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Water Works, 4: Smart planning for the future

The precious resource Credit: Credit: mRio/Flickr

Easy enough, perhaps, to talk about living with less in wet Seattle, where the skies rain three feet of water every year. The arid West faces a more pronounced set of challenges. Scarce rain has become scarcer over a twelve-year stretch of drought, exposing cracks in the region’s hydraulic empire as clearly as the bathtub ring around Lake Mead.

Formed by Hoover Dam, the nation’s largest reservoir reflects both the permanence of scarcity and many Americans’ obliviousness to it. The dam’s sculpted turrets are a reassuring symbol of the strength of infrastructure even as they rise above the mineral-bleached canyon walls of a weakened water source. In March, Lake Mead and the other storage reservoirs on the Lower Colorado were 54 percent full, compared with 64 percent a year before.

The historian and novelist Wallace Stegner said that civilizations try first to deny aridity, then to engineer it out of existence and finally, to adapt. No doubt many western water managers are still at door #2.

Among the baroque proposals lawyering their way through approval, a Los Angeles–based company called Cadiz seeks to pipe groundwater from the eastern Mojave Desert and sell it to urban water agencies in Southern California. Cadiz’s engineers insist they can draw 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from land the company owns near Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve with no damage to the desert’s delicate hydrologic pastiche of aquifer and playas, springs and seeps. Federal hydrologists and scientists hired by environmental groups predict Cadiz will mine the aquifer far in excess of its ability to recharge.

A little farther east, two days after Christmas, the Bureau of Land Management gave Las Vegas a long-wished-for gift. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which relies on the troubled Colorado for 90 percent of its supply, sought to pump groundwater from rural valleys 300 miles upstate and pipe it south to Las Vegas. For nearly 25 years, ranchers, local governments, Native American tribes, and environmentalists protested the project they compare to California’s Owens Valley, the once-bucolic home to orchards, farms, and ranches that turned to a near dust bowl when Los Angeles tapped it at the turn of the last century.

The water authority insists the project, with its 306 miles of pipeline and 323 miles of power line, is a “critical safety net” for 2 million. But it could also become one of the last vestiges of America’s 20th-century water-industry tradition of finding a pristine new source of freshwater, extracting it with sacrifice to an ecosystem, and burning the energy to move a liquid weighing 8.3 pounds a gallon over hundreds of miles.

By comparison, the Colorado River Basin study released last year — the government’s road map for navigating the dry times ahead — collected more than 140 options for closing the gap between supply and demand. The suggestions include plenty of 1950s-era schemes, such as pumping and piping floodwaters from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to top off the Colorado. But the report’s largest category of options involves highly local, demand-side answers: conservation, efficiency and reuse.

Afloat on the Colorado River, Credit: National Park Service

In the wake of the study, geoscientist Brad Udall, one of the most prominent water thinkers in the West, made an emperor has-no-clothes observation of the region’s water narrative. It is time, he suggested, to abandon the “we’re running out of water” game long played by water purveyors, NGOs, scientists, and the press — which loves nothing so much as a drought story illustrated with oversized photos of cracked earth. Scaring Americans with visions of a parched future has the pernicious outcome of seeing big supply projects as the only option, says Udall.

The study’s climate models point to an average 10 percent decline in the river’s flow at mid-century. Factor in demand, and that means 85 percent of today’s flow will remain, or nearly 13-million acre-feet — “still a very large number,” Udall says. Sharing a smaller amount of water will be difficult legally and politically. But those challenges pale next to the ecological and social costs inherent in big supply schemes, especially given the uncertainty of climate change.

This doesn’t mean America’s most populated metro areas will not have to resort to building alternative supply projects such as desalination plants. No doubt some will, and, under industry pressure, sooner than they should — before technologies become more cost- and energy-efficient than they are today. But there is no question that the easiest, cheapest and most ecologically sound options for communities involve working together to use less, rather than fighting each other to grab more.

Statistics show Americans have been living with a little less every year, certainly without diminishing quality of life. And the savings are but a drop in an enormous bucket of potential. Before he left office, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (left) put a plan in place to reduce residents’ water use 20 percent by the year 2020. If the state reaches this goal, Californians will still be some of the most profligate water users in the world — tapping around 154 gallons per person every day.

Recycled water is another considerable and largely untapped source. Increasingly, communities are recycling their wastewater for uses such as cooling industrial plants and irrigating parklands and soccer fields. In northern California, the Western Recycled Water Coalition is a model for how local governments can work together to build and pay for the plants and pipelines. The 22-member coalition grew out of a handful of San Francisco Bay–area cities and utilities that began pooling resources for recycled water projects in 2008. Five years later, the group has secured $38 million in federal funding and another $114 million in state and local money to build eight recycling projects and research fourteen more. The new projects will pipe water to data centers in Silicon Valley and to grapes in Napa Valley. Every drop reduces the amount of freshwater the region extracts from its long-fought-over rivers and delta.

Some communities have built plants that wring drinking water from wastewater, as in the case of Orange County, California, which returns 70 million gallons of treated effluent each day to the aquifer. The downside of the most treatment intense technologies is energy demand. To make water and wastewater systems truly sustainable, the nation will come to mine both water and energy from sewage, says Daniel Yeh, an environmental engineering professor at the University of South Florida.

Some plants already turn sludge into electricity through anaerobic digestion to power their facilities; in the future, they are likely to produce biofuels and other kinds of energy directly from the waste. “When you think about it, the water that follows the population is wastewater,” says Yeh. “So if we can tag this as a renewable resource, no region will ever run out of it.”

At the Cedar River Watershed Education Center east of Seattle, SPU’s Ralph Naess says that more than any other factor, the betterment of Seattle’s water fortunes over the past two decades is the result of public awareness: “The invisible has become visible.”

On both sides of the hundredth meridian that divides the moist East from the arid West, the communities that have most dramatically changed their water futures have done so by expanding the work of water conservation to all people. Water managers, water lawyers, engineers and environmentalists are no longer enough. Water management in the 21st century requires a sort of democratization. This cultural broadening can lead to local and regional solutions that put living differently with water on par with the centralized infrastructure on which we’ve become dependent.

In Milwaukee, religious institutions, including the Islamic Society and Trinity Episcopal and Tippecanoe Presbyterian churches, have joined with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, American Rivers and others to make retrofits to stem the city’s pervasive flooding and associated pollution that runs off to local rivers and Lake Michigan. Students in the Islamic Society’s Salam School used to look out their second-floor classroom windows at an ugly stretch of gravel ballast covering a 6,000-square-foot gymnasium roof. Today, their vista is a green and red rooftop garden of low-growing succulents that bloom through spring and summer with starlike yellow flowers.

This green roof and others like it have done their jobs so well that Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources recently granted the sewerage district a discharge permit that is among the first of its kind in the nation: one million gallons of water storage once provided by reservoirs, bedrock tunnels and sewer pipes now will be met with wetlands, green roofs and rain gardens.

In San Antonio, Texas, stakeholders from colleges to building supervisors helped what was one of the most wasteful metro regions in the nation cut water use in half over 20 years. When a federal judge stepped in to stop San Antonio from overpumping the Edwards Aquifer in 1993, then–city manager Alexander Briseño recalls that it felt like “Armageddon.” Instead, the ruling became an impetus for real change.

Industrial water users made the biggest difference, thanks to a massive commercial rebate program funded by the city-owned water utility. Officials with the San Antonio Water System figure they’ve saved 121,000 acre-feet of water and deferred spending $3.3 billion on alternative supply projects since launching the rebates and other conservation strategies. But, like in Seattle and Milwaukee, the real change is a water ethic among residents who tend to use less, recycle what they use and help their scant rainfall make its way back to the aquifer.

One of the early idealists behind Seattle’s Vine Street project, local architect Carolyn Geise, compares the new ways of thinking about water to other urban revolutions, such as the return to living downtown or growing local food in cities. The imaginative hand atop Growing Vine Street’s giant blue cistern reaches out as if acknowledging water “almost as a gift,” Geise says, “to treasure, use and enjoy.”

This four-part series on urban water use appears courtesy of and in partnership with Orion magazine's two-year series, Reimagining Infrastructure. Check out Orion's free trial issue program.

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