Approaching drastic water rationing in Sao Paulo

One downside of rapid urban growth is illustrated in Brazil where drastic water rationing may start soon:

In São Paulo, the country’s largest city with a metropolitan area of 20 million people, the main reservoir is at just 6 percent of capacity with the peak of the rainy season now past…

After January rains disappointed, and incentives to cut consumption fell short, São Paulo officials warned their next step could be to shut off customers’ water supply for as many as five days a week – a measure that would likely last until the next rainy season starts in October, if not longer.

State officials say they have not yet decided whether or when to implement such rationing, in part because they are still hoping for heavy rains in February and March. Indeed, thunderstorms in recent days have caused lakes to rise a bit.

Still, independent projections suggest that São Paulo’s main Cantareira reservoir could run out of water as soon as April without drastic cuts to consumption.

While this problem may seem far away, I imagine numerous big cities around the world would face major problems in addressing a shortage of certain resources if something “out of the ordinary” – whether weather or changing political conditions – occurred. Wealthier big cities are expected at the most basic level to have water, electricity, sewers, and other features of modern infrastructure but these could be threatened by a variety of factors. And while the article notes that residents and institutions are scrambling to meet the crisis, cities should have some sort of long-term planning for some of these foreseeable issues.

Modern wonder: NYC’s water system

Here is a look at the vast system that keeps pumping clean water flowing in New York City:

The pipes that carry this life-giving force are largely invisible to New York’s thirsty masses. (Here’s a great map.) The system includes 19 reservoirs nestled in the rolling hills and mountains, draining a sprawling 1.2 million-acre watershed; three controlled lakes; 300 miles of underground thruways, including one that burrows 1,100 feet underneath the Hudson River; and thousands of miles of thin pipe under New York’s streets. Together, they deliver fresh, potable water to 8.4 million people in New York City and another 1 million people upstate…

The system emerged as a matter of necessity. “New York City developed this water system because it was unlucky,” says Kenneth T. Jackson, the Columbia University historian and authority on New York City. “It couldn’t could take water out of the rivers, because the Hudson is salty all the way up to Poughkeepsie.” In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the city’s growing number of residents relied on wells, water brought in on ships, and spring-fed ponds like the Collect (near what is now Foley Square), which quickly turned into dumping grounds for sewage and garbage. The fetid waters helped spawn the cholera epidemic of 1832, which killed more than 3,500 residents. And the absence of significant water sources in city streets thick with wooden buildings led to a series of disastrous fires. After the Great Fire of 1835, which consumed about 700 structures, municipal leaders were moved to act…

Built at a time when the city’s population stood at about 200,000, the Croton system served well until the early 1900s. By then, New York’s population soared to more than 3 million, thanks to immigration, expansion, and the annexation of the Bronx and Brooklyn. In the early 20th century, the city expanded the system to develop new resources in the Catskills. The Ashokan Reservoir, whose creation required the submerging of seven villages, came into service in 1915. A system of pipes and canals were constructed to ferry water via the Catskill Aqueduct 92 miles to the Kensico and Hillview Reservoirs in Westchester—including a circular tunnel with a diameter of 14 feet that goes 1,100 feet under the Hudson River near West Point. Water Tunnels No. 1 (completed in 1917) and No. 2 (completed in 1937) carried the water from Yonkers into Manhattan. Next came the Delaware system to the city’s northwest. Starting in the 1950s, vast pools of water created by damming tributaries of the Delaware River were fed into new infrastructure, including the Delaware Aqueduct, which at 82 miles is the longest continuous underground water tunnel in the world. Here, again, gravity does the work. The highest reservoirs are about 1,200 feet above sea level. And the volume of water pushing down through the pipes creates an enormous amount of power. Today, Bosch notes, “the pressure is so great that it can take it to the sixth floor of most boroughs without any pumping,” said Bosch.

The 500 miles of fat pipes upstate are augmented by 6,500 miles of narrower underground conduits that run underneath the five boroughs, from the crags of Riverdale to the distant, wave-tossed shores of the Rockaways. From the Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers, right on the Bronx border, pipes plunge a few hundred feet into one of the three massive water tunnels that carry water to the south about 500 feet below ground level. Every 20 blocks or so, vertical tunnels sprout up to feed into trunk water mains, with a diameter of about a foot. Ultimately, they connect to buildings, whose pipes are private property.

It would be really difficult to have the #1 global city without a well-designed water system. Such planning and engineering may not get much attention in explaining New York City’s rise but it certainly had to be present. Interestingly, histories of Chicago tend to note the importance of reversing the flow of the Chicago River so that waste was sent downstream towards the Mississippi rather than into Lake Michigan where it polluted the water supply.

Threatening to cut off the NSA’s water supply in Utah

Here’s one way to fight a political battle against the NSA: consider stopping the flow of water to a facility you don’t like.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would shut off the water spigot to the massive data center operated by the National Security Agency in Bluffdale, Utah.

The legislation, proposed by Utah lawmaker Marc Roberts, is due to go to the floor of the Utah House of Representatives early next year, but it was debated in a Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee meeting on Wednesday. The bill, H.B. 161, directs municipalities like Bluffdale to “refuse support to any federal agency which collects electronic data within this state.”

The NSA brought its Bluffdale data center online about a year ago, taking advantage Utah’s cheap power and a cut-rate deal for millions of gallons of local water, used to cool the 1-million-square-foot building’s servers. Roberts’ bill, however, would prohibit the NSA from negotiating new water deals when its current Bluffdale agreement runs out in 2021.

The law seems like a long-shot to clear legislative hurdles when Utah’s legislature re-convenes next year, but Wednesday’s committee hearing was remarkable, nonetheless, says Nate Carlisle, a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune who has waged a fight with the NSA and Bluffdale officials to determine how much water the data center is actually using. “What’s noteworthy is no one on the panel said: ‘Hey, wait a minute, we can’t do this,’” he says. “They had some specific concerns about the language of the bill, but there was no outright opposition.”

All of this does suggest an interesting tactic in the arsenal of local governments yet I have a hard time imagining the possible outcomes. The federal government finds an independent water supply? There is a massive lawsuit about whether a local government can limit the water supply to a federal agency? The threat pushes the federal government to move their facilities elsewhere? The federal government ensures any new facility has much longer contracts for basic services? Regardless, I would guess this situation wouldn’t be resolved quickly.

Related thought: given serious droughts – like the one in California – could the government require a larger share of water to maintain “critical” functions over the needs of other users?

 

Daily water allocation next in dry California?

Groups in California are considering daily water allocations per household to help conserve water in the current drought:

The latter represents the amount of water you are allowed to use per day. If you don’t know it, you probably should. Not knowing could cost you money. As California’s severe drought moves into a fourth year, state and local water agencies are working on something called “allocation-based rate structures,” a kind of precursor to water rationing that’s all the rage in Sacramento and in some areas such as Santa Cruz, Irvine and Santa Monica.

Here’s how it works: Your local water company, special district or city assigns you and your household a number in gallons — a daily water allocation. Usually, one number applies to maximum indoor water use, i.e. showers, kitchen and bathroom faucets, dishwashers, clothes washers, etc., and an extra allocation is assigned for outdoor use such as lawn irrigation.

Using census records, aerial photography and satellite imagery, an agency can determine a property’s efficient water usage.

At the Irvine Ranch Water District, number of residents, amount of landscaping and even medical needs are factored into a household’s water allocation or water budget.

It will be interesting to see how this is received and how much arguing there might be about the calculations. As the article goes on to note, one popular method is to start charging really high rates for people who exceed their water levels, which in some places are already set at about 60 gallons per person.

With diminishing water, privileging urban growth over farming in Arizona

If water supplies are dwindling, should cities or farmers get more of the water? One writer suggests Arizona has made a clear choice for cities:

The shift away from irrigated agriculture in Arizona hasn’t come without a fight. By some measures, farmers are still winning. According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, more than two-thirds of Arizona’s water is still used to irrigate fields, down from a peak of 90 percent last century.

Decades ago, state officials in Arizona begin to plan for a future without water—and that meant sacrificing agriculture for future urban growth. A massive civil engineering project in the 1960s diverted part of the Colorado River to feed Phoenix and Tucson. Those cities could not exist in their current state without this unnatural influx of Rocky Mountain snowmelt. Now there’s tension across the region, as the realities of climate change and extreme weather catch up with the business-as-usual agricultural bedrock that laid the foundation for the economy here.

Hopefully, future dispatches in this series about water and drought in the Southwest will begin to address the normative questions: what is the proper ratio of water for cities and farmers? Is it necessarily bad if farmers can’t produce as much in Arizona and California (could more be produced elsewhere, do farmers need to shift to new crops, etc.)? Both farming and urban growth have changed the natural water patterns in the region but does one have a stronger claim to the water in the long run?

“Without Lake Mead, there would be no Las Vegas”

The 14 year drought in southern Nevada, northern Arizona, and southern California threatens Lake Mead and the water supply to Las Vegas and other communities. The ability to have such a city in the middle of a desert is quite remarkable. It rests on the construction of Hoover Dam:

HooverDamJul12

I’ve been there twice and I was impressed both times by the ability to put this all together in the 1930s. Yet, the dam is highly dependent on available water and weather patterns. Here is a look at the lower Lake Mead from the top of Hoover Dam in July 2012:

LakeMeadJul12

While this is partly a cautionary tale about the the limits of human consumption, it also presents an opportunity for human ingenuity. As the news report notes, “Las Vegas actually reuses 93% of its water.” Imagine if all cities in the world reached such levels. Thus, even with an extended drought, Las Vegas may continue to thrive:

BellagioFountainsJul12

The show must go on…