Water as a utility
Aaron Renn of Urbanophile and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute has produced a report, Wasted: How to Fix America’s Sewers, on the crushing financial impact on local jurisdictions of regulations promulgated by the EPA concerning discharge of untreated water into rivers and the security of water supplies.
While I agree with the need for the new regulations, there is no question that the cost to comply with these regulations is considerable and outstrips the financial capacity of many jurisdictions.
The cost of water for an average household has increased significantly, by 500% or more, and Aaron discusses the disproportionate impact on low income households, an issue which received attention a not long ago, when the Detroit water system began shutting off service to household with large unpaid water bills.
Residents called on the United Nations to intervene--a wasted gesture but good for publicity--because access to water is a basic human right ("The U.N. says water is a fundamental human right in Detroit," Washington Post).
Regional sewage costs vary widely in region, but all will eventually pay more," on the impact on rates from the cost to comply with water quality mandates.
Typically water systems are overseen by locally elected officials, who for political reasons prefer to keep rates low, despite the skyrocketing costs to fix decaying infrastructure and to comply with federal mandates.
I wrote about this a few years ago ("How do you reform a crumbling sewer line?") in response to a New York Times article quoting a DC official saying what I thought were ridiculous things, because you can't "reform" a broken water or sewer pipe.
"This rate hike is outrageous,” said Jim Graham, a member of the city council. “Subway systems need repairs, and so do roads, but you don’t see fares or tolls skyrocketing. Providing inexpensive, reliable water is a fundamental obligation of government. If they can’t do that, they need to reform themselves, instead of just charging more.”About 10 years ago I saw a presentation by Eric Freidenwald-Fishman of the Metropolitan Group about "Building Public Will." He made the point that it is easier to build upon people's pre-existing and felt values rather than trying to convince them based on reasoning that was less self-focused.
-- American Rivers
-- Waterkeeper Alliance
Because of the capital costs to comply with federal mandates, Aaron recommends that state and federal funding be made available to local water systems. The Washington Post reports ("Senators reach bipartisan funding deal for Flint water crisis") on how the Senate is putting forth a bill to provide some assistance. From the article:
The agreement includes $70 million in credit subsidies for water infrastructure projects, $100 million for subsidized loans and grants to help states with spoiled water supplies and $50 million for public health programs.I guess it's a start, but only a start. According to the American Water Works Association, the total estimated cost to repair and improve the water system infrastructure across the U.S. exceeds $1 trillion ("New Report Highlights Staggering Costs Ahead for Water Infrastructure," Water World).
That amount of money is paltry compared to the cost for even one local or regional water system to comply with the EPA mandates ("EPA Sewer Mandates, Flexibility and Value for Money," Wall Street Journal; "No end in sight for city's $1.1 billion overhaul of leaky, polluting sewers," Baltimore Sun). From the Sun article:
The city has rehabilitated 85 miles of sewer lines, plugged dozens of overflows and is doing $250 million worth of sewer cleaning and rehab now. But some repair projects are not expected to be finished until 2018, and one critical, but massive fix — which pushes the price tag over $1 billion — has not even begun.Increasing cost of water from the Detroit regional water system to deal with aging infrastructure and federal mandates ("Rising water costs linked to aging infrastructure needs," Oakland Press) is what led to Flint making the change in water sources, which again must be reiterated, didn't have to be associated with problems. For some reason, they chose not to treat the water at all, let alone with a formulation appropriate to treat Flint River water as opposed to the treatment formulation used to treat "Detroit water"
Nearly 150 large cities and counties are under federal consent decrees to stop chronic sewage overflows and leaks, including Baltimore County, which pipes its wastewater to the city to be treated. With nearly $500 million spent so far upgrading sewage pumping stations and fixing failing pipes, the county projects its total bill may run as high as $1.5 billion. But county officials say they're on track to finish by their mandated deadline of 2020.
There are many water-related issues that informed citizens need to be aware:
2. Aging infrastructure and the cost to replace it. (Arlington County Virginia image at left.) Even without new mandates, utilities face major costs because of aging infrastructure ("You can't wish away the need to upgrade aging utility infrastructure"). Most water systems were built before 1935 and piping is operating beyond its useful life. The cost to repair and replace is considerable.
3. Extant lead pipes in water systems. Leaching of lead causes many public health problems. But the problems are much more widespread than what we have seen in Flint. For example, many cities across the country, such as in Pennsylvania ("As lead problem unfolds in Flint, attention turns toward cities like Allentown," Allentown Morning Call) have similar or worse problems.
Generally, as long as water is properly treated, leaching from the extant pipe system is minimized. But when the water source changes or the composition of the water treatment chemicals are changed, corrosion can increase significantly, and harm the public health.
At the individual household scale, a lot of waste water could be reused on site for landscape watering and other uses, without having to be returned to the system and treated.
Now that drought is an issue, many people are turning to "gray water" systems. But in most places they are still illegal.
-- "Decriminalizing Greywater," Sightline Institute
-- Greywater Reuse - - Greywater Action
5. Original design of waste water and sewerage piping systems. To save money, many cities set up systems where the wastewater return pipes from residential and commercial customers is combined with the stormwater collection system.
Often, the storage capacity of this system is exceeded significantly by major storms, and typically water is discharged into local rivers or lakes without treatment. This practice has been addressed by the EPA and is the source of costly federal mandates.
To bring attention, some communities have developed "swimmable river/harbor" goals such as for Baltimore's Harbor (Healthy Harbor | Baltimore Waterfront) and the Anacostia River (Plan for a Fishable and Swimmable Anacostia River) in DC.
Strategic Green Infrastructure Planning: A Multi-Scale Approach by Karen Firehock of the Green Infrastructure Center.
There are two approaches. One we might call "hard," which is focused on providing separate piping systems and underground storage capacity, so that all water can be treated. The other is "soft," and is focused on capturing water where it falls, through rain gardens, water capture systems, etc. Big cities like Philadelphia and DC are using a mixed approach.
6. Water system security. In the face of increased threats from terrorism, EPA has issued new rules requiring that treated water be secure (usually in tanks) and that untreated water storage facilities be secure. This is increasing the cost of providing water too, and the capital costs can be considerable.
-- "Terrorism and Security Issues Facing the Water Infrastructure System," Congressional Research Service
7. Drought, conservation, and access to drinking water. The impact of climate change on water supplies will be an increasingly important issue, both for places with access to a great deal of water like the Great Lakes ("Water as a competitive advantage? in a warming world") as well as Southwestern states, especially California, which are looking at multi-decade drought conditions. At the cost of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, in California more communities are considering desalination as an option to maintain drinking water supplies in the face of supply reductions.
Another element of climate change concerns the integrity of water supplies. For example, an toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie meant that the City of Toledo couldn't draw water from its normal intake system ("Toxic algae threatens Lake Erie drinking water, but Toledo has the new technology to cope," Cleveland Plain Dealer). The bloom was facilitated by fertilizer runoff, which is bad anyway but can have even worse effects as the composition of water and water levels change.
Ironically, reduced demand for water as a result of conservation has been a rise in the cost for water, because the cost of maintaining and expanding infrastructure is somewhat independent from the volume of water consumed.
This is a big problem in Europe, where people are much more environmentally conscious ("There's Too Much Water in Germany," Wall Street Journal).
San Diego has particular problems because of their success at conservation. Water use is down so much despite the drought that they are at the point of exceeding storage capacity, and may have to discharge water to protect the system's physical integrity.
9. Managing watersheds to protect drinking water supplies. In response to wildfires and other catastrophic events, more communities are paying attention to watershed management. One of the strategies used by the City of Santa Fe is called a water fund, funded by a small tax, which pays for watershed protection projects. The water fund concept was pioneered by the Nature Conservancy.
-- Urban Water Blueprint: Mapping Conservation Solutions to the Global Water Challenge, Nature Conservancy
-- Watershed Forestry Resource Guide
-- Municipal Watershed Management, City of Santa Fe, New Mexico
-- "Healthy Headwaters Success Stories -- Santa Fe, NM," Carpe Diem West
10. Managing the watershed to minimize flooding. Many communities are subject to flooding because of their being located alongside rivers.
Tulsa is one such example. Historically, the city had been prone to catastrophic flooding, resulting in deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars of property damage. While the city had been implementing floodwater management initiatives since the 1970s, in 1984, after sever floods which resulted in 14 deaths, the city created a Department of Stormwater Management and developed a Citywide Flood and Stormwater Management Plan aimed at eliminating death and damage from flooding. The plan outlined specific improvements across the city to achieve this goal.
The primary focus of the plan is removing buildings from the flood plain and converting these spaces to greenways and parks as a way to absorb flooding while minimizing damage. The plan has been frequently updated--another iteration is underway--and since 1990, no structure built before 1987 has been damaged by flooding. Nor has anyone died from flood events.
-- "From Roof Top to River: Tulsa's Approach to Floodplain and Stormwater Management," Tulsa Partners
The Chicago Tribune recently reported on a similar planning initiative in Midlothian, a suburb outside Chicago subject to frequent flooding in association with Creek ("From finger in the dike to real flood-fighting plan"). The plan was funded and executed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the regional planning organization for the city and suburbs.
-- RainReady initiative, Center for Neighborhood Technology
-- RainReady Plan, Midlothian, Illinois
A vehicle sits submerged on 14th Street near the Consolidated Edison power plant in New York, on October 29, 2012. Sandy knocked out power to at least 3.1 million people, and New York's main utility said large sections of Manhattan had been plunged into darkness by the storm, with 250,000 customers without power as water pressed into the island from three sides, flooding rail yards, subway tracks, tunnels and roads. (AP Photo/ John Minchillo)
Of course, the impact of levee failure in New Orleans in response to Hurricane Katrina and the impact of Superstorm Sandy on urban and waterfront communities in New York and New Jersey, have led to new measures in both hardening communities from storms and coming up with better ways for accommodating rising water levels more generally and in severe storm conditions.
11. Daylighting undergrounded rivers and creeks. During the peak of the development of urban infrastructure in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many small rivers and creeks were "undergrounded," and converted into pipe-based watercourses. Daylighting is the term for bringing back these creeks and rivers as elements of the urban landscape.
-- "Creek Daylighting: A Stormwater Management Trend," Society of Environmental Journalists