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.”

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you and what water?

Apparently Utah sits on a large reserve of tar sands, especially in the northeastern part of the state near Dinosaur National Monument.  A Canadian company has leased about 32,000 acres to open a pit mine.  The process would be similar to that in Alberta, Canada, but would be less water-intense and would not rely on strip-mining.  Rather, it would rely on deep, salty groundwater (~2500 feet below the ground surface) and a relatively non-toxic compound called limonene to extract the oil.  Water recycling in the pits would ensure that no wastewater ponds sit onsite and potentially harm local ecology.  It does sound like an improvement on Alberta’s methods, but I have to admit that my ears perk up at the thought of mining tar sands in Utah.  You should see the satellite image of the area north of Ft. McMurray in Alberta – that’s a massive mining operation.  I’ve traveled a lot in southern Utah and appreciate its remote and inhospitable scenery.  I start to feel like an environmentalist: “Protect the wilderness from all encroachment!!”

Sometimes, though, nature solves its own problems.  There is very little rain or surface water in northeastern Utah, and apparently the aquifer 2500 feet below ground isn’t quite as productive as the mining company expected:

But records on file with the Utah Division of Water Rights hint U.S. Oil Sands may be struggling to find the deep water. The company drilled three dry wells before finding water somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 feet in a fourth well, according to Dennis Sorensen, with the Utah Division of Water Rights. In June the company requested a drilling permit for a fifth well.

Ok, well, that will settle things, then, won’t it?  Hard to get the oil off the sands if you don’t have any water.  And drilling wells 2500 feet deep is expensive, not to mention pumping salty water out of those wells from those depths.  I’d say that if this company figures out how to make profit with that water source and without contaminating the local area or strip mining, they’ll have fully earned their money.