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

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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, https://detroitography.com/2014/09/05/map-detroit-water-affordability/ 

For the last three years, between March 12th, my late niece Finley Broaddus‘ birthday, and Earth Day, I’ve been creating daily posts on things that individuals can (and should!) do to lighten their load on the planet.  For the first two years the posts were limited to Facebook where Finley’s friends and supporters helped her create Finley’s Green Leap Forward Fund. The grants provided from her fund support groups working at local, regional, and global levels, while the posts I created helped give individuals ideas about how they could take action as well. This year, with the addition of a website the postings start as daily mini-blogs which are then re-posted on Facebook.  Even better, my sister Sally S. Proctor, joined the creative team and wrote half of the posts.

The suggestions have included everything from taking the stairs, doing an energy audit of your home, eating lower on the food chain, tuning up your bike, …  in more than 120 posts over the three years, I thought we had come up with every idea possible.

That was, until yesterday when an unrecognized number rang up my phone.  I answered it with my typical “Hello, this is Lynn.”

On the other end I heard “My name is Dana Clements, and I’m a janitor. I have an idea about water.”  He went on to say, “You know all those people who order Starbucks or other coffee but don’t drink it all? A lot of them throw their cup half-full into the trash can. That’s water that gets tied up in a plastic bag, taken to the landfill, and is removed from the water cycle.”

Dana was on to something. In addition to sequestering that water in the bowels of the capturelandfill, it also weighs down the bag and the trash truck, creating an extra energy burden (and greenhouse gas emissions) while transporting the liquid. Interestingly, Dana didn’t say anything about how it creates extra work and mess for people like him who have to haul and lift the bags, but it’s certainly something I’ve thought about many times.

And of course, it’s not just coffee containers. The same applies to bottled water (ever notice how many partially full bottles seem to end up in trash cans and along curbsides?), cups of soda, and kids’ juice boxes.

I definitely side with Dana on this one.  Personally, I tend to finish what I start and rarely leave any coffee in my cup. But if I did, I’d find a sink to rinse it down or a flower or shrub in need of watering before putting it in the trash. As for Dana, he said he definitely goes to find a sink rather than putting liquids into the trash.

Before I hung up with Dana I asked him “How did you find my name?” His area code wasn’t one I recognized, so I was pretty sure he wasn’t local.

“I saw you on C-Span so I went to your website. I wasn’t able to leave a comment so I deccaptureided to call you.”  It took me a minute to figure out how he’d seen me on C-Span, and then I remembered that C-Span filmed “America’s Water: Innovation at Work” in which I participated at Columbia University’s Global Water Center last month.  Wow.

And so, today I thank Dana not only for his suggestion, which is a good one,  but also for taking the step to look me up and call me.  That’s what personal action is all about. Doing, and getting others to do.

Which leads me to ask: What are you going to do this Earth Day? And what are you going to try to get others to do?

 

Nobody said democracy would be easy. Just ask any of the thousands of people who have been making their opinions known on the matter of the Waukesha, Wisconsin’s application to divert roughly 10 million gallons/day of Lake Michigan water. The city has been working on this application for as long as I’ve been in Wisconsin (more than fifteen years), and the public hasn’t had much of a rest for that entire time.

My position on this dilemma is no secret: I think that building a 20-mile, $200 million (or more) pipeline to ship water over the Great Lakes divide out to Waukesha, and then return the treated effluent back to the basin via the Root River is short-sighted, and will leave Waukesha’s citizens beholden to an expensive, inflexible, energy-hogging infrastructure while the rest of the world is able to respond to new innovations coming down the pike. On February 16th I, and one hundred or so others, had the chance to again state my opinion, this time to a new audience: The Great Lakes Compact Council. Read More

On most mornings I start my day with my local paper (the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and the New York Times. That’s a given. But for water news, I need other sources.  Fortunately, Twitter is the well that springs eternal for me.

Here are twelve of my favorite water Twitter personalities who are too good to keep to myself. Read More