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

When WEFTEC descends, bringing up to 25,000 people and six football fields worth of exhibits, it’s hard for a city not to notice that water geeks are in town.  But in recent years, organizers have begun to ask the question “What’s left after we go?”

Undoubtedly we leave tons of landfill material behind, much of which could be avoided, but that’s another blog for another time. On a more positive note, the water industry’s students and young professionals have been making sure that we leave a lasting (positive!) impact on water quality through green stormwater infrastructure projects.

This year’s undertaking addressed a flood-prone area where water pouring off of the top deck of a City Hall parking garage pooled, creating a hazard for drivers and pedestrians alike in the rain-rich city of New Orleans.  Donohue ran a blog that described it succinctly:

“More than 100 volunteers from the water and wastewater industry recently spent a day installing green infrastructure landscaping on the grounds of City Hall in New Orleans. The 9th annual Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC) community service project …. includes two bioswales to alleviate street flooding and protect local waterways by capturing, filtering, and conveying stormwater runoff from City Hall structures. With its location in downtown New Orleans at City Hall, the project is highly visible in the community, helping promote awareness of these stormwater solutions and their benefits.”

I made it over in time to see the ribbon cutting and final product, but managed to accidentally delete most of my photos. Fortunately, Lance Manabe amd Audrey Haerle, both WEF delegates from the great state of Hawaii, allowed me to use a few of theirs!

In the images below, you can see the downspout (top left) coming off of the parking garage where, on rainy days, water cascades down, and previously would hit the compacted lawn and then run immediately across the sidewalk and into the road. In the next image to the right, you can see the area below the downspout, and volunteers preparing the substrate as well as a bit of the infrastructure that will be hidden once the plantings are place.  If I hadn’t deleted the photos of the finished work, you’d be able to see the stone structure  (about 12′ tall by 24″ wide, running from building to sidewalk) that was built immediately below the downspout to absorb the brunt of the falling water and gently disperse it horizontally across the bioswale.

To most passers by, the completed bioswale probably doesn’t look all that different than other professionally landscaped stretches. The difference, however, is in what lies beneath the soil. In this particular case, given the tight constraints and high volume of water, the city chose to use FocalPoint biofiltration system to filter the water and rapidly move it underground, away from the street, and into the groundwater table where it’s needed to help stem the subsidence which plagues the city.  You can see hints of that structure with the corrugated tubing (probably to help disperse the water throughout the bioswale) and the concrete box (bottom left) which I presume is part of the FocalPoint structure.



At the end of the day,  Paul Bowen,WEF’s President and Cedric Grant, Executive Director of the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans (each of whom had leant a hand with the work!) stood in front of the microphones to thank the assembled group for “leaving a water legacy” for New Orleans. The volunteers pictured here (including Lance Manabe, center photo) make the work look easy, but let me assure you that with moist, subtropical temperatures there was no shortage of sweating!

So, the next time you’re in New Orleans (even better if it’s a raining), go see it for yourself. The parking garage is a pretty recognizable building, and it’s on Poydras Street right across from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And while you’re there, remembering that WEF members left a legacy for New Orleans, think about your own. How do you want to be remembered in your own town? #MyWaterLegacy

It’s hardly been more than a week since Joe Kane and I published a piece entitled “Striking a better balance between water investment and affordability” on Brookings’ website, and it seems that every day I learn of a new wrinkle in the equitability side of this equation. Our piece, as the title implies, is a broad brush on the clash between the need for water utilities to address infrastructure maintenance and replacement backlogs and the very real financial constraints that many residents face.  Utilities clearly need money to run their systems, but the looming question is “what’s the most equitable way to spread those costs?”

In our piece we touched on the challenges facing Detroit residents, a travesty that was first brought to my attention back around 2008 or so when I heard an activist from Detroit share stories that were hard to imagine from the shelter of my secure checking account.  In her community, families who couldn’t pay their water bills were having their water shut off which meant that they could, and sometimes did, lose custody of their children.  Here we are, nearly ten years later, and sometimes it seems like little has changed.

I happened to be in Detroit last weekend where I had a chance to hear Monica Lewis Patrick of We the People of Detroit speak about water shut-offs. She had quite a lot to say (including some understandable anger that poor people were being targeted while those with the largest delinquent accounts seemed to get a pass), but the point that really stuck with me was the one her mother made: cutting off someone’s water is an act of war. That’s a strong statement, but it goes right to the heart of why people’s worlds start to unravel without access to clean water.

Shutting off water is at the extreme end of the water affordability spectrum. What I hear more about when I look beyond Michigan are concerns about whose being left behind as water rates increase, and whose being stuck with a bill for problems that someone else created. Here’s a quick compendium of a few of the things that have come across my desk in the last few days:

  • Just this month, Chicago approved steep water and sewer rate increases to fund the Municipal Employee Pension Fund. For now, Chicago still has comparatively low rates, but using rate increases to pay for unrelated needs is generally frowned upon, and not just by those who struggle to pay for the increases.
  • Baltimore recently announced major rate increases, though at least the added funds will go toward infrastructure repairs.
  • Residents of Jefferson County, Alabama, home to Birmingham, are still paying off boondoggle investments that corrupt officials tried to implement, leaving the county bankrupt and still without a fix to their sewer system shortfalls.
  • Toledo, Ohio, a city whose median income is well below the state’s average, is having to cough up half a billion dollars to remove agriculture-induced cyanotoxins from its drinking water.
  • In a similar but more highly charged situation, Des Moines, Iowa is spending up to $180 million to remove nitrates coming from upstream agriculture. Like Toledo, this is a case of one community’s “out of sight, out of mind” pollution causing a financial and health burden for those downstream.
  • The farm community of Hastings, Nebraska, a town of only 25,000 people, is having to spend $46 million to remove agricultural nitrates from their groundwater supplies before being able to safely deliver the water to residents.
  • Right here in my adopted state of Wisconsin, farm pollution, primarily in the form of manure, is poisoning the private wells that Kewaunee County families depend upon for their water supply. Once contaminated, families are typically left to foot the $10,000 bill for a new well on their own.

Fortunately, there are some places that seem to be doing it right. Yesterday I listened in on a webinar hosted by WaterSmart Software featuring  George Hawkins, general manager for DC Water, on the matter of water affordability. Washington DC, like most places, has an aggressive revenue plan to pay for their required upgrades. Clearly, however, Hawkins and his team have heart. “Affordability,” he said, “is perhaps the most significant issue facing any water utility.” Rather than leave it to fate, DC Water has a menu of options to help customers reduce their payments. “Our support [for struggling customers] costs us 1-2% of our budget, but we get a huge bang for those bucks.”

Clearly this is an issue that is not going away any time soon. If you have other examples to share, I’d love to know about them.

Banner image from Detroitography,