making a dent

Hello and happy 2017! Although my personal politics largely deviate from those of President-Elect Trump, I’m hoping that nonpartisan matters of policy will remain unaffected – give them the benefit of the doubt for now. The nominee for EPA Administrator under the Trump administration is an attorney who has worked to fight EPA on behalf of oil and gas interests, and who doesn’t believe in climate change. How will he, if confirmed, approach issues that are less partisan, like aging water and wastewater infrastructure across the country? Can’t everyone agree that the crisis in Flint, Michigan should not be repeated?

In a recent editorial, David Sedlak, editor of my favorite journal, Environmental Science and Technology, proposed that President-Elect Trump could make America great again by starting with its water and wastewater infrastructure – a bargain can be had for a mere $100 billion, leaving plenty of room for more showy projects like roads and tunnels and bridges.

Well, imagine my surprise to see this press release from EPA in January, before Trump and his team formally take office: EPA Launches New Program With $1 Billion in Loans Available for Water Infrastructure Projects. Wow, the Trump folks are getting started early? A final gesture from the Obama administration?

Not quite. The program has approximately $17 million in existing funding, which EPA estimates can be leveraged at a ratio greater than 50 to one. By this math, the $17 million program budget “could allow EPA to make approximately $1 billion in loans and stimulate about $2 billion in total infrastructure investment.” My hopes are tempered, but I maintain hope that this $2 billion investment will start to make a dent in the problem.

The rub comes in the last sentence of the press release:

EPA estimates that the U.S. needs about $660 billion in investments for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure over the next 20 years.


So chalk this program up to good things that barely make a real dent in the problem. As Dr. Sedlak pointed out, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given our water infrastructure a grade of D now. I shudder to think of where we’ll be in 5 or 10 years if our politicians don’t commit soon to making a real dent in this need.

too many straws in the milkshake

People talk about the Ogallala aquifer, which provides irrigation water to a large swath of the Midwest, drying up.  And that is a concern, yes.  But take a look at Yemen: their aquifer has been essentially unregulated for decades, and the water table is now 500 m below the ground surface, declining about 3-6 m per year (compare with up to 1 m per year in the worst parts of the Ogallala).  Every farmer that can afford it in his fields and every person who can afford it in his home has a private well.  How much water do they use?  As much as they feel like.  The water is increasingly used for qat, a mild stimulant plant chewed by all classes, but whose production is concentrated among tribal leaders, military officers, and politicians.  The “qat lobby” has convinced the government not to enforce a 2002 law stipulating that no well may be dug without government approval.

The water is essentially drying up beneath the city of Sanaa, and has already perhaps dried up in Taiz.  Sanaa may become the first capital city to fail due to complete exhaustion of its water resources.  Realizing the political instability inherent in this prospect, places like Saudi Arabia and Germany are offering support to develop alternate water supplies, which amount to desalination in this part of the world.  That or moving qat production elsewhere.  Perhaps the city could survive on its own water resources if 90% of the water were not being used for agriculture (40% for qat).  The desperate fight between urban water demand (mainly ordinary people) and agricultural demand (here the qat lobby), largely for an inessential crop, should strike fear in the heart of all Californians.  Better our convoluted regulations and water diversions than that mess…