back to blogging

After a long hiatus of being distracted by many other things, I am itching to get back to blogging. Look for more posts coming soon.

As you’ve noticed (since my readers are of course the savviest folks around when it comes to water policy and water use 🙂 ), the drought in California in the past three years has really shifted perspectives on the importance of water reuse, desalination, and managed aquifer recharge. On a professional front, as a remediation engineer, I’m seeing more and more places in Southern California with public pressure not only to clean up contaminated groundwater but to reuse it for potable water supply. It is certainly an exciting time to be an engineer interested in building new projects to provide stability to the water supply in light of changing conditions!

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bad timing for grand ideas

I’ll take a brief respite from my recent oil pipeline kick (more to come later this week) to compare two different news stories: one is the continuing saga of water management struggles in the Missouri-Mississippi River basins, and the other is the attempt to track down new water management strategies for the water-poor, population heavy Front Range region of Colorado.

Over in the Missouri and Mississippi River basins, stakeholders continue to fret about the balance of water flowing through their reaches.  Farmers in North Dakota worry about sufficient irrigation water in the future, as the Army Corps of Engineers considers depleting the 12 years of supply stored in the Upper Missouri’s reservoirs.  (Note to Hetch Hetchy restoration advocates: that’s a lot of supply to be stored.  Engineers must think that excess storage is a hedge against uncertain future conditions, huh…).  Barges in the Mississippi are cutting down their loads, so they can ride higher in the river, and dredging activities to remove natural limestone features along the Illinois-Missouri border have been accelerated.  Don’t let the title of that article fool you — the only water wars in progress are figurative, not literal.

Things could escalate — though almost certainly not to actual violence — if a proposed plan to build a pipeline from the Missouri River watershed to Colorado’s Front Range goes through.  The US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) is entertaining far-fetched ideas to address Colorado’s limited water supply, including towing an iceberg to California, shipping giant bags of water from Alaska, and yes, building a giant pipeline across Kansas to Denver.  In order to consider these odd ideas seriously, the USBR has started the planning and alternative evaluation process.  I outlined how this generally works in relation to the Hetch Hetchy restoration idea, but suffice it to say, this pipeline is still at the early stages of “tools for decision making” rather than the early stages of design and implementation.

Although this idea isn’t as far-fetched as it first might seem (the pipeline would need to be roughly 600 miles long, only 50% longer than the 419-mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct), I really hope it doesn’t make the next cut for analysis.  The goal in the US should not be to emulate California’s extensive aqueduct network, but rather to implement large-scale water recycling to cut down on net consumption of water by various municipalities or regions.

The timing of this idea is also about as bad as it gets.  Any sign of the Missouri and Mississippi stakeholders getting wind of this idea, and an all-out media war of words will likely ensue.  That’s a good way to ensure that regardless of the engineering feasibility study outcome, the public relations battle will already be far lost.  And who knows, maybe that’s what USBR really wants, too.

give SFPUC a chance

I’ve mentioned before that San Francisco is an interesting place because it has an environmentalist streak laced with impracticality.  This streak has, at times, interfered with the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) and its ability to make innovative upgrades to the existing water and wastewater treatment facilities in the city.  Most notably, despite passing an initiative in 1991 mandating a water recycling facility in the city — rather cutting edge at that time — SFPUC still hasn’t been able to find a place that residents find acceptable to build the plant.

It turns out that, given the chance, the SFPUC can do stuff well.  The one-year-old Tesla treatment plant treats up to 315 million gallons per day with UV disinfection, and recently was awarded a LEED silver certificationA recycling facility in Daly City has also recently begun supplying recycled water to TPC Harding Park’s golf course, with approximately 230,000 gallons per day.  A drop in the bucket compared to the needs of the whole city of San Francisco, but a step in the right direction.

Well, I’m happy to report that the voters of San Francisco have decided to let SFPUC continue to manage their water supply and plan for its future, as they resoundingly voted against Proposition F to restore the Hetch Hetchy.  I’m interested to see if SFPUC can finally get that water recycling facility built (they may have 2 others in the plans, too), which would decrease the city’s water demand.  I’m glad to see them make a push in this direction before the drastic measure of tearing down the O’Shaughnessy Dam.

skip compact fluorescents – recycle wastewater

An interesting article has recently been published in an open-access journal called “Environmental Research Letters.”  I’m torn on open-access journals: people should have access to research results, but the quality of publication suffers without higher quality reviewers.  That said, this article seems pretty informative.  The authors attempted to quantify the energy used in the US in 2010 for treating and delivering water, and they found a whopping 12.6% of energy consumption in the US is due to water.

I found this figure instructive, showing the difference in energy requirements for various types of water sources and treatment levels.  Note the difference between desalted water and normally treated water is large, but the difference between desalted water and the California State Water Project water (which is pumped from the Bay-Delta to southern California) is small.  No wonder southern Californians are getting more excited about seawater desalination and water recycling, assuming that cost scales with the  energy intensity of the water source.

energy consumption for water supply

With some pretty complicated flow diagrams, the authors come to one very striking conclusion:

We estimate that 5.4 quads of this primary energy (611 billion kWh delivered) were used to generate electricity for pumping, treating, heating, cooling and pressurizing water in the  US, which is approximately 25% more energy than is used for lighting in the Residential and Commercial sectors [40]. (Despite this equivalency, much more policy attention has been invested in energy-efficiency for lighting, rather than reducing hot water consumption or investing in energy-efficient water heating methods, even though the latter might have just as much impact.)

In other words, reducing hot water consumption or investing in energy-efficient water heating methods could have a similar impact to switching our personal lightbulbs to compact fluorescents, yet there has been no policy push to educate people on this aspect.

Results like these are fascinating and instructive.  Once we know where the energy is going and how much our water really “costs”, we can make adjustments that make sense without revamping the whole system.  You and I can be more energy efficient by taking shorter showers and turning water off while lathering up with soap and shampoo.  California can promote water recycling in southern California instead of desalination and increasing imported water, which would save on energy without cutting off the State Water Project.  I’m sure many more examples of efficiency improvements are available — we just have to think a little outside the box.

follow the yellow brick road

To follow on Wednesday’s post about management of San Francisco’s water supplies with and without the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, I would like to put my consultant hat on.  (Ok, admittedly I am a consultant, though a new one, so the hat isn’t a stretch.)  Let’s talk about project management.  Major engineering projects require studies and paperwork before actual construction can begin.  In the case of potential O’Shaughnessy Dam removal, I have consulted the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) for planning stages.  The DWR studied the dam removal in 2006, compiling all the previous research to date, identifying gaps in the research, and recommending a path forward for further studies.  This is how they say things are done:

DWR’s description of what each level of study means and entails.

  1. Complete concept level studies.
  2. Complete appraisal-level studies.
  3. Complete feasibility-level studies.
  4. Complete detailed studies and programmatic documents.
  5. Complete environmental impact report and site-specific design engineering.

[See the image to the right for the difference between these levels of studies.]  So far, the concept level studies are partly complete for water replacement, power replacement, physical dam removal, valley restoration, and the future public use plan.

Thus, using our study definitions, most of the prior work is, at best, at the “concept level” of study. That is, the body of work to date, including the state’s work on the potential costs for the potential project, is not sufficient to support sound public policy…Completing all aspects of existing studies to a common level (concept or appraisal) would be a key milestone in the decision-making process, by providing a basis for recommendation to either terminate the study or proceed with feasibility investigations.

Translation: do some more studying to get everything up to par, then continue with in-depth studies about the feasibility of dam removal.  Then, if everything still looks good and the costs are acceptable, start your EIR and design engineering.  (Note that the EIR could still get rejected at the end of everything, just as a warning.)

Ok, so this is the path forward.  My understanding of the ballot measure, based on newspaper reports rather than the vague language of the ballot measure itself, is that San Francisco would spend no more than $8 million on the concept-level studies, then have a vote in 2016 about whether to go forward with dam removal.  That’s unfortunately not how things are done.

As listed above, the concept-level studies lead to feasibility studies, after which the go/no go decision can be reasonably made.  With concept-level or appraisal-level studies in hand, you can continue studying or rule out the project — you can’t start to design or build.  The DWR estimates that the concept-level study would cost $7 million in 2005 dollars.  The appraisal-level study would be another $13 million, the feasibility studies another $32 million, and the detailed studies/programmatic documents another $13 million.  To be clear, the DWR estimates another $58 million in expenses just to get to EIR and design phase.  I would estimate this to work out to nearly 10 years of work.

The total cost of dam removal is estimated to be $3 -$10 billion (2005 dollars) in the 2006 report.  It’s pretty reasonable to expect to spend roughly 1% of that price ($60 million) to determine whether the project should proceed, rather than just 0.1% ($8 million).  (For perspective, they estimate $3-6 billion to restore the Salton Sea, $1-2 billion to deal with Owens Valley, and $10-16 billion to meet California’s flood management needs.)

Look, the guys who drafted Proposition F have the right idea — they want San Francisco to recycle more water and manage stormwater better.  I approve of that.  But they’re pushing on this the wrong way.  I spoke with an employee of Kennedy/Jenks, the firm that designed San Francisco’s state-of-the-art water recycling plant earlier this year.  The firm has twice gotten to the design stage of the plant (that’s step 5 above), only to be killed at the last minute due to concerns about the plant’s location in the city.  It takes a lot of money and time to get to construction design stage, and then have to restart at a new location.  Spend that $8 million on an education campaign so that the next design iteration doesn’t get killed by NIMBY.  And building the extra infrastructure first means that the Bay Area won’t undergo water shortages every ~5 years while the projects are sorted out.

please put this lady in charge of everything

Las Vegas is known as a water-intensive place in the middle of the desert — the fountains in the Bellagio, the canals at the Venetian, the pirate ship at Treasure Island.  But you might be surprised to know that its per-capita water use is tiny.  The city uses 3% of the state’s water and produces some 70% of its revenue.  How does that happen?  Well, there was a multi-year drought about 20 years ago that brought this to the forefront of developers’ minds (they were required to attach proof of water supply to their development plans and SEC filings).  Also, the regional water agencies merged to form the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and they put this woman in charge: Pat Mulroy.

Pat Mulroy, in my opinion, is one of the savviest water politicians in this country.  Because of its location, Las Vegas has had to adopt cutting edge water recycling technology (water comes out of a pipe in Lake Mead, gets used in Vegas, and discharged to Las Vegas Wash, which runs back into Lake Mead) as well as cutting edge policies to convince locals to dig up grass lawns in favor of desert landscaping.  SNWA has a very high-level analytical lab to make sure that trace organic compounds aren’t reaching the drinking water supply.  And Mrs. Mulroy has worked with regional water agencies as well as the other 6 states in the Colorado River Compact to come to an agreement about what to do when a major drought hits the southwest.

I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Mulroy, back at Eawag in Switzerland, where she kept an international audience rapt with her stories of getting things done and water policy-making in the “wild west”.  But you can see her give a talk at the recent WaterSmart Innovations Conference or just read the transcript of an interview she gave.  Either will give you a sense for her shrewd, yet no-nonsense manner.  I’m hoping that some bigger-name politician will recognize her for her work and make her Secretary of the Interior, so the country could have a truly sensible and effective federal water policy.  Heck, I’d elect her President based on what she’s been able to accomplish…

where’s the water recycling ballot measure?

San Franciscans will vote in just a few short weeks whether to spend $8 million to study removal of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park.  Since this idea has been studied many times before, and there are no alternate water supplies readily available for the Bay Area (or California in general…), I’ve stated before that this is a bad idea.  I think a far more useful expense of money, energy, and discourse would be when San Francisco is going to get serious about water recycling…

Recently, the town of Novato, in the North Bay (Marin County), opened a 1.7-million gallons-per-day water recycling plant.  That’s not a very big plant, relatively speaking, but it is 1.7 million more gallons that Novato will be recycling than San Francisco, every day.  The article notes that San Rafael, another town in Marin County, also opened a water recycling plant just a few weeks ago.  Neither of these plants will produce drinking water, but rather will supply golf courses and agricultural users.  Fair enough, that means that those guys aren’t using drinking water.

Oxnard, a town in Ventura County, southern California, also recently opened a “world class” water recycling facility capable of treating 6.25 million gallons per day.  Again, so far this facility will meet needs of agricultural and golf courses, rather than drinking water, but this will have the capability to hook into a public water supply, given the high level of treatment that this water will undergo (microfiltration, reverse osmosis, UV, and peroxide treatments…the peroxide seems like overkill to me, but I guess a factor of safety never hurts…).

These places are putting San Francisco to shame.  Virtually nowhere in California can claim to have a water source that did not at some point degrade the environment.  Dams and canals were built.  But the best thing we can do is decrease our reliance on this infrastructure through smart water recycling and aquifer storage.  Only then can we revisit the dams and canals and whether we really need them.  So, San Franciscans, where’s the ballot measure about the city’s lack of any water recycling??

fracking: the problem is not what you think

Researchers just published a paper that claims that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) poses a substantial risk to water pollution, but not how you might think.  Fracking, at this point, is viewed as an evil process that’s destroying America’s heartland and poisoning major water supplies.  Unfortunately, the public remains misinformed about actual threats to water supplies, and some widely popular “facts” claimed by fracking opponents turn out to be myths.  Apparently neither side of the fracking debate is doing a good job of using science rather than emotion.

Which brings me back to the paper that just came out.  The paper did not claim that fracking fluids would contaminate groundwater supplies, but rather stated that the risk from fracking wastewater is substantial to surface water bodies.  Most of the water that is injected for fracking comes back out of the wells with the natural gas, and has high concentrations of naturally occurring salts, trace metals, and radioactivity due to its contact with the shale rock at depth.  The large volumes of wastewater have the potential to overwhelm existing wastewater treatment plants (and downstream water treatment plants).  The authors suggest that regulators should consider mandating procedures and methods to reduce wastewater volumes, so as to mitigate the risk of accidental wastewater release.

Oddly enough, the extensive drought across the US is already encouraging drillers to recycle their fracking wastewater to be reused for injection elsewhere.  I’ve previously alluded to some of the research that’s being done to develop water reuse technologies for fracking, and now anti-fracking groups are pressing legislators to mandate water reuse and limit the amount of fresh water that can be used for fracking.  To me, this is eminently sensible – it would be very hard for an environmental group to stop fracking altogether at this point, but it should be possible to hold drilling companies accountable to today’s environmental standards.

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.

disaster can drive success

A hot topic in the public sphere these days is fracking.  I’m not interested in discussing the safety of fracking itself, but rather in the wastewater that it generates.  You may have heard things like injecting wastewater underground can cause earthquakes, or that fracking wastes are contaminating surface waters across Pennsylvania.  There’s science behind that.  But there’s also an economic opportunity.  The EPA will supposedly issue regulations for disposal of wastewater from fracking in the future, and the baseline condition is trucking the wastewater out of state, at least for parts of Pennsylvania.  Lots of things are cheaper than that.

So start-ups are targeting this market and developing new technology.  If they can treat the wastewater to a level where it can be reused for injection, then everyone wins: the net water withdrawals decrease, the treatment load on local municipal water and wastewater treatment plants decreases, and American ingenuity creates jobs.  (Side note: no jobs would be created if we had no EPA.  Keep that in mind, those who complain that regulations inhibit job creation.)  Some ideas are a little out there, like the idea to use soybean oil to capture pure water from the wastewater stream, but I’m glad that they’re thinking about it.  With costs like $15 to ship a barrel of wastewater from Pennsylvania to Ohio for disposal, or $5 million to drill a new disposal well, there’s a lot of room to be creative.