Tag Archives: Water supplies

I have a friend in south Florida who is a lawyer who is starting the conversation about farmland for sale.  Ok, in south Florida is might be about 40 years too late, but he has a great argument to make, even here, now.  Developers have paid handsomely for agricultural land near urban areas, especially in areas with nice weather (see Florida).  The problem is that many of those lands have been productive and because they are close to urban areas, convenient for the movement or produce to feed those communities or export the food to other areas.  It would seem obvious that buying food locally would be preferred to buying food from far away, unless you are an Agribusiness or developer that is.  And most family farms have been handed down to generations that, well, just don’t want to work farms, given the amount of money that the land can be sold for.  So it is an easy economic argument to make – sell your farm to developers and live happily ever after.  Except that means farmland that is no longer producing.  And as my friend notes, there is a finite amount of farmland out there and we are decreasing that acreage in the US every year.

Now true, some will argue than development is less water intensive than farms, but much of that argument is due to the traditional practices used for farm watering, as opposed to newer, less wasteful means.  So they argue, development is preferable to farming, but that argument may be limited to areas that are a) water poor  b) bring water in from elsewhere, c) extensively use groundwater which may not recharge, or d) should probably have neither farming or development.  But is Florida, we see fewer oranges, fewer row crops and less ranching than 20 or 40 years ago.  All that land is condos and houses, and our food gets trucked or shipped in from many places, a lot of them not Florida and few local.  He suggests that might not be a good thing for the long term.

Of course Florida is going to be faced with another of these land dilemmas.  When Crist was governor, he negotiated a deal to buy land from US Sugar to help restore water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.  Now the powers say they can’t afford to maintain the land, so US Sugar can keep it.  Of course US Sugar has plans for 100,000 houses in the Everglades Agricultural Area, or more, once farming stops.  I see my friend cringing.  That land, while not beneficial as farmland, surely would be less beneficial and farm more vulnerable as development.  Maybe we should rethink that land purchase?  Worth thinking about anyway.

In the vein of more growth is always better mentality, the following struck me as I was in Colorado last month.  Front Range politics are a big deal in Colorado because virtually all the people in the state live within 60 miles of Denver.  The following table outlines the populations of the Front Range counties and their growth trends over the past three years.  Big growth.  So the local politicians are happy.  Growth is good.

The Front Range Urban Corridor
County 2012 Estimate 2010 Census Change
Larimer County 310,487 299,630 +3.62%
Weld County 263,691 252,825 +4.30%
Boulder County 305,318 294,567 +3.65%
City and County of Denver 634,265 600,158 +5.68%
Arapahoe County 595,546 572,003 +4.12%
Jefferson County 545,358 534,543 +2.02%
Adams County 459,598 441,603 +4.07%
Douglas County 298,215 285,465 +4.47%
City and County of Broomfield 58,298 55,889 +4.31%
Elbert County 23,383 23,086 +1.29%
Park County 16,029 16,206 −1.09%
Clear Creek County 9,026 9,088 −0.68%
Gilpin County 5,491 5,441 +0.92%
El Paso County 644,964 622,263 +3.65%
Teller County 23,389 23,350 +0.17%

Then I read an article by Bruce Finley of the The Denver Post entitled “Colorado shies from big fix as proliferating people seek more water.’  The concept is to continue the state’s tradition of moving water from the wetter west side of the Rockies to the drier east side.  The current fix is to build a huge reservoir by Dinosaur National Monument (in the middle of the west Colorado desert), then divert 97 billion gallons a year from the Yampa River through a 250-mile pipeline across the Continental Divide to the Front Range to defray Colorado’s projected 2050 water shortfall of 163 billion gallons.  The Yampa Pumpback would be the 31st cross divide diversion Colorado has built since the 1930s.

colorado water

Now the plan has hit a snag, whereby the EIS for the project indicates to meet needs, it would be the Front Range that bears the risks of not enough water in dry years as a part of negotiations for water entitlements under the interstate treaty that divvies the Colorado River.  Once that is resolved, the project would cost billions and take years to construct.  Ok, the Front Range is water limited. And we all know it.  The problem is people like Northern Water manager Eric Wilkinson who the article quotes as saying. “With the number of people coming here, we’re going to have to look at all alternatives. Conservation isn’t the silver bullet; it’s also going to take additional infrastructure…. These people need water, and they’re willing to pay for that water.”  In other words, we need more growth!  So in the meantime, development competes with agriculture or replaces agriculture on the semi-arid high plains.  The article suggests that cities and industries seeking more water would absorb hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land water rights if unable to divert more across mountains, something the governor is a little concerned about.  They would just buy them out.  So less agriculture when we probably will need that land later.

So in that vein, I noted the following at the airport.  One is a nice field of grain. Golden in the summer sun.  Across the street, the golden field is being converted to 300 houses.  You can see the pipe and the equipment.  And my question is – Is this really a good idea?



In an interesting twist of fate, USEPA caused a spill on the Animas River when a staffer accidently breached a dike holding back a solution of heavy metals at the Gold King mine because the misjudged the pressure behind the dike.  Pressure?  The spill flowed at 500 gpm (0.7 MGD), spilling yellow water spilled into the river.  Downstream, the plume has travelled through parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and will ultimately hit Lake Mead.  Officials, residents, and farmers are outraged.  People were told not to drink the water because the yellow water carried at least 200 times more arsenic and 3,500 times more lead than is considered safe for drinking. The conspiracy theorists are out.  The pictures are otherworldly.

colorado-mine-spillRayna Willhite holds a bottle of water she collected form the Animas River north of Durango Colo., on Thursday, August 6th, 2015. About a million gallons of toxic mine waste emptied out of the Gold King Mine north of Silverton that eventually made it into the Animas River. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald via AP)

0807 colo spill epa-spill-

But they are all missing the point, and the problem.  This is one of hundreds of “legacy disasters” waiting to happen.  We are just surprised when they actually do.  A legacy disaster is one that is predicated on events that have happened in the past, that can impact the future.  In some cases the far past.  There are two big ones that linger over communities all over the west and the southeast – mines and coal.  Now don’t get me wrong, we have used coal and needed metals form mines.  That’s ok.  But the problem is no one has dealt with the effects of mining or coal ash for many years.  And then people are upset.  Why?  We can expect these issues to happen.

One major problem is that both are often located adjacent to or uphill from rivers.  That’s a disaster waiting to happen.  The King Gold mine is just the latest.  We had recent coal ash spills in Kingston, Tennessee (TVA, 2008) and the Dan River in 2014 (Duke Power). The Dan River spill was 30-40,000 tons.  Kingston cleanup has exceeded a billion dollars.  Coal ash is still stored at both places.  Next to rivers.  We had the federal government build ion exchange facilities in Leadville, CO and Idaho Springs, CO to deal with leaking water from mine tailings from the mountains. Examples are in the hundreds.  The photos are of the two coal spills, mine tailings that have been sitting the ground for 140 years in Leadville and one of the stormwater ponds – water is red in Leadville, not yellow.

kingston_coalash POLLUTE-master675 IMG_4803 IMG_6527 (2015_03_08 17_53_48 UTC)

When the disaster does occur, the federal government ends up fixing it, as opposed those responsible who are usually long gone or suddenly bankrupt, so it is no surprise that EPA and other regulatory folks are often very skeptical of mining operations, especially when large amounts of water are involved.  We can predict that a problem will happen, so expensive measures are often required to treat the waste and minimize the potential for damage from spills.  That costs money, but creates jobs.

For those long gone or bankrupt problems, Congress passed the Superfund legislation 40 years ago to provide cleanup funds.  But Congress deleted funding for the program in the early 2000s because they did not want to continue taxing the business community (mines, power plants, etc.).  So EPA uses ARRA funds from 2009.  And funding is down from historical levels, which makes some businesses and local communities happy.  The spectre of Superfund often impacts potential developers and buyers who are concerned about impacts to future residents.  We all remember Love Canals and Erin Brockovich.  Lack of development is “bad.”  They ignore the thousands or jobs and $31 billion in annual economic activity that cleanup creates, but it all about perception.

But squabbling about Superfund ignores the problem.  We continue to stockpile coal ash near rivers and have legacy mine problems.  Instead we should be asking different questions:

WHY are these sites permitted to store ash, tailings, and liquids near water bodies in the first place?  EPA would not be inspecting them if the wastes were not there.

WHY aren’t the current operators of these mines and power plants required to treat and remove the wastes immediately like wastewater operators do?  You cannot have millions of gallons of water, or tons of coal ash appear overnight on a site, which means these potential disasters are allowed to fester for long periods of time.  Coal ash is years.  Mine tailings… well, sometimes hundreds of years.

One resident on the news was reported to have said “Something should be done, something should be done to those who are responsible!”  Let’s start with not storing materials on site, next to rivers.  Let’s get the waste off site immediately and disposed of in a safe manner.  Let’s recover the metals.  Let’s start with Gold King mine.  Or Duke Power.  Or TVA.

Most of you that read my blog know I do a lot of hiking in National Parks.  These parks are truly beautiful places and national treasures.  We periodically add beautiful places to the list.  These national treasures have always had huge public support (88+%), millions of visitors, and historically bi-partisan support among politicians.  Parks are places for respite, for creatures to live, and places to just get away from it all. However, in hiking around, you will notice that that there are things that have not been fixed, things are closed, things are not repaired, etc.  The question is why?  This goes back about 20 years. Congress has not allocated funds – in fact the national Park Service budget has been reduced and upgrades unfunded.  There was a $5 billion backlog when Clinton left office, which Bush said he would correct.  But the backlog was $9 billion when he left office and is over $11.5 billion now and Obama says he is going to fix it.  However, since 2000, the NPS operating budget has been cut over 20 percent, which only fuels the problem and makes our visits to the park more difficult.  The question is when are we going to fix this?

Interesting because while Presidents say they will fix the issue, it is Congress controls the budget and Congress has been unable or unwilling to find the funds to maintain the parks.  They have cut their revenues which is unfortunate for all of us.  Privatizing is not the answer as some in Congress have suggested – American are not in favor of making Yosemite or Yellowstone into a theme park or commercializing the parks.  We want the parks wild.  And for water systems we want the parks wild because some of them are headwaters for our water supplies and we want them clean, not full or industrial or agricultural waste.  So water systems should be big proponents of protecting parks.   But it takes money to protect those assets.  It is no different that protecting your car, your house, your buildings, your water plant or your water and sewer piping system.  Oh wait, the latter one are problems, too.  Sad state of affairs.

Of course it’s not just parks, the most recent State of the industry for AWWA indicated that the top 3 issues all related to infrastructure condition, water supply sustainability and cost to customers.  Seems we can’t get the public to understand and our elected officials to fund all of these improvements.  And we got WITAF approved, but as yes Congress has provided no funding. Same with the Everglades – promised billions, but not much flowing to everglades protection.

So the big question is:  how do we get our elected officials, at all levels, to understand that by being elected, they are assuming the duties as stewards of these assets.  They are elected to protect them?  All of them.  For us!

This month’s Journal for AWWA has several articles devoted to direct potable reuse (DPR).  Total Water Solutions is the moniker that AWWA has tapped lately as the organization has moved to the message that water sources cannot be separated.  California believes that 40% of its urban water use can be recycled to direct potable reuse, which can address a lot of the drought concerns for urban users (11% of California’s water use).  The technology is available to make DPR a reality.  The concerns involve insuring system reliability (i.e. redundancy in processes), and public perception of DPR.  As I noted in a prior blog, there are two cities in Texas already doing DPR.  There are several places in California doing indirect potable reuse (IPR) which basically involves injected the water into an aquifer or releasing it in an upstream reservoir.  The treatment is basically the same for both but the separation is creates a different public opinion. One that is not so different than discharging wastewater to rivers that serve as water supplies downstream.  Both IPR and DPR were unheard of as ideas outside southern California until more recently.  But in the past several years, both have seen a significant change in Texas, California and Florida.  Water-logged south Florida has looked at 5 IPR projects in the past 7 years, and has a couple reuse ASR systems.  Should drought conditions return, these projects may not be so far-out (note we are at 25% normal rainfall in southeast Florida – but water use is 10% below 2005 levels).

The most recent issue of the magazine Population Connection notes several interesting things.  First, the world’s population grows by 80 million people per year, predominantly in areas that are not “first World” countries.  In many of these places water is limited – 1.2 billion people live in these areas. By 2030, 40% of the people, especially those in these areas will be facing water deficits that will increase their risks.  Some of these deficits will be exacerbated by climate changes.  Agriculture is responsible for 70% of water use, and that number is not expected to decline as the need for agricultural products increases with time.  So clearly water use and population are related, just as carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and population appear to be related. Worse yet, the number of urban residents that do not have access to wastewater services is expected to increase by 50%.  The good news, not so much in the US, where such services are expected and available to the vast majority of people.  So the problem – most of these people live in Third World countries that lack both the economic resources and social infrastructure to deal with these problems.  This is what Engineers Without Borders is trying to address but it does raise that question – what are the social consequences of trying to help them?  Surely engineering ethics say we should help protect the public health, safety and welfare, which this work does.  But on the other side, if they develop more and add more people, does that add to the strain on limited resources in these areas which might damage the public health safety and welfare.  Which is the more critical issue?  And how do we decide? How should engineers evaluate the conflict between public health and sustainability from an ethics perspective? Just asking?

Over the past couple weeks I have been at two conferences and had two interesting conversations.  The first one was in Anaheim at the AWWA Annual Conference and Exposition.  The subject was the organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB).  The organization has the mission to help get drinkable water to people in undeveloped parts of the world.  Nearly two billion people do not have clean drinking water which drastically impacts their health and ability to be productive and earn a living.  Many of these people live in Africa and Asia; some in central and South America as well.  The mission is a noble one – to help people.  But the guy I was talking to raised an interesting question – if we help all these people get water, they will demand more resources and if the resources are already limited, won’t creating more demands for those resources compromise our access and cost to those services?  Hence helping them actually creates competition with us for the same resources and that can compromise our goals.  Clearly not a fan of EWB, but, an interesting take on the issue..…

The second conversation was a few days later when a group of people were talking politics.  The conversation inevitably ended up on political parties and people and service organizations like Engineers Without Borders that are often viewed as being ”liberal” or “progressive” as opposed to “conservative.”  The discussion got around to this question – would conservative groups give money to progressive groups like EWB?  The answer was a resounding yes, because that would improve conditions which would make people more productive, which means more jobs, and more income to give more people access to buy more things, which creates a demand for more things, which expands the economy.  In other words, increase profits for those folks building the “things.”  Interesting twist, and you thought is was all about water….

There is an interesting ethical issues that arises in this discussion also. Engineers are entrusted to protect the public health, safety and welfare. When there were few people, projects did not impact many so little thought was given to the “what could possible happen” question. We are still paying for that. When bad things happen, the precedent has unfortunately been set that somehow “the government” will resolve this. An old 1950s BOR director said he thought he was “a hero because he helped create more room for people” in the west with dams and water projects. He did accomplish that, except that while there were more people coming, the resources were never analyzed for sustainability, nor the impact it might have on the existing or potential future economic resources. But once the well runs dry, I think we just assumed that another solution would resolve any issue. But what is if doesn’t?

There are many water supply examples, where we have engineered solutions that have brought water or treated water to allow development. South Florida is a great example – we drained half a state. But no one asked if that development was good or appropriate – we drained off a lot of our water supply in the process and messed up the ecological system that provided a lot of the recharge. No one asked in the 1930 if this was a good idea.

Designing/building cities in the desert, designing systems that pump groundwater that does not recharge, or design systems that cannot be paid for by the community – we know what will happen at some point. Now that there are more people, conflicts become more likely and more frequent. Most times engineers are not asked to evaluate the unintended consequences of the projects they build. Only to build them to protect the public health safety and welfare while doing so, but from a specific vantage point.

So if you know a project will create a long-term consequence, what action should you take? So the question is whether there is a conflict between engineers meeting their obligations to the public and economic interests in such cases?  Or should we just build, build, build, with no consideration of the consequences?

We are all aware of the major drought issues in California this year – it has been building for a couple years.  The situation is difficult and of course the hope is rain, but California was a desert before the big water projects on the 1920s and 30s. Los Angeles gets 12 inches of rain, seasonally, so could never support 20 million people without those projects.  The central valley floor has fallen over 8 feet in places due to groundwater withdrawals. Those will never come back to levels of 100 years ago because the change in land surface has collapsed the aquifer. But the warm weather and groundwater has permitted us to develop the Central Valley to feed the nation and world with produce grown in the desert.  The development in the desert reminds me of a comment I saw in an interview with Floyd Dominy (I think), BOR Commissioner who said his vision was to open the west for more people and farming, and oversaw lots of projects to bring water to where there was none (Arizona, Utah). The problem is that the west never head much agriculture or population because it was hot, dry and unpredictable – hence periodic droughts should be no surprise – the reason they are a surprise is that we have developed the deserts far beyond their capacity through imported water and groundwater.  Neither may be reliable in the long run and disruptions are, well, disruptive.  Archaeologist Bryan Fagan traced the fall of Native American tribes in Arizona to water deficits 1000 years ago.

Yet policymakers have realized that civil engineers have the ability to change the course of nature, at least temporarily, as we have in the west, south, Florida. I often say that the 8th and 9th wonders of the world are getting water to LA over the mountains and draining the southern half the state of Florida. I have lived in S. Florida for 25+ years and am very familiar with our system. The difference though is that we have the surficial Biscayne aquifer and a rainy season that dumps 40 inches of rain on us and LA doesn’t (as a note of caution, for the moment we are 14 inches below normal in South Florida – expect the next drought discussion to ensue down here in the fall). The biggest problems with the Everglades re-plumbing are that 1) no one asked about unintended consequences – the assumption was all swamps are bad, neglecting impacts of the ecosystem, water storage, water purification in the swamp, control of feedwater to Florida Bay fisheries, ….. 2) one of those unintended consequences is that the recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer is the Everglades. So less water out there = less water supply along the coast for 6 million people 3) we lowered the aquifer 4-6 ft along the coastal ridge, meaning we let saltwater migrate inland and contaminate coastal wellfields 4) we still have not figured out how to store any of that clean water – billions o gallons go offshore every day because managing Lake Okeechobee and the upper Everglades was made much more difficult when the Everglades Agricultural Area was established on the south side of Lake Okeechobee, which means lots of nutrients in the upper Everglades, and a lack of place for the lake to overflow, which meant dikes, more canals, etc. to deal with lake levels.

The good news is that people only use 11% of the water in California and Florida, and that Orange County, CA and others have shown a path to some degree of sustainability (minus desal), but the real problem is water for crops and the belief that communities need to grow. When we do water intensive activities like agriculture or housing, in places where it should not be, it should be obvious that we are at risk. Ultimately the big issue it this – no policy makers are willing to say there is “no more water. You cannot grow anymore and we are not going to send all that water to Ag.”  Otherwise, the temporary part of changing nature will come back to haunt us.

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