Water Works 2: A system at its utmost limit

Our water and wastewater systems are among the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century. But the 20th-century miracle has become a 21st-century migraine.
Crosscut archive image.

Let it flow

Our water and wastewater systems are among the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century. But the 20th-century miracle has become a 21st-century migraine.

In 1878, a sanitary engineer named George E. Waring Jr. ranted in The American Architect about the nation’s sudden craze for faucets on every bowl and washbasin. The demand for freshwater pipes coming into homes, waste pipes going out, and the luxury of hot and cold was so intense, plumbers were rushing jobs, busting pipes and causing boiler accidents, in some cases scaring homeowners back to sponge baths.

“In our desire to save labor so far as possible, to procure in our houses the luxury of abundant water without the task of carrying it in and out by hand, and to provide, even for those classes of society which are little given to luxuries, the untold convenience of a free tap of water at every point, we have carried the possibilities of the industry to its utmost limit,” he warned.

Waring was all for the sanitation. Deadly epidemics of yellow fever and cholera in major U.S. cities had drawn Americans, who previously feared submerging themselves, to a new idea: daily baths. The real coup was the loo. After 1900, flush toilets joined tubs in a new room all their own. America’s water and wastewater systems would go down among the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, saving countless lives. So impressive were the health and sanitation gains — not to mention the “luxury of abundant water” — that few complained as engineers tapped most of the major rivers and aquifers in the land and snaked water pipes underground 30 times the length of the U.S. highways.

But Waring was right when he warned of the limits. The 20th-century miracle has become a 21st-century migraine as aging systems strain to rush freshwater to and rid waste from some 300 million Americans and their industries. (The two largest water users in the nation — agriculture and energy plants — extract their own water for the most part.) It’s a matrix designed with little thought to sustainability: Pump a pristine waterway; pipe it, in some cases, hundreds of miles at substantial energy cost (for some Southern Californians, 444 miles and 3,000 feet up and over the Tehachapi Mountains); treat every drop to federal drinking-water standards; use it once, mostly for toilet flushing and lawn watering; clean it up again; then pipe it off to another waterway.

With much of the infrastructure subsidized and out of sight, until now, the average American hasn’t had to think about where their water came from, where it went after they used it or question the logic. Why would we treat water to drinking standards, then flush it? Why would we irrigate our lawns with this same designer water? Why would thirsty metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Miami, desperate for new sources of freshwater, flush hundreds of millions of gallons of rainwater a year into the sea? Instead, we settled into the comfort of abundance even as the rivers, the aquifers, and the aging pipes themselves began to reveal the illusion.

Crosscut archive image.Most dramatically, the Colorado River (left) that shaped western landscape and wildlife for more than 6 million years was whipped by America’s voracity in less than a hundred. Apportioned in archaic water rights and courtrooms to 40 million people and 4 million acres of irrigated farmland in seven states and Mexico, along with 22 Native American Tribes, 22 more national parklands and 4,200 megawatts of hydropower, the river cannot meet all of those obligations — much less those it once carried out to nature. Scientists say climate change will widen the gap between supply and demand as a warming West means more evaporation, less snowpack, and continuing drought. A new Bureau of Reclamation study has analyzed hundreds of climate and population scenarios, and projects that by 2060, the river will fall short of human demands by at least 3.2 million acre-feet — more than five times the amount of water consumed today by the city of Los Angeles.

Even in the relatively wet East, population growth and lavish water use have worn down the built infrastructure and the waters both. The smallest river in the nation to supply a major metro area’s drinking water, Georgia’s Chattahoochee, is impounded 50 miles above Atlanta in a reservoir called Lake Lanier. In 2008, it came within 90 days of disappearing and leaving more than half a million people high and dry. These days, Atlantans have their Chattahoochee water. But its impoundment during drought leaves the downstream ecosystems of the Apalachicola River in Florida and the formerly rich oyster fishery where it meets the Gulf without the freshwater they need to survive.

On the wastewater side, the story is the same. The more freshwater we pull into our homes and businesses, the more we send down drains and toilets and into waste pipes that leak, spill and burst an average of 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage a year in the United States. Some of the largest sewage spills in American history tainted U.S. waters not in the fetid days before environmental regulation, but in the past decade. In Honolulu in 2006, a cement pipe as big around as a breakfast table gave way following heavy rains, forcing 50 million gallons of untreated sewage into the aquamarine waters of Waikiki. The disaster closed some of the most famous beaches in the world for 10 days and is suspected in the death of a surfer who became infected with flesh-eating bacteria.

Not least, there are the carbon emissions associated with pumping, heating and treating water, and moving it around our homes, cities and regions. It all adds up to an estimated 10 percent of U.S. energy demand — more than it takes to power our computers and the internet. If we want to reduce energy use, living differently with water is a no-brainer.

Waring’s words ring truer than ever: We have pushed our nation’s water infrastructure “to its utmost limit.”

Tomorrow: How Seattle learned to use less water.

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. Photo of the Colorado River courtesy of MoabAdventurer.


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