“People care about flooding…they don’t care about stormwater management”

An article discussing the difficulties of avoiding flooding in a sprawling city like Houston includes this summary of a key problem:

One problem is that people care about flooding, because it’s dramatic and catastrophic. They don’t care about stormwater management, which is where the real issue lies. Even if it takes weeks or months, after Harvey subsides, public interest will decay too. Debo notes that traffic policy is an easier urban planning problem for ordinary folk, because it happens every day.

It is difficult to get people interested in infrastructure that does not effect them daily or they do not see it. Yet, flooding is a regular issue in many cities and suburban areas and it can be very hard to remedy once development has already occurred. Indeed, it is difficult imagine abandoning full cities or major developments:

The hardest part of managing urban flooding is reconciling it with Americans’ insistence that they can and should be able to live, work, and play anywhere. Waterborne transit was a key driver of urban development, and it’s inevitable that cities have grown where flooding is prevalent. But there are some regions that just shouldn’t become cities.

Given the regularity of flooding in developed areas, it is interesting to consider that there are not more solutions available in the short-term. Portable and massive levees? Water gates that can be quickly installed? Superfast pumps that can remove water?

Flooding as a major suburban problem

Suburbs are often derided for their sprawling development that chew up acres of land and significantly alters more rural settings. Within that sprawl, one problem that consistently shows up but receives less attention than it should is flooding. For example, the significant rain received in parts of the Chicago region this past Wednesday (July 12) has impacted a number of suburbs:

While some suburban communities Saturday saw water levels begin to recede in the wake of Wednesday’s downpour, others still are bracing for the worst of the fallout from flood-ravaged rivers experts expect will crest later today into next week.

In Algonquin, the Fox River reached 11.79 feet by noon Saturday, with the National Weather Service predicting it will crest nearly a foot higher, at 12.9 feet, sometime Tuesday.

As of noon Saturday, The National Weather Service reported the Des Plaines River near Gurnee had reached a record-setting 11.96 feet and was expected to crest at about 12 feet sometime in the next 24 hours. In Lincolnshire, the level had dropped to 15.5 feet, but official predictions indicate the river may rise again to crest at 16.3 feet sometime Sunday.

While Wednesday’s rain was unusual (and we could argue about how frequently such big storms do and should occur), the results highlight a common issue across suburban landscapes: what happens to all that water? Suburbs don’t just change rural or farm land into developments; they change how water flows and is absorbed into the soil.

A variety of techniques are available to deal with the water. Common in this area are retention ponds, sunken areas within developments that are often dry but serve as places where water can pool when excessive rainfall occurs. In the Chicago area, the need to deal with flooding led to one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world: Deep Tunnel. Floodplains are fairly visible during heavy rains as homes and other structures near large bodies of water, particularly rivers, are affected. Less easy to see are  formerly swampy or marshy land which have been filled in, the channeling of creeks and rivers (or even covering them up completely), and covering the ground with less permeable surfaces such as roads and driveways (this can be combated by using different kinds of surfaces).

Instead of viewing flooding within major metropolitan regions as the unfortunate result of large storms, we should see it as a regular issue within suburban settings. And if we do so, that might prompt better plans to avoid the flooding that comes when so much land is altered.

Aging and complex infrastructure, losing over 1 billion gallons of water

Rockford, Illinois is likely not alone in such problems: losing lots of water in a complex city system.

But city meters show just 5.1 billion gallons made it to customers. That means 1.3 billion gallons of water were lost last year alone. That’s enough water to fill 1,968 Olympic-size swimming pools or 10.4 billion water bottles…

Water loss is a challenge that plagues water utilities across the nation, some of which are also battling a dwindling or damaged water supply because of climate change. As temperatures across the United States rose over the past decade because of climate change, heavy runoff led to a deterioration of source water quality in some areas of the country, damaged water utility infrastructure in others and brought on drought in the West that crippled water supplies, according to the American Water Works Association.

A consultant with specialized equipment that “listens” to pipes and can detect changes in frequency identified the locations of at least 39 previously undetected leaks after monitoring 250 miles of pipe across the southwest quadrant of the city. Some of the city’s oldest infrastructure is located in that area, Saunders said.

Eight service lines were leaking 70 gallons per minute, four water mains were leaking 60 gallons per minute, 18 valves were leaking 51 gallons per minute and nine hydrants were leaking 9 gallons per minute. The previously unreported leaks were repaired, preventing an estimated 99.8 million gallons of water a year from leaking out of the Rockford distribution system.

What is a few hundred million gallons of water here and there? Infrastructure is not typically sexy but replacing aging systems – think water, gas, electricity, mass transit, and more – is necessary while also time-consuming and expensive.

I’m wondering why it took so long to try to reduce these leaks. Would an electric company or gas company accept such a percentage of lost product? Water is a unique product in the US. On the consumer end, it is probably much too cheap – it encourages overuse and waste. Does the same thing happen on the municipal end?

A few fake LA lawns watered as CA drought continues

The lawn may be so culturally powerful that fake lawns need to be watered:

But a CBS Los Angeles investigation found the water has not stopped flowing outside DWP buildings. Rather, the DWP has installed sprinklers to soak its fake grass for minutes at a time…

On a recent Thursday morning, sprinklers ran for six minutes, soaking fake grass outside the South LA substation. Even an area completely devoid of grass — real or fake — was inundated by water from sprinklers.

The excess water ran down the sidewalk and toward the street in an apparent violation of city code stating, “No customer of the Department shall use water in a manner that causes or allows excess or continuous water flow or runoff onto an adjoining sidewalk, driveway, street, gutter or ditch.” Such runoff is prohibited even for recycled “gray” water.

I realize that this story appears to be driven less by concern for water supplies – which are an ongoing issue in California – and more about neighbors expressing anger that they have to conserve water lest they be fined while the city appears to be wasting it. In other words: big government should follow its own rules. This could be a microcosm of national politics.

Yet, could there be a good reason for watering the fake lawn?

“We’re rinsing the grass to make it more sanitary,” said Richard Harasick, director of water operations at the DWP…

“We’re really just trying to wash out dog pee,” he said.

So it is dogs that utilize the fake lawn. Who knew that even replacement lawns need so much regular maintenance due to regular use. (Some need to be painted.) And getting people to stop their dogs from using the replacement lawn may be difficult.

Perhaps a solution here is to get rid of the fake lawn entirely. A common sight in recent years in California is to use lawns replaced with other features like drought resistant plants or stones. There was even a rebate program implemented for this as the state aimed to replace a lot of turf.

One takeaway to this story: it is hard for Americans to get rid of lawns as well as reactions to their use and maintenance.

When money is tight in NYC, cut spending on critical water infrastructure

All big cities need water but when budget priorities were determined, New York City chose to delay building some key water infrastructure:

Mayor Bill de Blasio has postponed work to finish New York’s third water tunnel, a project that for more than half a century has been regarded as essential to the survival of the city if either of the two existing, and now aged, tunnels should fail…

But last year, Mr. de Blasio’s administration, eager to keep a lid on water and sewer rates that had grown by an average of 8 percent annually under Mr. Bloomberg, moved financing for the third tunnel to other projects, Amy Spitalnick, a de Blasio spokeswoman, said.

The city intends to finish the remaining portions of the tunnel sometime in the 2020s, but it has not set a date for completion nor allocated money in the budget to carry out the work. For the foreseeable future, the $6 billion tunnel will remain dry in the two largest boroughs, where well over half the city’s population lives.

“You look back over the last 50 years, whenever there were fiscal pressures, the unseen world of the municipal water system is where weak city leaders turned to cut spending,” said Kevin Bone, a professor of architecture at Cooper Union and an editor of “Water-Works: The Architecture and Engineering of the New York City Water Supply.” “I’m disappointed to hear that they’ve deferred it. It is symptomatic about planning for the future in America.”

Let’s hope that this doesn’t lead to disaster: imagine Queens and Brooklyn without water for three months (which would happen if aging Tunnel 2 fails). This is one of the issues with infrastructure and why the public would be furious if something happened: people don’t pay attention to this stuff until it fails but the issues are largely preventable as long as communities keep up with the necessary maintenance and new construction.

Imagine New York City, the top global city, being incapacitated by not having enough water because city leaders didn’t have enough foresight…

Solving flooding in China with “sponge cities”

Chinese officials are providing funds for “sponge cities” to reduce the effects of flooding:

“A sponge city is one that can hold, clean, and drain water in a natural way using an ecological approach,” says Yu, who is helping to coordinate the national project.

Traditionally, Chinese cities handled water well, Yu notes. “But in modern China, we have destroyed those natural systems of ponds, rivers, and wetlands, and replaced them with dams, levees, and tunnels, and now we are suffering from floods.”…

Reverse-engineering a city to make it more spongey requires a mental rather than physical shift, he argues. “It’s a whole new philosophy of dealing with water. It is about how we plan and design our cities in an ecological way. Not about piecemeal, manmade engineering projects. So we need to avoid this kind of trap.”

Sponge-city design could also run up against China’s centralized planning system.

It sounds like this is a major work in progress. As has been found in American cities, such as Chicago, trying to solve flooding issues after the city is a certain size is quite difficult. Are cities really willing to move residents or commercial structures to better deal with water issues? Is it only possible to make changes after a major flood convinces people? The optimal way to do this would be before the development happens as planners and others can set aside space or promote greener options.

The continually green lawns of some California leaders and celebrities

The drought shaming continues in California. First, CBS highlights some of the biggest water wasters in the Bay Area:

The district released the names and consumption in response to a public records request by the San Jose Mercury News and other media outlets covering the drought.

Beane released a statement through the Oakland A’s.

“Three irrigation leaks were recently discovered and corrected. We were more than displeased and embarrassed by the usage,” Beane said.

Retired Chevron Oil executive George Kirkland tops the list by using more than 12,000 gallons of water a day – 48 times the district average. He also pointed to previously undetected seepage.

Here is an older gallery where CBS highlights the greenery outside the homes of numerous celebrities. This link includes a picture and this text:

Despite the sweeping water regulations imposed by California state officials this spring, Jenny’s “block” remains green.

And though the state has only issued eight $100 fines and two $200 fines to water wasters up until this point, Lopez may soon face a much heftier fine if she wants to keep her lawn this way.

Gov. Jerry Brown is calling for legislators to enforce fines of up to $10,000 for residents and businesses that waste the most water, as California cities struggle to meet mandatory conservation targets.

I imagine reporting to the public about leaders and celebrities can be quite effective in reducing the water usage. Few famous people want to be seen as wasters of natural resources when others are sacrificing. (I suspect this would be quite different if there wasn’t much of a drought or if the owners could claim commercial revenues or jobs on these properties – this is what the Las Vegas casinos do.) Even the higher proposed fines, $10,000, wouldn’t matter much to some people. While the shaming might be more effective (reducing water usage and helping politicians look like they are standing up for the interests of everyone), couldn’t the state also use the money? If celebrities wanted to pay big fines, wouldn’t this help balance some budgets?