Infrastructure and the need for public relations

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago holds tours for the public. I recently participated in a live zoom version. You can watch a version here.

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The tour was very informative about water and processes. We learned about watersheds and the small hill that separates water going into the Great Lakes versus the Mississippi. We learned about how water is cleaned in water treatment plants. We learned about the reversal of the Chicago River. We learned about the Deep Tunnel system. All of this was accompanied by helpful visuals (maps, drone footage) and engaging hosts who answered questions as they arose.

And it was also a public relations exercise. We heard about the ways that the MWRD has improved. We heard about the benefits of all their efforts. They had booklets for people to access, including materials for kids and information in multiple languages. The presentation was smooth.

What the tour could not as easily touch on: is this the best way to deal with water and land in a metropolitan region? Are there harmful byproducts of these systems (how about forever chemicals in sludge sold to local farmers)? Does the Deep Tunnel system solve all the problems it was supposed to?

Infrastructure like this is essential to modern life. People expect clean water to be available. When it is not, it is very surprising. They may complain about water rates and tax bills, but the whole system as experienced in the United States is relatively cheap for consumers.

Thus, positive public relations involving infrastructure can help the public know about these systems that they contribute to and depend on. People do not like a highway construction project that is over budget and over time? They can be informed about how these processes work and about the benefits that will come eventually. The public does not like a rate hike? They can learn about all the amazing systems that make it possible to live modern life.

All of this does not mean that the public relations version should necessarily win the day. I am generally in favor of all of us knowing more about the infrastructure we rely on. Yet, there are also questions or concerns that public relations can not easily bat away. If we can have more informed conversation about infrastructure, perhaps we could avoid protracted debates or simplistic approaches.

When a sprawling suburban development in the Southwest loses its water supply due to drought

On the edges of the Phoenix metropolitan region, one recently constructed suburban development lost its access to water:

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Joe McCue thought he had found a desert paradise when he bought one of the new stucco houses sprouting in the granite foothills of Rio Verde, Ariz. There were good schools, mountain views and cactus-spangled hiking trails out the back door.

Then the water got cut off.

Earlier this month, the community’s longtime water supplier, the neighboring city of Scottsdale, turned off the tap for Rio Verde Foothills, blaming a grinding drought that is threatening the future of the West. Scottsdale said it had to focus on conserving water for its own residents, and could no longer sell water to roughly 500 to 700 homes — or around 1,000 people. That meant the unincorporated swath of $500,000 stucco houses, mansions and horse ranches outside Scottsdale’s borders would have to fend for itself and buy water from other suppliers — if homeowners could find them, and afford to pay much higher prices…

Water experts say Rio Verde Foothills’ situation is unusually dire, but it offers a glimpse of the bitter fights and hard choices facing 40 million people across the West who rely on the Colorado River for the means to take showers, irrigate crops, or run data centers and fracking rigs.

Given conditions in the West and Southwest, this could become more common for suburban areas. See earlier posts here and here.

One key from the article: when you move into a home, is the water supply guaranteed (as much as possible)? It sounds like there was an agreement to sell water to this new development. If you have such agreements or live in unincorporated areas or depend on other water sources, will they always be there?

Water is typically one of the lower concerns of those moving to the suburbs. It is assumed to be there. There might be the occasional problem with pipes, particularly in older homes, but the water should keep flowing. Other infrastructure concerns tend to take precedence; are there enough roads for new residents? Schools?

Without cheap water, it is harder to live the suburban life. As the article notes, how does one wash laundry or dishes with limited or really expensive water? Flushing toilets? This does not even get close to beloved amenities, like swimming pools.

What would a lack of water and power from the Colorado River do to sprawl?

The suburban sprawl in the United States depends on the availability of water and power, among other resources. So what happens if the Colorado River, a source of water and power for numerous people, no longer can supply either?

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Such an outcome — known as a “minimum power pool” — was once unfathomable here. Now, the federal government projects that day could come as soon as July.

Worse, officials warn, is the remote possibility of an even more catastrophic event. That is if the water level falls all the way to the lowest holes, so only small amounts could pass through the dam. Such a scenario — called “dead pool” — would transform Glen Canyon Dam from something that regulates an artery of national importance into a hulking concrete plug corking the Colorado River…

As the water has receded, so has the ability to produce power at Glen Canyon, as less pressure from the lake pushes the turbines. The dam already generates about 40 percent less power than what has been committed to customers, which includes dozens of Native American tribes, nonprofit rural electric cooperatives, military bases, and small cities and towns across several southwestern states. These customers would be responsible for buying power on the open market in the event Glen Canyon could not generate, potentially driving up rates dramatically.

The standard rate paid for Glen Canyon’s low-cost power is $30 per megawatt hour. On the open market, these customers last summer faced prices as high as $1,000 per megawatt hour, said Leslie James, executive director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association.

The issue of water has already increased concerns about development in the Southwest. A landscape full of single-family homes, lawns, lots of roads, and other suburban features requires a lot of water. Can life in sprawl not require as much water or is there a point where no more sprawl is just not possible? Then add in the issue of power. This includes transmission lines, homes, and other structures. Can the existing sprawl even be maintained with less electricity and water?

It also worth paying attention to how these changes with the Colorado River have ripple effects elsewhere. If as much water is not available, where can water come from? I imagine those around the Great Lakes have thoughts. If not as much power is generated, is there electricity capacity elsewhere? How much can be done short-term to shore things up while also considering long-term consequences?

More broadly, what might stop American sprawl? Not having water or power would be a powerful incentive. Others have speculated about a certain price of gas. Perhaps cultural beliefs about the suburban good life change. Or there might be something unforeseen. The conditions with the Colorado River might just offer a glimpse into what happens when sprawl has to stop.

Adjustments in suburbs to changing water and flooding conditions

As some sprawling areas of the country deal with drought and limited water, others will be adjusting to changing rainfall and flooding patterns and considering a new Illinois State Water Plan.

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Cattoor said the plan will not impose regulations on local municipalities but will instead provide programs and data that communities could benefit from…

The recommendation for this issue is to provide localized information to the public on anticipated changes in storm intensity and frequency. According to the document, this is particularly important in communities with combined storm sewer drainage systems, which carry sewage and stormwater runoff in the same piping system.

In Des Plaines, planning is critical to mitigate and reduce floods from large rainstorms that result in the Des Plaines River overflowing its banks.

Floods in 2008 and 2013 caused widespread damage to the city’s Big Bend Drive neighborhood, prompting the demolition of nearly 90 structures to permanently remove them from the floodplain. Most recently, a heavy rainstorm in 2020 left many of the city’s streets underwater…

Duddles said the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District requires that municipalities use an Illinois State Water Survey document referred to as “Bulletin 75” as a source of precipitation frequency data for stormwater infrastructure projects such as detention ponds.

It sounds like this can be helpful for future planning. For those pursuing new development, updated guidance on water and flooding could help limit future issues.

At the same time, work will be needed to adjust existing infrastructure. This is a harder task. In the example cited above, floods led to removing homes. In many suburbs, old systems may not work well as conditions change. Or, new conditions mean that systems that were already taxed or not working well may need severe overhauls.

Where will the resources come from to undertake such projects? Significant pipe, sewer, and water projects are not cheap. Aging infrastructure is a problem in numerous suburbs where the spurt of rapid development decades before leads to routine and unexpected maintenance and replacement.

This all means it could be decades before significant changes occur in suburbs regarding water and flooding. Yet, starting now in communities is better than waiting to address issues.

The water needed to keep the grass green and trees alive at California mansions

Due to water shortages and water restrictions in California, we now know how much water some celebrities are using for their homes and grounds:

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Now, the celebrities are among the 20,000 residents in the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District – that holds jurisdiction in the cities of Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, and Westlake Village – forced to abide by water restrictions with the installation of restrictive devices that will reduce the amount of water used during showers and for sprinklers.

Amid the relentless drought, the water district moved to ‘Stage 3’ restrictions on June 1 to reduce water consumption by at least 50 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Kim Kardashian is one of the A-list celebrities that has received notice to limit the water usage at her Hidden Hills home and her fixer-upper property she purchased next store – after she exceeded water use by about 232,000 gallons in June…

Rocky Balboa actor Stallone and his model wife, Jennifer Flavin, reportedly went over their water budget at their Hidden Hills home by about 533 percent, or 230,000 gallons, in June. The couple used 195,000 gallons of excess water in May…

Meanwhile, NBA star Wade also received a notice that he exceeded his water limit by 90,000 gallons or 1,400 percent in June. While Wade’s water usage is an improvement since May, it’s still more than most users.

While more than just celebrities have received these notices, the water figures here are staggering. To keep a large house and property going, they have exceeded their allotted use by a lot of water. If this does not contribute to the idea that a lush green lawn and landscape is a status symbol, I do not know what does.

On the flip side, imagine a major celebrity eschewing the green lawn and garden-filled property for a property with a lot fewer water needs. Could images of a celebrity yard of drought resistant and native plants help turn the tide against this kind of water usage? Or, a major social media influencer? Overcoming decades of the association between homeownership and status with a green lawn is going to be hard to overcome.

(Consider this a companion post to the one yesterday about California property owners getting money to tear out their grass lawns.)

Paying California property owners to tear up their grass lawns

A good number of property owners in California can receive money to remove grass:

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The largest district in the state, the Metropolitan Water District serving 19 million people in Southern California, is paying $2 per square foot of grass pulled out. Water district customer cities and agencies can add more…

The Metropolitan Water District told CNN the number of requests for grass removal rebates jumped four times in July, to 1,172 applications…

The horrific drought led Larry Romanoff to combat climate change by ripping out his grass and replacing it with cactuses and decorative stones. Romanoff will collect $10,500, a whopping $6 per square foot of lawn removed from his desert home…

The Coachella Valley Water District and its customer, the city of Rancho Mirage, are each paying Romanoff $3 per square foot of lawn torn out…

The Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center estimated for CNN nearly 50% of the 409 water agencies in California are offering some sort of turf removal rebate, both residential and commercial.

Paying property owners now will presumably pay off in the long run as it reduces water use.

Given the water shortages facing California and other Western states, how much money will be allocated to such programs and how many homeowners will go for this? Getting rid of the grass lawn may lead to fewer maintenance needs. But, the grass lawn is such a key part of both the image and the mystique of the single-family home. It might be harder for many to envision a property of rocks and cacti or more native and drought-resistance plants.

Fighting for water in Southwest subdivisions

Suburbanites in the Southwest are looking to secure water:

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As the Southwest enters its second decade of megadrought, and the Colorado River sinks to alarminly low levels, Rio Verde, a largely upscale community that real-estate agents bill as North Scottsdale, though it is a thirty-mile drive from Scottsdale proper, is finding itself on the front lines of the water wars. Some homeowners’ wells are drying up, while others who get water delivered have recently been told that their source will be cut off on January 1st. “It’s going to turn into the Hunger Games,” Harris said grimly. “Like, a scrambling-for-your-toilet-water-every-month kind of thin.” The fight over how best to address the issue is pitting neighbors against one another. “Water politics are bad politics,” Thomas Loquvam, the general counsel and vice-president of EPCOR, the largest private water utility in the Southwest, told me. “You know that saying, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting’? That’s very true in Arizona…

Most Foothills residents draw their water from wells, but several hundred homes sit on land without reliable access to water, so the inhabitants rely on cisterns, which they fill with a delivery from a water truck every month or so. When Cindy Goetz moved to Arizona from Illinois, in 2012, she had never heard of hauled water. “But I did some research on it – you know, is a well better, or is hauled water better? And my decision was, hauled water is better,” she told me. “A well can get contaminated, it can run dry. How about just pay a little extra to have someone bring it in from the city? It’s already drinkable. I asked [my real-estate agent] and he said that it’s done a lot in Arizona. And it wasn’t like a homestead out in the middle of nowhere. There were streets and power and phone lines and all that. I assumed it would be O.K. It’s wasn’t presented as, ‘By the way, it could stop.'”…

Homeowners who didn’t have wells were suddenly uncertain that they’d be able to wash their dishes or flush their toilets. Some water haulers reassured their customers that they could find water for them, at least for now. Hornewer, who runs a water-hauling company, told me that not all haulers were scrupulous about the legality of their sources. “To them, it’s just kind of like the Old West,” he said. “If the water’s there, grab it. If you want to get it from Phoenix illegally, sure, you can do that. But that’s a short-term fix.”

Some residents came to believe that the best long-term solution for the hauled-water homes was to form a Domestic Water Improvement District, or DWID. The DWID, as a political subdivision, would be able to buy land to extract water from one of the few aquifers in Arizona that still had excess capacity for sale. A DWID could also get funding, or apply for grants, to eventually build water-treatment infrastructure for the area.

But not everyone in the Foothills wanted their neighbors to form a new government entity. Rumors spread on Facebook, claiming that the DWID was a power grab. People who had once acted as if worries about water scarcity were overblown began imagining their own elaborate worst-case scenarios: What if the DWID imposed taxes, or used the power of eminent domain to seize non-members’ wells, or put liens on people’s houses? What was next, an H.O.A.? “They have the power to condemn, whether they claim they’re going to use it or not,” Christy Jackman, the DWID’s most vocal opponent, told me. “They do have the power to put in streetlights, to pave areas. So here’s this little group, and they’ll have those powers.” The pro-DWID faction grew frustrated that their neighbors, many of whom had wells, were blocking their ability to secure water for themselves. “It’s the haves and the have-nots,” Nabity said. “Literally, some neighbors were like, ‘Screw you guys. You bought a property that doesn’t have water. That’s not my issue.’”

The suburban sprawl of the American Dream assumes there is cheap, accessible water for the new homes. Few residents would even think about water not being available unless there are some unusual circumstances.

So what then happens to sprawling subdivisions when water is hard to obtain? The article above discussed multiple solutions that either do not work well when a whole region has limited water or when they run up against the preferences of suburbanites.

Since having water is essential for life, including in the suburbs, it will be interesting to see what solutions are reached. One solution – not building sprawling communities – does not seem like a viable option since there are many people who want to live in such settings and Americans have constructed such developments for decades.

A shopping mall with protected wetlands

I recently shopped at a mall with protected wetlands:

The first thought I had upon seeing this was of “nature band-aids” that can often be found in suburbia as described by James Howard Kunstler. Shopping malls are known for many things but nature is not one of them.

Or, perhaps these are real wetlands that make contributions to the local ecosystem? This outlet mall has a location similar to many other malls: in the suburbs along a major roadway. I could imagine a need for land for animals and water amid development in the recent decades.

It would be interesting to know how these areas came about. Was part of the development of the land contingent on setting land aside for wetlands? Was a discovery made later about local nature? Is there some precedent among shopping malls for this?

Have a more expensive house, keep the lawn greener with automatic sprinklers

With a recent heat wave plus the upcoming warmer days of summer, different methods for maintaining a green lawn are on full display across suburban neighborhoods. I live in a suburban location where a ten minute walk or run brings me to neighborhoods with homes in multiple different price points. One recent observation about homes at a higher price point: they are more likely to have automatic sprinklers to keep the grass green.

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On my street and with residences at lower price points, I have not seen any automatic sprinklers. I see people out with hoses or sprinklers attached to hoses. Or, some people might do no watering at all or all lawn care is left to a homeowners association.

Step over to a different nearby street with larger and more expensive homes and a morning visit leads to seeing multiple homes with automatic sprinklers. The little black sprinkler heads can be viewed spreading water or the amount of water on the top of the grass blades suggests they were recently in action.

As I have chronicled the efforts of suburbanites to keep their lawn free of dandelions, weeds, and leaves alongside having a well-manicured green grass lawn, seeing the automatic watering of lawns among those with more resources leads to this thought: is the whole system of green lawns held in place by those with money and higher housing values as a means to signaling their status and pride in homeownership? The well-kept lawn is often tied to middle-class values but it costs money and time to keep the yard in a certain condition. And how much does the green lawn connect to higher financial and social standing?

The scale of agriculture in California

A story about recharging aquifers in California to help beat droughts and high water usage includes this summary of how much food California produces:

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The stakes are high: California grows more than a third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts eaten in the United States, dominating production of artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, dates, grapes, garlic, olives, plums, peaches, walnuts, pistachios, lemons, sweet rice, and lettuce. The Central Valley is America’s agricultural heartland, crucially important to the state’s economy and the groceries of the nation. More wine grapes are grown there than in California’s wine country, more almonds than anywhere else on earth. There are more than a quarter of a million acres devoted to tomatoes, which when plucked, weighed, canned, and shipped add up to around a third of all the processed tomato stuff eaten worldwide. And that’s not to mention all the region’s livestock—chickens, pigs, cows.

When I go to the grocery store, I am not thinking about what goes into all of the food there and instead just enjoy the many options I have within and across stores. When I have a little more time to consider the process, two thoughts come to mind:

  1. The amazing ability for humans to produce this amount of food from this amount of land. I know California is a big state and a lot of people live there and it is still astounding how much food is produced.
  2. The complexity to pull this all off plus the burden on the natural systems that make this all possible. If one piece gets out of whack or the climate changes or human patterns change, the whole system needs to adjust.

It will take significant work to keep the system going and the food growing. While many dystopian works hint at the trouble that would come when normal food systems are disrupted, there would be serious problems if California cannot produce food in the way it does now.