What would you do if you opened your monthly water bill and found an invoice for almost $5,000? For Tyrone Jarvis, owner of Go Green Auto Care in Newport News, Virginia this wasn’t just a thought experiment. Nearly four years ago, he opened his mail expecting to find his typical water bill which generally ran about $59 per month.  Instead, he found a four-digit surprise. Read More

If you have any friends in Cape Town, this might be a good time to invite them to come for a visit. A long visit and a drink.

Cape Town, South Africa is on track to become the first major city to run out of water. This is not a drill. “Day Zero”, the day that the city is predicted to officially run dry, has been extended from mid-April to mid-July, but that’s small comfort to the region’s residents.

The causes behind what some have called this “Mad Max” scenario include poor planning and social inequities coupled with a three-year, once-in-a-millennium drought, Read More

It’s that time of year when we reflect back on the year that is closing out, and start thinking about the year to come.  Susan Bence of WUWM published her 2017 highlights, Gary Wilson asked Great Lakes colleagues to help him think about what 2018 might bring (I was apparently the pessimist/realist of the group), Circle of Blue’s Brett Walton did a little of both, and so I thought I’d scroll through my 2017 Tweets to pull together a few stories that either defined the year, or that I thought were worth pulling back out of the detritus for another remembering.  There’s a little caveat: Twitter only allowed me to go back about seven months, so this is really an almost-year of highlights. Here we go, in no particular order.

White House changes:  The changes in the White House and administration have had, and will continue to have, big impacts on water, the progress of science related to it, andblog tweet 18 the funding, policies, etc. that tie back to it. As of last summer the White House had lost all of its science advisers, and not long after announced delays to the long-awaited lead and copper rule updates due to staffing challenges. Add to this Read More

As a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institute, I have the honor of collaborating with some of the best policy minds in the country. A recent piece by my colleagues Joe Kane and Ranjitha Shivaram, “As flood risks intensify, stormwater utilities offer a more resilient solution” offered compelling insights on the regional variation in how stormwater is approached. Being a relatively new resident of Minnesota, I was surprised to see that it leads the nation in terms of stormwater utilities and wanted to learn a bit more. This piece originally appeared on Brookings’ website and is re-posted here in its entirety:

This year’s record hurricane season has been a wake-up call when it comes to water infrastructure. It has also been a reminder of how the public sector plays a crucial role in promoting more resilient investments, managing runoff concerns, and preventing floods. Many communities, though, still lack the financial and technical capacity to support clean, safe, and reliable water infrastructure. Read More

There’s a lot of hubbub in the Great Lakes over the recent water deal between Milwaukee and Waukesha. This new agreement, which has social, political, and environmental ramifications, caught the region by surprise in part because for as long as any of us can remember the two cities have been battling it out over whether Waukesha should be allowed to access Lake Michigan water.  The conflict was the major driver behind the bi-national Great Lakes Compact (more formally known as the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact), as well as the 2007 award-winning book The Great Lakes Water Wars.  Most of the news has focused on who’s getting what from the new agreement, but after all these years there’s still a gaping hole in the conversation.

Waukesha is a city built on water.  The lovely community on the Fox River traces its growth to its high-quality spring water, a natural resource that started attracting tourists in the 1800’s . The city famously fought off private interests that tried to pipe the water to Chicago during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Fast forward one hundred years and the city’s profligate use had drawn its aquifer down to the point where naturally occurring radium started causing concerns regarding the safety of the water supply.  Waukesha needed an alternative.

A true consideration of alternatives never really had a chance.  Watching from the sidelines it seemed to me that Dan Duchniak, Waukesha Water Utility’s general manager, had his eyes set on Lake Michigan water (which tastes much better than the region’s groundwater, and is touted by realtors when showing homes within the Lake Michigan delivery area) from the start and never gave other alternatives any real chance.

The official alternatives analysis, found in section 4.3 of the city’s application, only looked at nearby groundwater and surface water alternatives and quickly dismissed any technological approaches.  Given that the region is trying to promote itself as global water technology hub, it is especially odd that the best it could do for Waukesha was old-school pump-and-pipe technology not much different than what the 1893 bandits tried. While other regions of the country are investing in sustainable, flexible solutions, Waukesha is marching toward a large, inflexible, “grey” solution to its water challenges.

Water reuse is an option that more and more utilities are turning to, and not just those in water-scarce regions. The technology is experiencing rapid uptake in utilities and industries of all sizes as they recognize the insanity of essentially throwing away the clean water coming out of their water recovery facilities (i.e. sewage treatment plants). For decades many communities have been capturing the reclaimed water and putting it to use for irrigation, cooling water, or specific industrial processes, and today we see leading communities taking it up a notch to returning the water directly into the potable water delivery system. (See, for instance, this undated article on Disney’s water reuse. Based on the reference to Hurricane Georges, I’m guessing it’s from 1998.)  Out on the cutting edge, some are even laying the groundwork for on-site direct potable reuse.  Astronauts do it, why can’t we earthlings?

If Waukesha isn’t quite ready for water re-use, certainly rainwater harvest can play a significant role in helping to provide the additional water the city needs.  Taking it up a notch from our backyard rain barrels, harvesting free water to offset irrigation or indoor plumbing needs is getting easier and easier.  It can be done by individual homeowners, or  by larger, commercial buildings. Water utilities often snub rainwater harvest because it eats into their sales, but if they embrace it as a cheaper alternative to building new pipes or reservoirs and incorporate it into a new service model, it becomes a win-win option for a community.  St. Paul MN did exactly that when it worked with its local watershed district to design a large rainwater harvest system, capturing water from the roof of a city facility which is then used to irrigate a nearby sports arena.  Like any rainwater harvest system, it does double-duty by reducing stormwater runoff.  In this case, the groundskeepers are especially happy because the turf thrives on rainwater – much preferred to city water which has chlorine and fluoride. The added ingredients in city water may help protect human health, but they stunt plants.

In addition to the environmental benefits of these different approaches they have the added advantage of being financially flexible.  The pipeline and pump systems that will be needed for Waukesha’s Lake Michigan diversion – one to supply the water to Waukesha and another to return the clean water to Lake Michigan – have to be built to accommodate the peak demand scenario, even though most days they will operate at lower capacity.  Furthermore if demand decreases, which it’s likely to do because Lake Michigan water will be significantly more expensive than Waukesha’s current supply, the fixed costs and its related debt will remain.

When I describe the Waukesha situation to my colleagues from other regions (experts on water infrastructure and treatment) they just shake their heads, realizing that the city could do so much better for its citizens. Is it too late for Waukesha to look at more flexible, environmentally preferable alternatives, and potentially less expensive alternatives? No.  But it will only happen if the people of Waukesha insist on it.

Water Week 2017 Recap

When hundreds of water professionals descended on Washington, D.C. three weeks ago I wasn’t the only one wondering if anyone would notice us. The city was abuzz with FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, the House health  care proposal, and the president’s proposed budget which slashed support for the EPA and other critical critical agencies that we depend on for scientifically based water management. But judging by the line-up of congressional staffers, agency leaders, and U.S. senators who came by to speak with us, not to mention the dozens of elected officials and their staff who met with constituents who flew in from 41 states, as well as Puerto Rico and of course the District of Columbia itself, we got some notice! (Note: By my count we had every state EXCEPT AL, AR, DE, ME, MS, NE, ND, SD, and MT. If you were there from one of those states, please let me know and I’ll correct my numbers!)  Read More

Here’s my dilemma: I’ve got infrastructure on my mind, water infrastructure to be specific. There are things I want to say to my elected officials, especially those in Washington DC, about the needs, the urgency, the strategic importance of repairing and upgrading our water systems. However, with daily panics coming out of our  national capitol raising even more fundamental questions about the health of our democracy, this doesn’t seem like the best time to catch anyone’s attention on infrastructure.

None-the-less, Water Week 2017, when the country’s major water associations descend on Washington to deliver focused messages regarding water infrastructure needs, is only a Read More

Earlier this fall I took my dogs into Jacobus Park, the county park that’s a few blocks from my home in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, hoping to let them get their feet wet as a consolation prize for not being able to take them swimming in any big water. We walked down to the creek, which isn’t more than three feet wide on most days, and I couldn’t help but notice the yucky crud oozing from a 12-inch (?) pipe. Read More

The Morning After

It’s been an intense 24 hours. My version of election day 2016 began with waking up at 4:45 am in order to dress, make coffee, walk the dogs, and get out the door in time to arrive at the polls by 6:00 am.  I wasn’t there to vote, having done so the previous Friday. I was there to work. Read More

Those of you who have been with me for a while know that I have a thing about rainwater. It’s free, it’s clean (until it hits the ground and becomes problematic stormwater), and it’s “passive”, meaning that it comes to us all on its own.  It’s becoming increasingly common to take advantage of this passive resource by using rainbarrels as a source for outdoor water use, but some of us crazy people take it up a notch by harvesting rainwater for our homes.  Read More