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  Since 1999, the city has spent roughly $2 billion to upgrade its out-of-date sewer system (~$150 million per year).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.

Who deserves the water?

Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is water.  Typical.  Specifically, where major American cities get their water.  European cities were historically built on rivers or lakes, where an obvious clean water source could be found.  They developed common sense procedures like withdrawing drinking water upstream of discharging wastewater.  In the US, major cities also developed on rivers, but city planners looked further afield to remote unpopulated water basins to deliver higher quality and sometimes greater quantities of water.  In fact, even today, the highest rated tap water, according to its consumers, comes from New York City, which tapped watersheds up to 163 miles away in the Catskills, and San Francisco, which tapped the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in what would later become Yosemite, 167 miles away.  The east side of the San Francisco Bay, which includes Berkeley, where I currently live, and Oakland, where I currently work, gets its water from one watershed north of the Hetch-Hetchy basin.

In light of this reality, maybe the diversion of the Owens and Colorado Rivers into the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Colorado River Aqueduct, respectively, isn’t so bad – it’s just a longer distance (419 miles and 242 miles) than the aqueducts used by the “environmentally conscious” San Francisco Bay Area.  And Atlanta, my hometown, can’t really be blamed for taking as much water as possible from the Chattahoochee River just to the north.  The city is located in a relatively resource-poor area when it comes to surface water, and the Supreme Court recently affirmed its right to the waters of Lake Lanier (though the exact quantity is still TBA).

Las Vegas is located essentially on Lake Mead, and gets its drinking water from the lake as well as discharges its treated wastewater to the lake.  Is this more sustainable than Phoenix, whose recent growth relies on the availability of the Colorado River, 336 miles away?  I’m having a hard time judging cities in their pursuit of water resources from remote, pristine areas, because very few American cities are located adjacent to sufficient water supplies.  Environmentalists in San Francisco bemoan the fate of the salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, whose habitat is shrinking due to water grabs from southern California and the Central Valley, but their water comes from an area that was literally made into a National Park!  Water supply inevitably involves some big tradeoffs, so “Let he who is without blame cast the first stone”…