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In the prior blog, the theme of It’s All One Water was discussed.  Our industry has operated with the concept that potable water, wastewater, storm water, runoff, navigable waters, etc are distinct from one another and are somehow different, creating a silo effect. The silo effect obfuscates the current program of drawing water from rivers, streams and lakes, and discharging our wastes to those same rivers, streams and lakes, downstream of our withdrawal point of course.  Our local perceptions generally to not allow us to acknowledge that our uses affect other users, one reason that conflicts occur in water basins.  Instead the focus is “unfunded mandates” from political circles, whereby utilities are required to meet increasing standards for water, wastewater and storm water treatment.  Much of the regulatory focus is on utilities because they are perceived to have deep pockets due to the populations they serve.  If everyone pays a little, then it won’t hurt is much is the philosophy.  But the reality is that treatment of dilute source waters is often made more difficult as a result of upstream releases.  It is easier to treat water before it gets released.  The solution to pollution is apparently not dilution.  So who should treating these waters?

Perhaps the question is better framed a different way.  The concept in the legislation is to have polluters pay the cost for their pollutions, but reality is that the urban users pay the bulk of the costs.  Agriculture may create a downstream impact of nutrients, pesticides and herbicides, but controlling runoff is a difficult issue, especially if there are heavy rains just after application of chemicals.  It is unclear how you cool water for cooling without extensive energy costs, which would increase energy demands further.  And of course rainfall creates runoff as a contribution form the natural system (mostly in the form of turbidity).  There is nothing much that utilities can do to control these issues aside from acquiring large tracts of land to control the source.  But that does not solve the regulatory needs.

So the responsibility for public health falls on us.  As we evaluate regulations, we need to think about responsibility and cause (not costs).  The public health issues is much clearer with wastewater plants, where discharge of wastewater could impact both aquatic species and downstream water users.   In this case, there are no unfunded mandates – it is local responsibility to insure that the public health is protected near and farfield.

With water plants, well it all depends on the raw water.  So cleaner upstream water and less adverse users are better, but most utilities don’t fully control their source basins.  So then the key is whether the regulatory mandates meet the public health tests, which may depend on who you ask.  Ask this question to women with kids:  How much arsenic in your water is ok?  You rarely get any answer other than “none.”  Why?  The public health perception.  Cost is rarely the issue, but public health always is a concern.  The public expects their utility to do what is needed to clean up the water and places that responsibility on us.  Hence there are no real unfunded mandates, although that sounds great to deflect the need for rate increases to other agencies.

So then the question is whether all this discussion of unfounded mandates is an abdication of our public health responsibility.  The perception might be reality.  If your customers think that meeting regulations or treatment upgrades are being forced on you by others, does that create the question “Is the utility is really putting public health first?”  Does it beg the question  “why isn’t our utility already doing this?”  While every region will be different, how your customers may view your responsibilities is good question to ponder….

Thoughts?

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It’s All One Water was the byline when this blog was announced.  As noted the point of the blog is to discuss water industry issues with the hope of developing new ways to approach industry problems as time develops.  Our industry has operated with the concept that potable water, wastewater, storm water, runoff, navigable waters, etc are distinct from one another and are somehow different.  Most utilities have separate departments, let’s call the silos, that separate these different waters.  One of the issues that arises when the silos are in place, is that within larger organizations is the all-to-common perception that “never should these different waters touch,” that they should always be kept separate.  From a public health perspective that has worked for the industry relatively well, to the point that over any given 25 year period, the number of waterborne disease outbreaks has been relatively consistent since 1950 (640 or so affecting 150,000 people, with the 1993 Milwaukee incident being the outlier).

But does this work from a water quantity perspective?  For many parts of theUSandCanada, water quantity is the big driver, or limitation of growth and development.  Throughout history, civilizations grew where sufficient quantities of healthful water could be secured, and the “dirty” water removed.  This cut disease outbreaks and allows people to be more productive (in part because they can work more).  The same holds today, although the advances in technology have allowed us to develop far more water sources than our ancestors.  We can mine water from deep aquifers in the desert and treat ocean water for drinking purposes for example.

So we have aquifer systems that are being “managed” to produce water for 50 or 100 years in the west (the aquifers are used because surface waters are either limited or unreliable), with limited consideration of what happens when the system is fully managed to depletion.  Where will the new supplies come from and how much time, effort and expense will be used to develop new sources?  There is an assumption that we can drill deeper, but that is not an option for many locales, according to USGS.  Their Circular 1323 paints a painful picture that groundwater is simply not sustainable.  So when the water runs dry, what is the local impact of the economy?  Industry?  Population?  Many of these water stressed areas are hubs for intense agricultural cultivation.  Without water…well, there simply is no answer for this problem as yet in too many places that are currently water limited.

The reality is that as we try to improve the sustainability of our water systems, new sources must be developed.  The costs for new water supplies is significant, so looking forward, the recapture of water sources that otherwise may be released, assuming there is not a regulatory requirement for return flows, provides utilities with opportunities to expand the size of the water “pie.”  Instead of relying only on the water sources, diversification to the “other” water sources permits increased self reliance and control.  This was one of the concepts of the integrated water resources planning activities in vogue by the American Water Works Association starting in the mid 1990s.

Aquifer recharge, stream augmentation, and storage projects will become more prevalent in the future.  Those who pursue these options early are likely to position themselves for longer term, sustainable development. Orange County,CAhas been using alternative technologies to capture and use waters of impaired quality like wastewater and storm water, for treatment and replenishment of the local aquifers, given new life to depleted systems.  The ability ofOrangeCountyleaders to demonstrate to the public the safety of recharge, the reliability of treatment and the long term benefits/sustainability of their aquifer recharge project has armored the areas water supply.  They have drawn down the silos.

Compare to southeastFlorida. Southeast Floridagets 60 inches per year of rainfall, 70% in the summer. The area is flat, has high evaporation rates, saltwater intrusion caused by drainage canals, $3.7 trillion in property values, a $300 billion/year economy and 5.5 million people.  Water supply would not appear to be a problem, but the drainage system moves over 25% of the precipitation to tides.  And the water is well siloed.  The silo effect limits our ability to persuade the public of the benefits of, or need for, ideas like wastewater for irrigation of lawns, wastewater treatment to potable standards for drinking, and the capture of dewatering activities for raw water supplies in many areas.Southeast Floridahas investigated used for reclaimed water for irrigation and targeted potable reuse, but both meet resistance form communities who object to the “yuck” factor.  Future impacts of sea level rise, will require storm water utilities to pump groundwater 24/7, but despite no permits in place for the discharge, and no obvious outlets, the use of these wellpoint systems as a potable source has yet to be considered. Southeast Florida’s long-term issue is too much water.  But at least there is money to be spent.

Compare to the Plains states and the west.  Limited water.  Limited precipitation.  Flat land.  Ground water with limited recharge. Limited population so reuse options are limited.  Agriculture uses the vast majority of water.  And when it runs out?  The need for reservoirs, runoff capture and treatment, revised agriculture practices, and more are costly considerations that agriculture is unlikely to afford, and impact downstream utilities.  The need to develop ideas to expand the water supply “pie” are needed.

Water supplies are storm water runoff and wastewater discharges.  Wastewater is used potable water from the built environment and groundwater infiltration.  Storm water washes the land, often carrying pollutants with it.  Agriculture uses the water for irrigation, but precipitation carries nutrients, fertilizers and animal husbandry wastes offsite.  Power heats the water.  And throughout, the natural environment relies on specific timing, quantity and quality parameters to provide natural resources and economic stimuli.  The key is how to manage these water options form a holistic perspective to meet the needs of all users, while insuring that current activities do not limit the future.  It’s all one water.

thoughts?

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