with smart analytics that established a road map for solution optimization at an estimated $60 million reduction in capital costs.

The work we’re doing for NBC will benefit the entire Rhode Island coast. It’s that holistic approach to water management that gets me excited.

Polluted water in one place affects us all. Making sure everyone has access to affordable, clean water is rewarding for me, for my colleagues, and for the community.

Wineglass Bay in Tasmania, Australia.

Personally: Water fosters a connection between our land, our communities, and our souls

Dominic Murray-Fiume, Melbourne, Australia

People don’t tend to think about water until they don’t have enough. Growing up in Australia during the Millennium Drought, I understood the very real threat of water scarcity to our environment and communities. That’s because it was a consistent topic of conversation. Teachers and parents—the people who shaped my views—talked to me about conservation. I thought about the water I used, whether I was playing with water guns, brushing my teeth, or helping wash the car.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the impact of water shortages. It occurred when my family took a summer holiday to the Gippsland region, often called the food bowl of Victoria. Though I was a city boy, my dad grew up there, and we returned regularly to camp, hike, and enjoy the outdoors. Gippsland was a green, idyllic landscape—until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Creeks I’d splashed in were dry. The beautiful blocks of land were dusty and yellow.

I remembered that experience as I pursued my engineering studies. My professional focus has strengthened my relationship to our natural environment. Now, when I visit a new place, I want to explore the area, maybe take a walk along a local river, and think about the history and meaning of water to that community. In Australia, land and water are deeply sacred to Aboriginal people, and my work provides opportunities to learn from Traditional Owners about valuing and caring for the environment and its associated communities.

My integrated water management and supply strategy work allows me to build strong relationships across regional Victoria. I’ve even found myself delivering a long-term water resource strategy for the Gippsland region, returning to my water roots. Supporting regional projects means I get to think about how we can support local industry and develop strategies to help secure Australia’s future.

I work on projects closer to home in metro Melbourne, too. I am developing large-scale integrated water schemes within our metropolitan growth areas—an exciting shift toward valuing the circular economy. The systems and supply across Australia can’t be considered in isolation; it’s important to see the big picture. We have a water scarcity problem—but we also have solutions.

What does water mean to you?

Maybe you live near a beach and have seen first-hand the consequences of litter in our oceans. Maybe you’re a skier and treasure fresh powder. Or maybe you’re just grateful to know you can turn on your tap and get clean water and you want to keep it that way.

As we recognize World Water Day on March 22, it’s important to think about—and then make positive decisions—on this most essential of resources.

  • Babak Bozorgy

    Babak believes that sustainable and resilient urban communities can be achieved, but it takes true innovation and world-class technology.

    Contact Babak
  • Melissa Carter

    With over 20 years of experience, Melissa’s advocacy for sustainable infrastructure drives her work to positively impact the communities supported by her projects.

    Contact Melissa
  • Dominic Murray-Fiume

    As a consulting civil engineer with our Water group, Dominic is experienced in water and wastewater strategy including network planning, feasibility studies, civil design, asset management, and project management. He’s also our DPG lead in Australia.

    Contact Dominic
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