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!

wake up call on the Colorado River

I try to keep up with the latest news, but by no means could I use this blog to break news.  That said, developments in the past couple of days are must-reads for anyone interested in water resources.  The water in the southwest is just not there this year, folks, and it’s starting to dawn on people how precarious our water supplies can be.  The simple case is San Luis Reservoir, which supplies much of the South Bay – wealthy homes in Los Altos, Saratoga, and Cupertino, as well as industries in Silicon Valley.  The reservoir is at historic lows — 17% of full pool — because of one of the driest rainy seasons on record, combined with cutbacks in flows out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have cut off much of the typical inflows, while outflows, in the form of residential, industrial, and agricultural demand, continue unabated.  This year isn’t the year that water will have to be rationed within the San Jose area, according to officials, due to extra storage on-hand in groundwater and smaller reservoirs, but the Santa Clara Valley Water District should be pushing for conservation among its customers and a resolution to the long-term plans for the Bay-Delta, such as the tunnels, perhaps, to shore up their water reliability…

The reliability of the Colorado River’s flow has been debated since the first compact over-allocated the water rights based on wetter than average years.  We’re in a 14-year drought on the Colorado, and now 40 million people’s drinking water and some 15% of the nation’s produce depend on it.  Remarkable numbers, but that’s what happens when there’s only one “major” water source in a 7-state region, and it’s not even one of the top 25 rivers in the US in terms of discharge (at 1400 cubic ft per second on average, the Colorado is #28 of America’s 38 rivers over 500 miles long).  Lakes Powell and Mead, the largest two reservoirs in the US, help bridge the gap between high and low flows on the Colorado, but both are struggling to keep pace with the drawdown of the past 14 years.  Again, inflows are limited, and outflows just keep coming.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates both reservoirs, announced on Friday that less than 10% of the normal allocation would be available from Lake Powell this water year (starting October 1st), the lowest amount since the reservoirs were first filling in the 1960s.  This sets the stage for a legal “shortage” (also known as a “call”) to be declared in the next couple of years, which kicks in provisions to cut off water to Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico.  Arizona, last in line for water rights, loses supplies first, followed by Nevada and California.  Arizona will rely on its banked groundwater, stored in the “good years” of high runoff.  Las Vegas, which pulls supply from Lake Mead and discharges its treated wastewater into a tributary of the lake, will kick into gear a controversial plan to build a $7 billion pipeline to a groundwater resource in rural eastern Nevada, along the border with Utah.  And California’s farmers in the Imperial Valley, the largest consumers of Colorado River water, will have to be careful about taking only as much water as they’ve been allocated.

This can’t be a surprise to those who’ve been paying attention, from the Bureau of Reclamation’s farfetched feasibility study released last winter to the paper out of Scripps in 2008 that predicted a 50% chance that Lake Mead would be dry by 2021.  Savvy water managers across the southwest have been preparing policies and working out deals for what to do when the inevitable water shortage hits.  Thankfully this means resolution in a meeting room rather than in a court room.  But let’s hope that the public’s eye doesn’t forget this wake-up call if we have a particularly wet winter and seemingly resolve our troubles with plenty of water to go around.  We had a very wet year in 2011, which increased Lake Mead around 40-50 ft, and Lake Powell around 50 ft.  The problems did not go away; the “shortage” risk was merely delayed.

more than physics

People talk about water scarcity like it’s a physics problem: why don’t we tow icebergs from Alaska to alleviate the southwest’s water issues?  what about pumping water from the Great Lakes across the Rockies?  Sometimes that sort of grand thinking works, like the diversion of California’s water resources from the upper Sierra Nevada mountains southward to the Central Valley and Southern California.  But that’s only part of the equation.  One reason that California’s State Water Project and Central Valley Project are successful is that the source is virtually pristine snowmelt.  Move clean water from an area of relative abundance to an area of relative scarcity, add in a comment about humans adapting the environment to their needs, and voila, problem solved!

In my last post, I remarked on China’s limited water resources and their lack of wastewater treatment.  Well, not surprisingly, the Chinese government is trying their darndest to move water around to alleviate chronic water scarcity in the north (think Beijing) with relative abundant water from parts south (think the Yangtze River).  They’re apparently getting close on parts of this great diversion – the Danjiangkou Reservoir should be sending water northward next year.  The physics problem has been solved for a mere $81 billion!  Good job.

One small problem: the water to be transported is currently not fit for drinking.

A water pollution plan issued by the State Council, or China’s cabinet requires that the water quality for all five rivers that flow into the Danjiangkou meet a “grade III” standard by 2015.  But four of those rivers are now rated “grade V,” deemed for “agricultural use only” and the fifth river is considered “grade IV,” for “industrial use only,” reports China’s state-run news agency Xinhua.  “The target is very unlikely to be met as many pollution control projects lag behind schedule due to a fund shortage,” said Cheng Jiagang, vice mayor of Shiyan in Hubei province.

Oh.  What kind of fund shortage, when you just spent $81 billion on construction??

I’ve remarked previously on the lack of fame associated with building brand new shiny underground water infrastructure, and this appears to be a similar problem.  According to the above article, the local government needs about $500 million (just a fraction of that $81 billion price tag!) to build a wastewater treatment plant with nearly 700 miles of sewer pipelines.  So far, they’ve shuttered “329 factories in the last few years, but that has cut revenues by $130 million annually”.

Well, I hope they can find the money.  Until then…good luck to those intending to rely upon the diverted water.  Physics ain’t everything, folks.

a long way to go

Hello again, readers!  I’m finally rejoining the world of blogging, now that it’s been nearly 6 months since my last post.  In the meantime, I got married and changed my name — I’m now Claire Farnsworth Wildman, but otherwise blog content should remain unchanged.  I’m going to try to get into posting again once a week, and throw some links on my twitter feed when I can’t get to posting on interesting news.  Hopefully this will work!

~ Claire

So today’s post is a comment on China’s limited water supplies.  Bloomberg is noting that China’s coal mines are beginning to feel the crunch of limited water.  China has a fundamental problem that a bunch of development (agriculture and cities, and apparently many coal mines) is in the north, whereas the majority of their rainfall and streamflow is in the south.  This is not too different from the issues of the American southwest, where cities in dry areas keep expanding on the premise that they can access water from distant snowfall in the Rockies or Sierras via rivers and aqueducts.

The difference is that the US generally has pretty decent water resources (9,044 cubic meters = 2.4 million gallons per capita), but China’s are relatively sparse (2,093 cubic meters = 0.55 million gallons per capita), so moving water around won’t ultimately resolve all of their issues.

What struck me in the above article, though, was this: “…Veolia Water, which treated 1.2 billion tons of waste water in China last year…”  That sounds like use of numbers to imply large volumes of treated wastewater…but remember, China has 1.354 billion people as of January 2013.  So, one of the world’s largest water and wastewater treatment plant operators treated nearly 1 ton of wastewater per capita in China last year.  Let’s put that in perspective: an American city with low water use has about 150 gallons per day per capita, which we can assume goes to the wastewater treatment system.  This number is probably way too high for per capita water use for places without reliable drinking water supplies, but let’s use it for a back-of-the-envelope calculation:

150 gallons/day/person x 365 days/year x 8.34 lbs/gallon / (2000 lbs/ton) = 228 tons of wastewater per person in the US

Ok, again, very rough numbers.  Per capita water use is tricky to measure, but this website cites a 2006 UN Development Program report to suggest China averages something like 23 gallons/day/person (quoted as 86 liters/day/person).  Plug that in to the above equation, and you come up with 34 tons of wastewater per person in China, not including industrial wastewater.  Again, one of the world’s largest wastewater treatment companies was proud to hit the target of ~1 ton per person last year.  Whatever the per capita water use in China, it sounds like wastewater treatment has a long way to go…

fracking gets uglier

There’s plenty of controversy around fracking in the US.  But here we have a relatively informed public, with public officials who must respond to the balance of public opinion (whether it’s heightened oversight or direct election), and a pretty good basis of environmental laws.  A fair number of countries have observed our issues with fracking and environmental hazards, and said, “Thanks but no thanks.”  Notable bans have arisen in France and Germany, with proposals in the UK.  But developing countries are hungry for the cheap energy source, and China, for example, wants in, to the tune of 6.5 billion cubic meters of gas by 2015 and 100 billion cubic meters by 2020 (the US produced some 170 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2011).

The first red flag in my mind is cutting corners.  My understanding is that the majority of the problems with aquifer contamination in Pennsylvania arose from shoddy well construction.  Pardon my stereotyping, but Chinese industries aren’t exactly known for their meticulous high-quality work, especially when there’s profit to be made…This makes me nervous.

But the second red flag upsets me more: where will the frack water come from?  China is not a country of abundant water resources, especially in the north.  And in contrast to the US or Canada, its people have little recourse if they have complaints about depleted or contaminated water resources.  Where will the water come from?  Will Chinese central planners favor industry over people?  It has happened before (just Google “chemical spill China” and see how many different incidents pop up, e.g., this one).

Never mind that it apparently takes 3 years to get environmental laws on the books, and wastewater disposal (currently one of the main problems with fracking in the US) is not one of China’s strong suits.  Fracking might help the Chinese economy, but my bet is, it’s going to get really ugly really quickly.  I’m glad we have home-grown natural gas to rely upon — far less guilt.

canary in the coal mine

[*Note: Sorry I didn’t get this post up on Monday.  Things got away from me, being out of town this weekend for fun and then all day Monday for work.  We should be back on track for the rest of the week.*]

People like to talk about water issues in the West like they’re a special case. And by and large, they’re right — water scarcity in the Southwestern US brings up issues of water rights and alternate supplies well before they hit the rest of the country. But the rest of the country is not immune to water scarcity, despite the relative abundance of rainfall (San Diego: 10 inches per year; Boston: 42.5 inches per year; Atlanta: 50.2 inches per year). Really provocative thinkers propose grand schemes to save the West like piping water from the Great Lakes to the Colorado River. Well, besides a large number of Michiganders, Chicagoans, Wisconsinites and others who would insist that the West can’t have their water, things aren’t perfectly rosy in the Great Lakes.

In fact, Lake Michigan recently hit its record low. What happened? Lake levels vary quite a bit (a few feet) annually, but Lakes Michigan and Superior have been below the long-term average since the late 1990s.  Their main outflow, the St. Clair River, has been heavily dredged, which increases the rate water exits the lake basins.  Add in a touch of climate change (you may have heard of the spectacular drought across the US this year), and there’s just not as much water in the system.

I don’t know what the answer is here, but it is worth pointing out that water mismanagement–or perhaps, lack of management–is a nationwide issue.  The impacts may hit the Southwest first, but the story of water scarcity across this country is not going away any time soon.