Singapore once again ahead of the curve

Singapore is a really interesting place for water enthusiasts like myself.  The third most densely populated state in the world at 18,943 people per square mile, this city-state of 5.2 million has virtually no natural water resources.  Yet it manages to attract high-tech industries and maintain a high quality of life, historically because it relied on its impoverished upstream neighbor, Malaysia, for water supplies.  The countries signed a 100-year-long water supply agreement in 1962, in which dammed water supplies in Malaysia are exported to Singapore for a fee.  Singapore even owns a couple of reservoirs in Malaysia, since there isn’t space for the storage in Singapore itself.

Surprisingly for a government organization, though, Singaporean officials have been planning ahead of time by investing in state-of-the-art water supply management.  Desalination and water recycling plants produce 40% of the city’s water supply, with a dam in the city producing 10%, and the remainder coming from Malaysian sources.  A government official recently asserted that the water supply was reliable enough that the city could meet its own demand “if need be.”  They’re about 50 years early.

The secret to success in water management for a water-poor place like Singapore is investment.  Since 2006, the city has spent roughly $480-640 million per year on water supplies.  That’s a lot of money, and it’s paying off in terms of local jobs as well as industries moving to or expanding in the city.  Average water use is about 40 gallons per person per day, which is unheard of in the US – our lowest per captita water use is more like 100-200 gallons per person per day, largely due to outdoor water use.  I’m very impressed by Singapore.

For reference, my hometown of Atlanta has about 5.3 million people sprawled out at 630 people per square mile.  Since 1999, the city has spent roughly $2 billion to upgrade its out-of-date sewer system (~$150 million per year).  (Other counties across the metropolitan area spend around $10 million annually on preventative maintenance so that the same fate as the city won’t befall them.)  The state of Georgia recently distributed $100 million in loans to reservoirs and water supply projects across the state.  Were the city of Atlanta or the state of Georgia to emulate Singapore, they’d need to distribute at least 5 times as much money for water supply projects, and probably more if you consider the relative land area we’re talking about.  Plus, that money would need to go to top-of-the line improvements rather than standard fixes like tunnels to store untreated stormwater or simple maintenance work on reservoirs.  And we’d need to get serious about conservation, too.  That’s a lot of work ahead.  I wonder if the US will ever come close to the investments Singapore has made.

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invisible infrastructure

As I noted a couple of days ago, it appears that China’s bold, new infrastructure in the area around Beijing was not accompanied by basic stormwater management infrastructure.  Well, an article today interviewed some Chinese residents about that very thing.

Beijing remains peppered with sinkholes, including one collapsed pavement in its central business district over 100 square feet wide. Meanwhile, the developer of a water-damaged affordable-housing complex in the suburbs has been accused of cutting corners to boost profits.

Hm.  That sounds not good.  In fact, the article goes on to state that the local government cannot issue bonds for more expensive infrastructure, like storm drains and sewer lines, that don’t generate revenue.  Plus, government officials are intent upon building bold, beautiful infrastructure that all can see and appreciate — the “invisible” infrastructure that should ideally accompany and protect the “visible” stuff is not held in high regard.

I would say that this is a problem with modern society in general.  Do you have any sense of what infrastructure is necessary to provide you with clean drinking water, to dispose of your trash, to treat your wastewater, and to recycle your papers and plastics?  Or for that matter, what about the infrastructure necessary to provide your car with gasoline or to synthesize that soap or cleaning solution you like?  There’s a lot we don’t notice behind the scenes.  A lot of it gets taken care of by the private sector here, and the utilities do what they can in the public sector.  But China’s government hasn’t yet figured out this local scale public sector stuff, it seems.  After all, how many officials want sewer pipelines named after themselves?

Cadiz project refuses to die

The Cadiz project to extract groundwater from the Mojave desert was just approved the other night to move forward, environmental impact statement complete.  They’ve used some loopholes to get non-traditional agencies to approve their environmental impact assessment, building along a railroad right-of-way for example, and partnering with a water agency in Orange County, roughly 200 miles away, as the project lead.

I read through a lot of their Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the comments by various agencies, and Cadiz responses.  Whenever possible, the project team’s response has been to throw paper at the problem, without really saying anything new.  The Final EIR is some 1700 pages!  One example of the project’s low quality assessment is their analysis of desert springs likely to be affected by the groundwater pumping.  The project asserted that no springs would be affected by the pumping for some semi-legit scientific reasoning.  Then they went out to survey the local springs.  Once.  At the end of the long dry season, before the rainy season began, in November.  What a surprise, they didn’t find any significant springs!  Thorough analysis requires at least multiple trips at different times of year, with the least weight given to surveys done in the very driest part of the year!  They also have provided no — zero — water quality data to show that the groundwater they extract will be drinkable at all.  As a water chemist, this seems like a major oversight to me, especially because it was the water chemistry that played a major role in killing the project 10 years ago…

No matter, the Santa Margarita Water District has approved the project and hungrily awaits its 5,000 acre-feet per year to be delivered from 200 miles away.  What’s that?  How will the water get to the Santa Margarita Water District?  Oh, of course, by using the Metropolitan Water District’s (MWD’s) Colorado River Aqueduct.  Though this sounds efficient and reasonable, did anyone check with MWD, the largest consolidated player in Southern California’s water market?  MWD rejected nearly this same plan just 10 years ago due to environmental concerns and potentially contaminated groundwater.  I was planning to write an Op-Ed for the LA Times or somewhere similar to highlight the comments that MWD made on the EIR, but I’m happy to say that an LA Times reporter beat me to the punch.  The main issue, besides the potential for naturally occurring arsenic and chromium to enter the SoCal water supply, is this:

Metropolitan has also informed Cadiz that the aqueduct space the company is counting on may not always be available, especially during dry years when demand for the Cadiz water would likely be the greatest.

…But Kightlinger said Metropolitan has spent the past decade developing supplementary programs, such as acquiring irrigation water and holding supplies in Lake Mead, that could fill the aqueduct in dry years.

“We would pull [the Mead water] and say there is no wheeling capacity available. We’ve filled up our aqueduct,” Kightlinger said. “That’s just something they need to understand.”

Oops.  Cadiz has been asserting that the aqueduct doesn’t run full — I read the MWD annual reports from the past couple of years, and turns out, MWD has been using nearly the full capacity of that aqueduct.  I guess I would trust the aqueduct’s operator over a third party that doesn’t really believe in science!

One final note is about finances, which I read about on a message board and therefore cannot verify.  Apparently the Cadiz group (CDZI) has a bond due next year, and not enough assets to pay it off, though they do have an inflated stock price.  It is in their interest to look like the project will go forward, so they can dump their stock at a high price to meet their bond call.  I have to wonder if this whole thing has been a show all along…

Bottom line, good luck with extracting all that groundwater in Mojave.  Cuz you’ll be trucking it to Orange County at this rate.

the right stimulus

With a background in civil engineering, I’m partial to infrastructure.  I find bridges absolutely fascinating.  I also know that the US is far behind in funding necessary improvements to existing infrastructure, from bridges and highways to water and wastewater treatment.  The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our infrastructure a D, with water and wastewater treatment getting D minuses.  Yikes.  I’m holding out for a miracle of stimulus to bring our facilities up to par, but there’s a country we might look to for guidance: China (gulp).

China has been investing tons of money in infrastructure, from building a vast highway network in anticipation of cars to use it, to top-of-the-line subways and airports.  But they’re falling short of goals to deliver safe drinking water to all residents.  About one in five Chinese residents must boil his/her tap water before use, and that doesn’t include the safety issues from metals and organic chemicals in the water.  Some city planners have complained that water treatment facilities are too expensive.  Welcome to the first world, China, where we’re still trying to sort out that very issue…(see above ASCE grade and our lack of funding to address that grade).

A recent rainstorm killed 37 people due to flooding in Beijing, and it left some wondering whether key infrastructure has been neglected in the nation’s recent great leap of progress.  Homes collapsed, streets flooded, and power lines fell.

The city has seen tens of billions of dollars poured into its modernization, including iconic venues for the 2008 Olympics, the world’s second-largest airport, new subway lines and dazzling skyscrapers — all while basics like water drainage were apparently neglected.

Has China given us an example of a “bad” stimulus?  Or perhaps just a lesson in risk assessment and investment protection — in order to preserve those new buildings and roads and bridges long enough to truly pay off, basic water management infrastructure is a requirement, too.  I hope that the US will learn from this sad example.