Tag Archives: water supply deficit

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?




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).

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?

Spring is in the air, at least in some places, so it gives us a chance to take stock of where we are after the winter.  Boston actually is seeing the ground after record snow.  The west is seeing lots of ground, even though some areas should not be seeing ground at this point.  I recall the Colorado Rockies having snow at 8000 ft a couple years ago, but not this year.  Some ski resorts in western Colorado never opened.  Not a good sign.  Snow was 10% of normal in parts of California which means the drought will continue.  12% in Oregon and Washington is some part – not good for places that rely on snow for water supplies.  So the question is whether the current drought is the start of a longer climate driven issues and/or the result of where demands have permanently exceeded supplies?  And if the latter is true, conservation is one option, but has obvious financial and supply limitations since urban use is less than 12% of water total use (agriculture is 40% and power plant cooling water is 39%).

Better management is part of a toolbox, but when the supply is finite, the economics says that costs will increase, shutting out certain sectors of the economy.  This is where the “market system” theory of economics fails large sectors of the population – at some point finite supplies become available only to those who can afford to pay, but water is not one of those commodities that is a luxury – we need it to survive.  Certainly the argument can be made that water is underpriced, but like energy, low water prices have helped fuel economic development while improving public health.  It is a chicken/egg conundrum where the argument that conservation will solve all problems is not realistic, nor is using the market or curtailing economic activity.  This is where the market fails and therefore governments have a role in insuring that all sectors are treated fairly and the commodity can be provided to all those in need of it – serving the public good.  The public good or public welfare argument is often lost in the political dogma of today, but our forefathers had this figured out and designed regulations to insure distribution after seeing the problems that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We have forgotten many of those lessons.

The public good or welfare does not mean unlimited distribution to areas that would otherwise be bereft of the commodity.  The early engineers in Los Angeles realized that development could only continue if water was brought in.  So massive water movement projects were developed.  The economic benefit was the only consideration – the impacts of these changes were not considered.  Likewise the Corps of Engineers was directed to drain the Everglades, but no one asked if this was a good idea or would have negative impacts.  Loss of the Everglades permitted economic development that is southeast Florida – 40% of the economy of the state, but it impacted water supply and places millions are risk for future sea level rise impacts.  Worse, agriculture was fostered in the upper Everglades as the federal government sold off the acreage to private interests cheaply to encourage sugar cane and winter vegetables.  That agriculture is now planning to develop the Everglades if the property is not purchased by the state.  But purchasing the property rights a prior error in consequences – it is likely in the public interest as an effort to restore water supplies in the Biscayne acquire that feed southeast Florida, and to increase water flows to retard saltwater migration in the southern Everglades.  These are both ”sins” of the past, made with good intentions but with very little thought of consequences beyond the economic benefits.  Both have resulted in water shortages in the areas they were meant to serve as climate patterns have changed.

The question is whether we continue to make these mistakes.  Development in desert areas, areas known to be water poor, and deepening wells to get groundwater supplies who’s levels continue to decline are all poor long-term decision, despite the short-term potential gains.  California farmers continue to deepening wells but those aquifers have a limit in depth.  Deepening wells means those wells do not recharge (otherwise the aquifer levels would not continually decline).  What happens when the wells run dry permanently? Clearly the sustainability criteria is not met.

Meanwhile lower aquifer can divert surface waters into the ground – not enough for full recharge, but perhaps enough to impact surface water flows to other farmers, potable water users, and ecosystems.  Droughts are climate driven- and we have persevered droughts before, and will again.  However in light of the California drought, perhaps we should all assess more closely the long-term trends – lowering groundwater, increasing demands, lessening availability and make better decisions on water use – not only in California but in many parts of the US and the world.  Changing water use patterns is great, but it is just part of a larger issue — do we need to change our current behaviors – in this case water use – in certain areas?  Are there just places we should not develop?  Is there a limit to water withdrawals?  And how do we deal with the economic losses that will come?  All great question – but do we have the leadership in place to make the hard decisions?

If you are a wastewater utility, and you create a high quality effluent product that can be used for industrial purposes, irrigation or aquifer recharge, who “owns” the water?  If the utility is sending to a golf course pond for discharge, the answer seems obvious – the golf course owns it.  Not so fast.

Now let’s day you are recharging and aquifer.  You pump it into the ground with the intention of recharging the aquifer to benefit your wellfield.   Or you pump it into an aquifer storage and recovery system with the intent of recovering it when you need it.  Quick impression is that you should own it, but what about the people that sink walls along the way?  Or have existing wells in the vicinity that can tap your injected water?  Can you keep people from pumping it out?  Not as clear.

What about discharge to a stream with the idea of capturing it downstream in an intake system for your water system?  Much less clear.  The ecosystem, farmers, irrigation users, etc. along the stream could use the increased flows.  Can you keep them out?  Very unclear.

Now assume you are a water rights state and there are people who have rights to the aquifer or stream that are more senior to yours.  Can you clip their claim to the water by claiming the water is yours?  Really not clear and the subject of ongoing regulatory discussion and legal proceedings.

There are no clear answers to these questions but they have major long-term impacts of water resource planning in much of the US.  The problem is the rules assume facts not in evidence at the time of the permit (or claim).  Conditions can change – permits and rules may not (or have not).  Maybe the water regulations and that the changed condition should perhaps obviate the prior claim?  A very tough legal issue and one bound to make a bunch of people unhappy.  The concept of reclaiming water from waste was not a consideration in the past, so clearly the rules that cover reclaimed water need to be revised.  I can’t wait to see the results.

2014 is almost over.  Hard to believe.  I have been attending or annual Florida Section AWWA conference, meeting up with old friends, making new ones and learning new things.  Conferences and connections allow us to do our jobs more efficiently because as we learn how to solve problems or where we can find a means to solve whatever problem we encounter.  It is a valuable experience that I encourage everyone to get involved with, especially young people who need to make connections to improve their careers.  The technical sessions seemed to be well received and popular.  That means that there are issues that people want to hear about.  Things we focused on were alternative water supplies, water distribution piping issues, disinfection byproducts, ASR and reuse projects.

The reuse projects focused on Florida efforts to deal with 40 years of reuse practice and a movement toward indirect potable reuse. This is the concept where we treat wastewater to a standard whereby it can be put into a waterway upstream of a water supply intake or into the aquifer upstream of wells.  The discussion was extended to a number of discussions about water shortages and solutions for water limited areas.  Florida averages 50-60 inches of rain per year as opposed to the 6-10 inches in areas of the southwest or even 15-20 inches in the Rockies which makes the concept of water limitations seem a bit ludicrous for many, but we rely on groundwater that is recharged by this rainfall for most of our supplies, a lack of topography for storage and definitive wet and dry seasons that do not coincide with use.

The situation is distinctly different in much of the US that relies on surface waters or is just plain water limited.  We have a severe multi-year drought going on in California and huge amounts of groundwater being used for irrigation in many rain-challenged areas.  That is what all those crop-circles are as you fly over the Plains states and the wet.  Where you see crop circles, think unsustainable water supplies.  They are unsustainable because there is no surface water and the recharge for these aquifers is very limited.  Most leakance factors in aquifers is over estimated and hence water levels decline year after year.   Water limited places need answers because agriculture often out-competes water utilities, so in the worst of those areas, there are discussions about direct potable reuse (which occurs in Texas).

Direct and indirect potable reuse are offered as answers which is why this topic was popular at our conference.  A recent 60 Minutes presentation included a tour and discussion of the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment program, where wastewater is treated and injected into the ground for recovery by wells nearer to the coast.  They discussed the process (reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light and peroxide) and they took a drink.  “Tastes like water” was Leslie Stahl’s comment – not sure what she expected it to taste like, but it provides a glimpse into the challenge faced by water utilities in expanding water supplies.   Orange County has been injecting water for many years into this indirect potable reuse project.  The West Coast Basin Barrier Project and several others in California have similar projects.  South Florida has tested this concept 5 times, including one by my university, but no projects have yet been installed.

But until recently, there were no direct potable reuse projects where wastewater is directly connected to the water plant.  But now we have two – both in Texas with a number of potential new projects in the pipeline.  Drought, growth, water competition have all aligned to verify that there many are areas that really do not have water, and what water they do have is over allocated.  A 50 year plan to manage an aquifer (i.e.. to drain it) is not a sustainable plan because there may not be other options.  But Texas is not alone.  Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, The Dakotas, Kansas Oklahoma and I am sure others have verified water limitations and realize that sustainable economic activity is intrinsically linked to sustainable water supplies.  Conservation only goes so far and in many of these places, conservation may be hitting its limits.  Where your rainfall is limited and/or your aquifer is deep, replenishable resource is not always in the quantities necessary for economic sustainability.  Water supplies and economic activity are clearly linked.

So the unimaginable, has become the imaginable, and we now have direct potable reuse of wastewater.  Fortunately we have the technology – it is not cheap, but we have demonstrated that the reverse osmosis/ultraviolet light/advanced oxidation (RO/UV/AOP) process will resolve the critical contaminant issues (for more information we have a paper we published on this). From an operational perspective, RO membranes, UV and chemical feeds for AOP are easy to operate, but there are questions about how we insure that the quality is maintained.  The technical issues for treatment are well established.  Monitoring is a bit more challenging – the question is what to monitor and how often, but even this can be overcome with redundancy and overdosing UV.

But drinking poop-water? The sell to the public is much more difficult.  It is far easier to sell communities without water on the idea, but the reality we need to plan ahead.  There are no rules.  There are no monitoring requirements, but we MUST insure the public that the DPR water they are drinking is safe.  WE are gaining data in Texas.  California and Texas are talking about regulations.  The University of Miami has been working of a project where they have created a portion of a dorm that makes its own water from wastewater.  Results to come, but the endeavor shows promise.

My apologies for being off line for a couple weeks.  We finished the summer semester the first week of August, and are now gearing up for the Fall semester.  Lots to do, and proposals and other projects to complete before the plunge.  The most interesting project this summer has been the conclusion of a national survey of aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) projects.  The concept of ASR wells is to store water underground until you need it later.  If you have a utility with limited water supplies, or if you have high demands a certain part of the year but not the rest, ASR has been touted as a solution.  Storage underground eliminates the evaporation losses, but the question has always been can you get the water back.  The survey, which will be fully published next year, shows 204 sites.  It shows only about a third are operational projects and over 50 that have been functionally abandoned.  The reasons for abandoning them include metals leaching(mostly a Florida problem), the inability to recovery the water (particularly a problem in brackish aquifers), lack of capacity and trihalomethanes (a regulatory issue in a couple states).  ASR was successful with limited injection rates (700 gpm) and where the aquifer was denuddded (South Carolina).  Growth seems to be in the west after a lot of effort in the southeast.  The road forward should prove interesting.  With completion of the study it is hoped that more data can be gleaned to indicate the factors that make ASR project successful, thereby increasing the rate of success for the future. 

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