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.

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.