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.”

any press is good press?

The ill-fated Cadiz groundwater extraction project keeps accumulating approvals, but not without dredging up more opposition.  The San Bernardino County supervisors approved the Environmental Impact Report, with one stipulation: groundwater drawdown must not exceed 80 feet below the normal water table.  If the USGS estimate of recharge (approximately 5,000 acre-feet per year) is accurate, the 80-ft metric will be reached in roughly 10 years.  If the Cadiz estimate of recharge (approximately 32,000 acre-feet per year) is accurate, they’ll have a few more years of leeway (I’m going to be lazy and not look through their 1700-page EIR for the exact drawdown they project, sorry).  I’m glad that they at least added something nominal to the EIR, but the four supervisors who voted to approve the plan may have a tough time being reelected: the lone dissenter, Neil Derry, noted, “My constituents have been very vocal about not taking water out of the desert.”  There are also documented donations from Cadiz, Inc. to the coffers of the Board of Supervisors — to the tune of $107,000.  I won’t speculate on the influence of money in politics.

Besides the local opposition, Cadiz has a couple of very powerful opponents: Senator Dianne Feinstein and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.  Senator Feinstein’s office is pushing for a federal review of the EIR, which is likely both to generate red tape for an unfavored project and to subject the EIR to much more stringent environmental standards.  MWD is apparently still smarting from the last time this project came up, failed to materialize, and then spawned a lawsuit from Cadiz.  Besides the bad blood (lawsuits rarely happen between friends…), MWD operates a mostly full Colorado River aqueduct with very high quality drinking water — no need to add the Cadiz water, which may just have high levels of arsenic and chromium in it (data about which was conveniently omitted from the aforementioned EIR), to the relatively smooth operations.  The MWD annual report for 2011 mentions three programs to ensure that the Colorado Aqueduct operates as close to full as possible, and more to ensure the California Aqueduct does as well.  There may still be room for that Cadiz water, but MWD sounds like it’s only willing to make room for a friend…and Cadiz, Inc. may not fall under that umbrella…

The press coverage has also led to a flurry of lawsuits against the Cadiz project.  The tally of lawsuits is now up to five: one from the company mining the nearby evaporating lake beds for salt, three from environmental groups that want to protect the delicate desert spring ecosystems nearby, and one from a labor union that claims the environmental impact report does not assess the danger of unexploded ordnance from WWII-era military exercises in the area.  Cadiz definitely has a long way to go, but a path littered with lawsuits, federal red tape, and an unfriendly potential business partner suggest it will be a very expensive one.

I have a suggestion: why not try bottling water?  Bottled water companies harvest desert spring water all the time — Crystal Geyser wants to expand its operations in Olancha, California, known for its hot, dusty vistas of the eastern side of the Sierras and the dry lakebed of Owens Lake.  Sure, it’s expensive to bottle water, but you also get to charge more for it, and there aren’t as many pesky political issues in the way…at least as long as they stay out of the press.  Maybe Cadiz thinks any press is good press, but I would advise them to rethink that philosophy.

We want solar now!

Apparently some picture of Indians using a photovoltaic (PV) panel above a water canal has gotten some Californians clamoring for PV all over California’s major aqueducts.  Someone ran a rough look at the numbers here.  It is true that harnessing solar energy would offset the energy footprint of moving all that water around, which is not trivial.  But there are a couple of reasons why any water manager should be skeptical of this option, which aren’t widely publicized.

  1. California’s aqueducts, open to the atmosphere, receive a high dose of natural UV irradiation as the water travels, which acts as a natural disinfectant to keep down microbial growth.  This means that the water quality would decrease if the UV rays were captured for energy purposes.  Drinking water utilities would likely need to spend more money (and energy) on water treatment to offset this natural treatment process. (As an aside, this is what concerns me about Christo’s art project in which he wants to drape fabric over six miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado.)
  2. PV panels get dirty, especially in the desert.  You know what they use to clean PV?  Water.  So you’d also lose some of the water to cleaning those hundreds of miles of panels, which at scale is also not trivial.
  3. Finally, there is the cost of PV itself.  Solar projects are notoriously capital intensive, which is one reason that they have a tough time competing with non-renewable energy projects like coal and natural gas, which have higher operations and maintenance costs.  The installation above the aqueduct channels would require new design and likely extra steel to straddle the wide channels, compared to normal solar arrays mounted on single posts.

My guess is, utilities like Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which owns the Colorado River aqueduct, or the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which owns the Los Angeles aqueduct, have done enough cost analysis to determine that the benefits do not outweigh the costs (and the financial risks) in this case.  It’s understandable to me that they would be very conservative when it comes to anything that might disrupt their most valuable resource: water.

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.