same bat topic, same bat place

Why not continue one’s train of thought from previous posts?  Speaking of water in New York City, this article in the New York Times amused me for what it did not discuss.  As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a ballot measure in the city of San Francisco this November to spend $8 million to study whether the Bay Area’s main water source, the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, could be feasibly drained and dismantled.  I think the title of my previous post expresses my opinion on that topic.  There are many who agree with me, namely the mayor of San Francisco as well as many Bay Area business groups.  What’s funny about the New York Times reporting on this issue is that New York City could just as easily have been in a similar boat itself.

New York’s water supply comes from the Catskills, some 163 miles away.  The Pepacton Reservoir supplies the city with 25% of its water supply, and it displaced 974 people in four towns.  The outrage!  In fact, most reservoirs acquired by New York City around 100 years ago involved city representatives buying out local families and towns, then filling their quiet valleys with water to be stored for New York.  It was contentious, not surprisingly, but no one is begging the city to remove any reservoir to restore the small towns and quiet valleys to their previous state.  Contrast that with Owens Lake in southern California, which people are still mad about, and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in northern California, and you have to wonder, why isn’t there more water conflict in New York?

I think there are a couple of reasons why.  One is that these were not originally protected environments.  In fact, state-owned Forest Preserve land could not, under the state constitution, be sold to any other party, so the privately owned land in the Catskills was targeted by the city.  Another is that these are not remote areas today.  There are towns along the shorelines of many New York City reservoirs, many of which were relocated from now-flooded property.  Third, people don’t tend re-fight battles won by progress, at least in the US.  If a block of houses is demolished to build a mall, local citizens don’t tend to camp outside the mall for the houses to be rebuilt.  We seem to have a special blind spot for people displaced by progress.

But not the environment, which I think is interesting.  Scientifically speaking, we’re actually really bad at environmental restoration.  We’re good at spending money on it, but bad at even knowing if it’s working.  (This comment comes from research articles I’ve read about river restoration efforts in particular.)  So we have to balance the restoration effort against its likelihood of success as well as its cost.  The cultural difference between New Yorkers and Californians, though, is a big contributor in these water debates: I find that Californian environmentalists, especially from the San Francisco area, are very impractical about the infrastructure necessary for their lifestyles.  Full-on environmental restoration comes way before any consideration of cost or likelihood of success or alternative strategies.  So if we’re placing bets on cities likely to be viable 100 years from now, I guess I’d put money on New York over San Francisco.

UV to the rescue

New York City is about to open the world’s largest UV disinfection plant in a couple of months, which will treat roughly 5 billion gallons per day.  That’s a lot of water.  That’s also a prime reason why I always found the evil plot at the heart of Batman Begins very difficult to swallow: the bad guys lace the water supply with a toxin that induces psychosis, but assuming that Gotham City is basically New York City, they’d have to be dumping at least 500,000 gallons per day for 100 ppm toxin in the water supply — some 9100 55-gallon barrels.  That’s quite a logistical headache to hide, deliver, and dispose of that many barrels.  I won’t go into the details of pipe networks that also make this improbable — the work of fiction did get people to ask me questions about water supply, which is never a bad thing.

I have digressed.  The NYC UV disinfection plant will be the second treatment step for New York’s water supply, besides chlorination.  Given the reports from Wisconsin about the necessity for UV disinfection to prevent viral gastroenteritis, New Yorkers could soon be a lot healthier.  Turns out the EPA has been quietly requiring a secondary step for water treatment on top of chlorination, whether it be filtration or UV disinfection.  EPA has been worried about standard water-borne pathogens like Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and Adenovirus, but this rule has preempted the latest research on the role of viruses in water-borne illness.  Good job, EPA!

purest water possible

Note: Sorry to readers about the gap in posts.  This week has been pretty busy, but I hope to get back to posts every 1-2 days.

Today’s news includes another way that you can distinguish yourself from less worthy peers: boutique water.  A New York City shop has a 7-step ultrafiltration unit to purify NYC tap water into “pure water”.  The taste is supposedly “‘fluffy’ with a ‘smooth’ finish”, which might be fine and good, but that’s the taste of flushing out your body’s minerals and nutrients!  My understanding is that this equipment is basically laboratory-grade water purification, which I have used quite a bit, but have never drunk.  As most of you probably know, all water naturally has dissolved minerals — cations and anions like sodium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, and sulfate — that provide most of the flavor as well as the osmotic balance for the body’s cells.  If you consume ultrapure water in large quantities, you could potentially flush out most of your cells’ nutrients and minerals via osmosis!  (Just drinking large quantities of water alone will do this, too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_intoxication).

Ah, but if the palate knows, it knows.  I happen to know that New York City has some of the best tap water in the world, and it comes much cheaper than any boutique water…

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”…