Water shortage hits the Colorado River and the agreement governing water distribution dates back to 1922

Updating infrastructure to meet new challenges is an issue in numerous areas, including in securing water. The current case of the Colorado River illustrates how updating is needed:

The 1922 compact overestimated how much water was in the river system to begin with. And now there’s even less. On top of that, the rules about divvying up the water – whether you’re a city, an irrigation district, or a rancher – essentially operate like dibs or calling shotgun in a car.

The phrase that people like to use in the West is “first in time, first in right.” The water users who arrived first in these places where the water is used and claim the water when they got there, hold the most senior water rights, and their water rights remain senior no matter who comes after them. Those senior water rights trump junior water rights even to this day, with an exception: The law says that if you don’t use those senior water rights to their full extent every year that they could be confiscated and given to somebody with more junior water rights…

Why has the frontier mindset survived to 2021 in the way we think about and legislate water?

Part of it is cultural. The culture of the West survives. In the north, in the mountains, it’s a culture of rugged individualism, and in the south, it is still a bit individualistic and conservative. The rights to the water track to the history of the place, not to how it has evolved in more modern times. [These] cities didn’t exist in the mid-1800s, so they have very junior water rights now, even though that’s where most of the people are. So literally the largest volume of water goes to the people in places with the deepest historical roots.

Future battles about access to water will be fierce, particularly in places where less water is available than in the past.

Will this slow growth in states where growth has been a feature of life for decades? This could affect communities, metropolitan areas, states, and a whole region.

Does this help break the obsession Americans have with green grass lawns? The drought in California half a decade ago could have been just a taste of the future.

Does this become a major issue in elections? How exactly does a water distribution renegotiation occur, particularly if elected officials have little direct influence?

What would a more collectivist mindset to water look like in the United States compared to a more individualistic approach or one rooted in history in the area? I could imagine a quick switch of systems would be difficult but phasing in changes over time might be possible.

Adjusting city infrastructure to meet new challenges

What is underneath the streets of older major cities may not be enough to face new weather patterns and additional challenges cities face today. Here are some of the efforts from recent years in New York City:

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New York had its first climate-related wake-up call nine years ago, when Hurricane Sandy brought a storm surge that flooded low-lying areas and, yes, subway stations. Since then, the city has spent almost $20 million on climate-proofing the city, according to the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. But some of that funding went to solving a different problem than the one presented by Ida: water coming from the rivers. This week, all the wet stuff fell from the sky, threatening even areas above sea level…

Now, after years of updates, 60 percent of New York City has a combined sewer system, which uses a single pipe to carry both wastewater and stormwater to treatment plants. During heavy rainstorms, the system can get quickly overwhelmed. The detritus of city living—trash, plants, general gunk—clogs drains, further gumming up the works. “So if you get a really big kahuna like this, I don’t think it really has a shot at draining that out fast enough to avoid flooding,” says Farnham.

The city has worked to separate those combined sewer systems and to clear clogged drains, especially when storms threaten. It has raised and in some cases eliminated subway grates, which were built to allow fresh air to flow down to dank underground spaces but which now look like holes to let more water in. In some places, the MTA constructed flood-proof doors, which can close when the water gets too close.

More generally, cities like New York can create more green infrastructure to help with their water problems—basically, less pavement and more dirt. You might, for instance, create roadside green spaces where water can percolate before moving into stormwater drains, removing trash and pollution in the process. Los Angeles has been doing this to catch rainwater. “This is a long-term thing,” says Horodniceanu. Retrofitting cities to deal with what’s coming, and what’s already come, will take gobs of one of the scarcest resources of all: much more funding.

As cities expand and change, fixing the infrastructure already there to incorporate new technologies and grow the capacity is a difficult task. How disruptive will the efforts be? How much will it cost? It could be much easier in the long run to anticipate these issues way ahead of time and proactively make changes rather than only act after a major issue is exposed.

Water is particularly destructive as much of modern life depends on the fact that water will be excluded from the system. Residences, businesses, mass transit, electronics must be dry to function well. If there is an overwhelming storm or a breach of the water defenses, water can quickly wreak havoc both in the short-term and long-term. Cities require a lot of things to go right to properly go about their business but water can quickly disrupt this operation.

The recent events in New York City and New Orleans also remind me of the planning that can go into highways and parking lots: they can be constructed with peak use in mind. The parking lot needs to be large enough to handle the biggest crowds, hence the shopping mall parking lots that can handle Thanksgiving weekend shopping but are not fully used throughout the rest of the year. Or, the highway that needs more and more lanes to handle rush hour traffic while there are many hours when that capacity is not needed. Sewers need to handle really big storms or events. But, in each case, can the largest need be forecast correctly? Adding lanes to roads can increase the traffic. Right-sizing parking lots can be tricky. And planning for the rare storm is hard, particularly if conditions are changing. Similarly, people will not be happy in these cases if there is not enough capacity and there will be calls to fix the problem afterward.

Halting new development out West due to lack of water

Drought conditions in Utah and other Western states means communities are rethinking development:

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So this spring, Oakley, about an hour’s drive east of Salt Lake City, imposed a construction moratorium on new homes that would connect to the town’s water system. It is one of the first towns in the United States to purposely stall growth for want of water in a new era of megadroughts. But it could be a harbinger of things to come in a hotter, drier West…

Yet cheap housing is even scarcer than water in much of Utah, whose population swelled by 18 percent from 2010 to 2020, making it the fastest-growing state. Cities across the West worry that cutting off development to conserve water will only worsen an affordability crisis that stretches from Colorado to California…

Developers in a dry stretch of desert sprawl between Phoenix and Tucson must prove they have access to 100 years’ of water to get approvals to build new homes. But extensive groundwater pumping — mostly for agriculture — has left the area with little water for future development.

Many developers see a need to find new sources of water. “Water will be and should be — as it relates to our arid Southwest — the limiting factor on growth,” said Spencer Kamps, the vice president of legislative affairs for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. “If you can’t secure water supply, obviously development shouldn’t happen.”

Critics of sprawl have discussed this for decades: new subdivisions and development in arid areas taps already precious water supplies. It is not just about drinking water; it includes the water used for lawns, agriculture, parks, and other uses that come with expanding populations.

As the article notes, numerous communities are trying to encourage homeowners and residents to use less water. Replace lawns. Limit watering. Use greywater. Some have argued that water in the United States is too cheap, encouraging more use.

But, simply having more people and business might be the problem. If drought conditions continue, it will be worth watching how development – often assumed to be necessary for a good community – is treated.

Pushing to ban grass in Las Vegas

Americans like grass lawns. Las Vegas is not an environment where it is easy to grow grass. What has to give? The city of Las Vegas wants to ban ornamental grass:

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Las Vegas-area water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants, and now they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the turf that’s left…

They say this ornamental grass requires four times as much water as drought-tolerant landscaping like cactus and other succulents. By ripping it out, they estimate the region can reduce annual water consumption by roughly 15% and save about 14 gallons (53 liters) per person per day…

The proposal is part of a turf war waged since at least 2003, when the water authority banned developers from planting green front yards in new subdivisions. It also offers owners of older properties the region’s most generous rebate policies to tear out sod — up to $3 per square foot…

Last year was among the driest in the region’s history, when Las Vegas went a record 240 days without measurable rainfall. And the future flow of the Colorado River, which accounts for 90% of southern Nevada’s water, is in question.

There are multiple interesting components to this. Here are at least a few:

  1. I remember flying into Las Vegas a few years ago. The difference between the desert and the city and suburbs was remarkable. I do not remember too much grass outside of the very green golf courses that stood out. Even without much grass, the city in the desert is a different sight.
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, this sounds like efforts in California during their big drought. At the same time, the article also mentions how other locations like Phoenix and Salt Lake City are not interested in curbing the grass.
  3. More Americans than just people in Las Vegas might be rethinking the lawn. In addition to the need for watering, there is fertilizing, mowing, keeping out weeds and leaves, designing features, and more. Who has time and money for all of that?
  4. Las Vegas is a sprawling metro area and the single-family homes of American suburbs are often surrounded by green lawns. It is part of the package tied to kids playing and a green nature buffer around the private dwelling. Are the suburbs the same without these patches of grass?

Perhaps this becomes a model for communities, in the desert or not, across the United States.

McMansions lead to water runoff damage in Kirkwood, Missouri

The construction of new housing can lead to water issues for existing homeowners. See the ongoing case of Kirkwood, Missouri homeowners dealing with more water due to the construction of McMansions:

Next week, a new Kirkwood water runoff regulation will take effect, but longtime residents say it’s all too little too late…

Like many other longtime Kirkwood residents, Liskew said water began invading her home when new construction started near her neighborhood. Behind her home, she noticed new, large homes—often called ‘McMansions’—were being built on small lots…

That special council created a new storm water management regulation. The ordinance requires all “infill development” to capture rainfall runoff, and submit a plan to the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District for review and approval prior to the issuance of any building permits…

And she said it’s been an expensive, never-ending problem to worry about. In addition to several French drains, Liskew has installed a sump pump, taken out basement windows, graded a large portion of her yard and even commissioned a water runoff study to find out where the water was originating. The study found the water was coming from the neighborhood directly behind her home, and heading directly into her backyard.

See an earlier blog post on the Kirkwood situation. To some degree, the construction of any new residential units is likely to affect water runoff. Switching land from non-use or agricultural use to homes, driveways, yards, and streets will have an effect. Add to that the pejorative term McMansions used here: big homes take up more space and in the interest of keeping water away from them even more water is channeled elsewhere.

I sometimes wonder if the way water issues in suburbia work is like this: every new development attempts to push the water somewhere else and the problem simply moves onto someone else’s property. Generally, developers and municipalities do their best to move the water away from existing buildings and uses but this may not be possible depending on the topography and existing infrastructure. Cleaning up the water issues after the fact – such as in Kirkwood or the Deep Tunnel project in the Chicago region – is costly and very frustrating. But, without a commitment to avoid sprawl or widespread adoption of greener techniques, the water problems will just get pushed down the road. Flooding will continue to be a major suburban problem.

Deep Tunnel as the wrong solution to water issues (plus alternative uses)

Henry Grabar poses an interesting question: what if the Deep Tunnel project, one of the largest civil engineering feats in the world, does not solve flooding and stormwater issues in the Chicago region?

What if Chicago took a wrong turn in 1972 when, in the spirit of civic grandee Daniel Burnham (“Make no little plans”), it opted to build the world’s largest sewers instead of making all possible efforts to keep rainwater out of them? Scott Bernstein, the founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, says that the Deep Tunnel imposed a massive opportunity cost because the city and the district did little else to adapt. The MWRD spent billions on what engineers call “gray infrastructure” (pipes, tanks, pumps) and virtually nothing on “green infrastructure”: rain barrels, detention ponds, green roofs, porous pavements, and other adaptations that would have kept water out of the system…

The project proceeded regardless. Even with downsized reservoirs and a longer time frame, Chicago’s ambition captured the attention of civil engineers around the world. Today, most U.S. cities whose combined sewer overflows are governed by consent decrees with the EPA are working on Chicago-style digs. St. Louis, which has the fourth-largest sewer system in the country, is under a consent decree to commit $4.7 billion to ending its overflows through deep tunnels…

While engineers’ penchant for megaprojects endures, some American cities are preaching deterrence. If Chicago built a bathtub, Philadelphia is trying to transform itself into a sponge with park space, street trees, and permeable pavement. The city is spending $2.4 billion to implement the nation’s largest green infrastructure plan, an experiment that positions it as the anti-Chicago. The city thinks keeping water out of the system will save billions of dollars compared to a rejected tunnel proposal—and that green initiatives will produce positive externalities, like improving air quality and creating verdant streets.

In Chicago, meanwhile, the MWRD has committed to creating just 10 million gallons of green infrastructure capacity under its EPA consent decree. Compare that to neighboring Milwaukee, a deep-tunnel city that now believes its green infrastructure will, by 2035, surpass the capacity of the tunnels and hold up to 740 million gallons of rain where it falls.

Hindsight may always be a little tricky in these cases as we have the advantage now of being able to see the Deep Tunnel project in action. Does it actually accomplish its goals? Was all the spent money worth it? At the same time, a project of this magnitude should have generated plenty of discussion and at least a few alternative options.

If Deep Tunnel does not work as intended or does not solve all of the flooding and stormwater problems, I wonder if it could be used in other ways. I’m thinking of other major infrastructure projects that have been reversed or reused, like urban highways that are torn out (like in Boston or San Francisco) or former railroad lines turned parks or recreation areas (think the High Line). Some other options for the Deep Tunnel:

  1. Underground roads. With Elon Musk’s Boring Company working on underground roads plus Chicago’s legacy of Lower Wacker Drive, perhaps traffic could be rerouted deep underground.
  2. Underground freight movement. Given Chicago’s railroad bottleneck, this could be an interesting solution.
  3. An underground park and recreation area. It would certainly be unique. Think a combination of spelunking, rock climbing, and exploration.
  4. A military installation and testing area.

Saving 40 gallons a week in water when I pay low prices per 1000 gallons every two months

I recently used a body wash that said on the back: “Did you know by reducing your shower by 2 minutes you can save an average of 40 gallons of water/week?” Water conservation is a laudable goal. Yet, the way our water bill was structured in our previous homes – the prices plus the measurement of the water use – illustrates how it can be difficult to convince Americans to use less water.

In our former home, our bill was structured this way:

  • We paid every two months.
  • The water use was measured in 1000s of gallons. For a family of three, we regularly used 9,000-10,000 gallons.
  • We paid $1.50 for 1,000 gallons of water and $2.98 for 1,000 gallons of sewer usage.

Several features of this structure would make it more difficult to care about conservation:

  • A two month time period was too long to see real changes in the bill. A significant change in water usage, say from watering plants during a hot period or the presence of visitors, would not create that much change over two months.
  • Using 40 gallons less water per week would only lead to 320 less gallons over two months. This might affect a bill but only by one 1000 unit of water, if at all. This is too large of a unit for residents to think about. Our current water usage is measured in 100 cu feet of water, a unit that is very difficult to visualize or connect to everyday usage.
  • The water price was really cheap. If we used 3,000 more gallons over two months, the cost was minimal: $4.50 in added costs for water and $8.94 in added sewer costs. The financial incentive to save water is reduced at such cheap rates.

A number of scholars have argued that Americans pay too little for water. This has negative consequences, such as wealthier residents using more water and cities losing lots of water before it gets to users. These problems could be addressed, even without immediately jumping to higher prices. Some of these techniques are already in use with utility bills:

  • Bill users more frequently (monthly).
  • Provide ways to show real-time water use.
  • Compare users to other nearby users. This can help people who use a lot of water see “more normal” use.
  • Show the bill in smaller water units that make sense to people. What is 1,000 gallons?

Raising prices could help too.

“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?