building the infrastructure that counts

As I’ve mentioned before, China has some issues when it comes to building infrastructure that is out of sight and less than prestigious, like stormwater and wastewater treatment.  Many places in the US also try to keep their water and sewer rates low for customers, putting off key maintenance and upgrades for the next generation.  The West can’t afford this.  Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has increased its rates 5% per year for the next two years, annoying many of its customers, largely to accommodate the bills for repairs and increasing the system reliability.  Utah’s lawmakers are getting some difficult news, too — a plan is up for vote to fund $13.7 billion over 20 years to fund necessary repairs and upgrades.  Better to allocate the money now, rather than wait until the dams are empty and the taps are dry…

“People have a hard time getting excited about water and sewer projects, even though they are very fundamental and basic components of our day-to-day life,” said Mike Wilson, manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy.

Systems have routine operations and maintenance budgets, but often punt on wholesale replacement due to the huge capital costs.  One idea is to build in a 3-5% annual rate increase for the bond to fund all this work.

“These systems are out of sight and out of mind,” Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, said. “Some communities, to their detriment and unhappiness, are loath to raise rates, and when something cataclysmic happens, that is when you see the huge rates come. But they’d rather get beat up harshly every 10 years then face it every year.”

Baker said it takes financial savvy and foresight — as well as political will — to muster a savings account that can help pay for huge infrastructure needs and to put in upgrades to keep pace with growth.  “There’s not a lot of heroism in doing that. Cities like to build trails, parks and statues. Bringing in a sewer system is not very sexy. The tendency is to let that happen under some other mayor.”

Thankfully for some parts of the US, we have some political officials who get that point, and act on it.  The political officials who don’t act may be more popular in the short-term, but their constituents will not be better off in the end.  To quote the savvy Pat Mulroy: “Yeah, you have a basic human right to water. Here’s your bucket, you can go down to Lake Mead, and you can take all the water out of Lake Mead that you want. But you don’t have the basic human right to have that water treated to an absolute guaranteed safe standard, delivered to your home in whatever quantities you want to use.”

canary in the coal mine

[*Note: Sorry I didn’t get this post up on Monday.  Things got away from me, being out of town this weekend for fun and then all day Monday for work.  We should be back on track for the rest of the week.*]

People like to talk about water issues in the West like they’re a special case. And by and large, they’re right — water scarcity in the Southwestern US brings up issues of water rights and alternate supplies well before they hit the rest of the country. But the rest of the country is not immune to water scarcity, despite the relative abundance of rainfall (San Diego: 10 inches per year; Boston: 42.5 inches per year; Atlanta: 50.2 inches per year). Really provocative thinkers propose grand schemes to save the West like piping water from the Great Lakes to the Colorado River. Well, besides a large number of Michiganders, Chicagoans, Wisconsinites and others who would insist that the West can’t have their water, things aren’t perfectly rosy in the Great Lakes.

In fact, Lake Michigan recently hit its record low. What happened? Lake levels vary quite a bit (a few feet) annually, but Lakes Michigan and Superior have been below the long-term average since the late 1990s.  Their main outflow, the St. Clair River, has been heavily dredged, which increases the rate water exits the lake basins.  Add in a touch of climate change (you may have heard of the spectacular drought across the US this year), and there’s just not as much water in the system.

I don’t know what the answer is here, but it is worth pointing out that water mismanagement–or perhaps, lack of management–is a nationwide issue.  The impacts may hit the Southwest first, but the story of water scarcity across this country is not going away any time soon.

follow the yellow brick road

To follow on Wednesday’s post about management of San Francisco’s water supplies with and without the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, I would like to put my consultant hat on.  (Ok, admittedly I am a consultant, though a new one, so the hat isn’t a stretch.)  Let’s talk about project management.  Major engineering projects require studies and paperwork before actual construction can begin.  In the case of potential O’Shaughnessy Dam removal, I have consulted the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) for planning stages.  The DWR studied the dam removal in 2006, compiling all the previous research to date, identifying gaps in the research, and recommending a path forward for further studies.  This is how they say things are done:

DWR’s description of what each level of study means and entails.

  1. Complete concept level studies.
  2. Complete appraisal-level studies.
  3. Complete feasibility-level studies.
  4. Complete detailed studies and programmatic documents.
  5. Complete environmental impact report and site-specific design engineering.

[See the image to the right for the difference between these levels of studies.]  So far, the concept level studies are partly complete for water replacement, power replacement, physical dam removal, valley restoration, and the future public use plan.

Thus, using our study definitions, most of the prior work is, at best, at the “concept level” of study. That is, the body of work to date, including the state’s work on the potential costs for the potential project, is not sufficient to support sound public policy…Completing all aspects of existing studies to a common level (concept or appraisal) would be a key milestone in the decision-making process, by providing a basis for recommendation to either terminate the study or proceed with feasibility investigations.

Translation: do some more studying to get everything up to par, then continue with in-depth studies about the feasibility of dam removal.  Then, if everything still looks good and the costs are acceptable, start your EIR and design engineering.  (Note that the EIR could still get rejected at the end of everything, just as a warning.)

Ok, so this is the path forward.  My understanding of the ballot measure, based on newspaper reports rather than the vague language of the ballot measure itself, is that San Francisco would spend no more than $8 million on the concept-level studies, then have a vote in 2016 about whether to go forward with dam removal.  That’s unfortunately not how things are done.

As listed above, the concept-level studies lead to feasibility studies, after which the go/no go decision can be reasonably made.  With concept-level or appraisal-level studies in hand, you can continue studying or rule out the project — you can’t start to design or build.  The DWR estimates that the concept-level study would cost $7 million in 2005 dollars.  The appraisal-level study would be another $13 million, the feasibility studies another $32 million, and the detailed studies/programmatic documents another $13 million.  To be clear, the DWR estimates another $58 million in expenses just to get to EIR and design phase.  I would estimate this to work out to nearly 10 years of work.

The total cost of dam removal is estimated to be $3 -$10 billion (2005 dollars) in the 2006 report.  It’s pretty reasonable to expect to spend roughly 1% of that price ($60 million) to determine whether the project should proceed, rather than just 0.1% ($8 million).  (For perspective, they estimate $3-6 billion to restore the Salton Sea, $1-2 billion to deal with Owens Valley, and $10-16 billion to meet California’s flood management needs.)

Look, the guys who drafted Proposition F have the right idea — they want San Francisco to recycle more water and manage stormwater better.  I approve of that.  But they’re pushing on this the wrong way.  I spoke with an employee of Kennedy/Jenks, the firm that designed San Francisco’s state-of-the-art water recycling plant earlier this year.  The firm has twice gotten to the design stage of the plant (that’s step 5 above), only to be killed at the last minute due to concerns about the plant’s location in the city.  It takes a lot of money and time to get to construction design stage, and then have to restart at a new location.  Spend that $8 million on an education campaign so that the next design iteration doesn’t get killed by NIMBY.  And building the extra infrastructure first means that the Bay Area won’t undergo water shortages every ~5 years while the projects are sorted out.

planning is for squares

I promised an assessment of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir inflows, outflows, and storage, and I intend to deliver something.  I looked into the reservoir, from the data available from USGS to the Restore Hetch Hetchy website to the San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s official position on Proposition F to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) 2006 study on restoration of the Hetch Hetchy valley.  There are many things out there with opinions, but I intend to highlight the facts.

  1. Storage, inflows, and outflows.  The Hetch Hetchy reservoir has stored an average of 282,100 acre-feet over the past 5 years, with an extreme maximum storage of 363,300 acre-feet and a minimum storage of 154,200 acre-feet.  I can see a couple of jumps in the plots of storage vs. time that suggest the dam is occasionally operated to send water to other locations, so a true picture of the storage in the system would need to include all 8 reservoirs in the system and river flow at multiple locations.  Honestly I don’t have time to get to this.  But I can say that in the past 5 years, the SF utility system has used at least 363,000 – 154,200 = 209,100 acre-feet stored in the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.  The other 7 dams owned by the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) have a combined storage of 537,600 acre-feet [Urban Water Management Plan, 2010].  So just to store the water that was stored in Hetch Hetchy and used in the past 5 years, you would need to use approximately 40% of the remaining reservoir space in the entire 7-dam network, and it’s not like those reservoirs are normally sitting empty.
  2. Water storage needs.  The Restore Hetch Hetchy plan calls for water intake via pipes without the dam.  The storage can be maintained by the rest of the reservoirs on the system.  “Hydrologic analysis shows that it will be possible to fully meet system demands in 4 out of 5 years. In the driest years, 20% of system demands will need to be met from additional water storage or supply resources.”  This is a direct quote from the Restore Hetch Hetchy website.  Let’s examine this.  One in every five years, this new Hetch-Hetchy-free system would experience a water shortage.  Have you ever heard of a utility plan to have water shortages?  We have utilities to provide reliability, and even then 20-year, 50-year, and 100-year events can overwhelm the infrastructure we have.  A 20-year event is a disaster, rather than an inconvenience, when your planning basis is a 5-year event.  Civil engineers like to design for 20-year events, at a bare minimum, with floods like the 1993 Mississippi River flood or the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster bringing calls for 500-year and 1000-year designs for water management (in those cases, we’re talking levees rather than dams, but droughts can be equally devastating).
  3. New supplies. The second half of the above quote addresses where additional water supplies will come from in the dry years: “additional water storage or supply resources.”  Let me refresh your memory, San Francisco — California’s water supply is already overallocated.  I just drove down I-5 this weekend and saw farmers’ billboards complaining about “Congress-created dust bowl” with cuts in water supply listed.  Those weren’t Congress-created cuts, those were drought-created cuts combined with a federal judge upholding the primacy of the Endangered Species Act, specifically related to fish in the Bay-Delta, over California’s water allocations.  There isn’t enough water for everything we already want to do.  Please, Restore Hetch Hetchy, tell us where the water will come from.  Water storage measures and water recycling facilities take time, money, and planning, and can’t happen overnight once the dam removal is underway.
  4. Climate change.  Finally, I will just note that climate change is projected to decrease snowpack (nature’s water storage) in the Sierras and increase the frequency and duration of “extreme” events, both rainfall and drought.  To remove excess storage from the water supply system in light of this very real challenge to California’s water supplies is very short-sighted.

That’s enough for now about water flows.  Next time, I’ll tell you what the DWR’s own report recommended for the Hetch Hetchy restoration question.  Hint: it’s not what’s in Proposition F.

please put this lady in charge of everything

Las Vegas is known as a water-intensive place in the middle of the desert — the fountains in the Bellagio, the canals at the Venetian, the pirate ship at Treasure Island.  But you might be surprised to know that its per-capita water use is tiny.  The city uses 3% of the state’s water and produces some 70% of its revenue.  How does that happen?  Well, there was a multi-year drought about 20 years ago that brought this to the forefront of developers’ minds (they were required to attach proof of water supply to their development plans and SEC filings).  Also, the regional water agencies merged to form the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and they put this woman in charge: Pat Mulroy.

Pat Mulroy, in my opinion, is one of the savviest water politicians in this country.  Because of its location, Las Vegas has had to adopt cutting edge water recycling technology (water comes out of a pipe in Lake Mead, gets used in Vegas, and discharged to Las Vegas Wash, which runs back into Lake Mead) as well as cutting edge policies to convince locals to dig up grass lawns in favor of desert landscaping.  SNWA has a very high-level analytical lab to make sure that trace organic compounds aren’t reaching the drinking water supply.  And Mrs. Mulroy has worked with regional water agencies as well as the other 6 states in the Colorado River Compact to come to an agreement about what to do when a major drought hits the southwest.

I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Mulroy, back at Eawag in Switzerland, where she kept an international audience rapt with her stories of getting things done and water policy-making in the “wild west”.  But you can see her give a talk at the recent WaterSmart Innovations Conference or just read the transcript of an interview she gave.  Either will give you a sense for her shrewd, yet no-nonsense manner.  I’m hoping that some bigger-name politician will recognize her for her work and make her Secretary of the Interior, so the country could have a truly sensible and effective federal water policy.  Heck, I’d elect her President based on what she’s been able to accomplish…

taking things into one’s hands

The New York Times, among others, is reporting that a private entrepreneur dumped 100 tons of iron dust off the shore of western Canada this summer, in an attempt to influence the local climate.  The idea goes that iron stimulates growth of plankton, who take up carbon dioxide locally, and then die and sink to the bottom of the ocean — carbon trapped!  Planet saved!  Well, things aren’t quite that simple.

Certain swaths of the ocean are ripe for plankton growth, just limited by trace nutrients.  In fact, if you add iron to these parts of the ocean, you can get a large bloom of phytoplankton in the shallow ocean, and they do take up a lot of carbon dioxide locally.  Then they die and are eaten by other microorganisms (the bigger microorganisms eat the littler ones — just like fish), who re-emit carbon dioxide and methane, another greenhouse gas.  That sort of negates the effect of the phytoplankton at the surface.  The trick is, iron fertilization only works to sequester carbon if you can get it to settle out to the bottom of the ocean, which is rather deep.  Like 4,000 meters / 12,000 feet deep.  It’s really hard to get biomass to sink past ~200 meters.  In the natural cycle of things, only roughly 20-30% of the biomass in the shallow ocean makes it to the deep ocean.

Actual iron fertilization experiments have had very mixed results, with most of them showing evidence of more rapid biomass cycling in the shallow ocean, but little evidence for significant burial at depth.  The response also depends strongly on the specific location that is fertilized (all parts of the ocean are not the same).

So this entrepreneur got tired of the wishy-washiness of scientists and politicians, and took matters into his own hands, apparently at the invitation of a native American population that wanted to stimulate their salmon population.  He would like to start a company to dump iron in the ocean to get carbon credits from emissions trading schemes, but if the carbon isn’t actually buried in the deep sea, he shouldn’t be getting any carbon credits (= money) for his work!  Plus, in light of the mixed results of the science, politicians decided not to allow any further experimentation under ocean dumping agreements — the London Convention and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

I don’t know what the results will show, as far as the fish are concerned, but to conduct “experiments” on this scale is reckless and sets a dangerous precedent.  What if some rogue decides to “geoengineer” the climate based on pseudo-science and causes a massive disaster?  There’s a reason why geoengineering hasn’t been adopted yet — it hasn’t been proven yet on a pilot-scale!  Aerosols like sulfate will cause acid rain, iron might just cycle carbon faster in the shallow ocean without any long-term burial, and carbon capture and sequestration may leak significantly…When science finds that silver bullet for climate change, we will let you know.

where’s the water recycling ballot measure?

San Franciscans will vote in just a few short weeks whether to spend $8 million to study removal of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park.  Since this idea has been studied many times before, and there are no alternate water supplies readily available for the Bay Area (or California in general…), I’ve stated before that this is a bad idea.  I think a far more useful expense of money, energy, and discourse would be when San Francisco is going to get serious about water recycling…

Recently, the town of Novato, in the North Bay (Marin County), opened a 1.7-million gallons-per-day water recycling plant.  That’s not a very big plant, relatively speaking, but it is 1.7 million more gallons that Novato will be recycling than San Francisco, every day.  The article notes that San Rafael, another town in Marin County, also opened a water recycling plant just a few weeks ago.  Neither of these plants will produce drinking water, but rather will supply golf courses and agricultural users.  Fair enough, that means that those guys aren’t using drinking water.

Oxnard, a town in Ventura County, southern California, also recently opened a “world class” water recycling facility capable of treating 6.25 million gallons per day.  Again, so far this facility will meet needs of agricultural and golf courses, rather than drinking water, but this will have the capability to hook into a public water supply, given the high level of treatment that this water will undergo (microfiltration, reverse osmosis, UV, and peroxide treatments…the peroxide seems like overkill to me, but I guess a factor of safety never hurts…).

These places are putting San Francisco to shame.  Virtually nowhere in California can claim to have a water source that did not at some point degrade the environment.  Dams and canals were built.  But the best thing we can do is decrease our reliance on this infrastructure through smart water recycling and aquifer storage.  Only then can we revisit the dams and canals and whether we really need them.  So, San Franciscans, where’s the ballot measure about the city’s lack of any water recycling??

getting your feet wet

Just a quick heads up for anyone out there who is new to the water realm: the Nature Conservancy has produced a cool interactive map with the major water sources and watersheds for California.  You can’t try every city in the state, but you can get a good sense, at least for the big cities not in the Central Valley.  The Nature Conservancy highlights how little of our watersheds are protected from development, to keep our water sources clean, and they’d love you to give them money to keep protecting watersheds, mainly by buying up land in critical areas.  I’m not endorsing them in any manner, but it only seems fair to let you know their angle up front.

This should give a good overview of the major water sources in California.  I hope to begin some posts about Californian water supplies — the background, the shortage, and the proposals out there at the moment — in the next week or two.

new toilets: round 2 goes to the Swiss

As I’ve mentioned before, the Gates Foundation is funding research to reinvent the toilet for the developing world, with minimal water use and maximum energy output (no-waste toilets).  A group from Caltech won the competition, and a group from Eawag (the Swiss Federal Institute for Aquatic Science and Technology) won the award for “best user interface”.  (Having done part of my PhD at each institute, I’m certainly proud of my former colleagues.)  In other words, round 1 went to the “Star Trek” toilet, as I’ve heard it described, with a consolation prize to the “more likely to be used in the developing world” toilet.

It looks like round 2, the implementation phase, will begin in Durban, South Africa, which is plagued by limited water supplies and rising consumer demand for fancier flush toilets.  Middle class isn’t quite the same when you still have to use a pit toilet.  With your neighbors (mandatory cringe from all of us in the developed world).  The city of Durban has entered a partnership with Eawag and the Gates Foundation to build no-waste toilets for the 230,000 families among the 3.8 million inhabitants of Durban that still lack access to safe and hygienic toilets.  Round 2 appears to go to the Swiss!

Given that the upcoming World Toilet summit (yes, that’s a real thing) will take place in Durban this December, this looks like a huge win for the Swiss, especially in the realm of getting more contracts.  The Americans will have their work cut out for them, if they want to make a comeback in round 3, location TBD.

Jordan: still the good host

As I mentioned a few months ago, Jordan is a relatively responsible water manager in the Middle East, but political instability in its neighbors has been constantly disrupting its well-laid plans for years.  The most recent disruption is a flood of refugees from the Syrian conflict (civil war?  I’m no diplomat.).  Trying to be an ethical host, Jordan has been delivering water supplies to the refugees via water tankers all summer, but at the cost of its own people, many of whom do not have reliable water supplies in the interim.  In light of no tap water supplies, Jordanians have been lamenting that they don’t live in the well-stocked Syrian refugee camps, some protesting about the lack of water for the past two months by burning tires, blocking roads, and seizing a Water Authority tanker.

The real problem is that without government tap water, the local Jordanians are forced to purchase water from either the Water Authority, if they’re lucky, at roughly $0.011/gallon, or private suppliers at roughly $0.032/gallon, which is prohibitive to many.  They wait for sufficient water pressure to wash clothes and take showers, although blips in the electricity supply can prevent municipal pumping, causing locals to miss their window of opportunity.  The good hosts continue to go without, in order to grant their guests a minimum of water supply.

Jordan could be nearing the point of frustration with guests that leads to drastic measures: violence against the unwanted guests, perhaps.  But more likely is a push for nuclear power to drive desalination plants and produce power.  Just what the Middle East needs…