It’s all one water…

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.


  1. Thank you for the post and for starting this discussion. I am convinced that if the general public had a better understanding of how all our water resources and are connected we would see, even with no investment in infrastructure, great improvements in conservation, efficiency, environment health and operation costs. This understanding and support is essential since the systems that we are trying to exploit, sustain and restore, are designed by nature and do not respond to county, state or even country boundaries. A holistic understanding of the system is essential in solving thiese cases were multiple parties with potentially different interest are involved. Individual hydrological systems within this immense country will need customized solutions that allow all citicens and our neighboors to the north and south to prosper from the resources that are our natural right. This is a great task that cannot be solved by politicians or business people without the guidance of science and in an environment where conservation and efficiency are treated as a fetish. Again, I think that understanding the big picture is the first step in the process that will take us to support and deffend a sustainable use of our water resources.


  2. It’s hard to argue that what we see right before us is not true. Becasue we live in the moment, sometimes we get lost in the trees. Water supply is definately the most critical part of the intrastructure picture of all water systems.The the data focused on “Supply” needs to include data on the “Source.” If we do not expand the definition of our individual critical infrastructures to include water source data, we will actually be monitoring a incomplete picture. If our water sources dry up, our utility dries up. It’s that simple.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: