When it comes to water, we’re pretty lucky. If you’re reading this, you probably have access to toilets and adequate sewage treatment, and ready access to drinking water that doesn’t make you sick. Somewhere in the early to middle parts of the last century, we solved most of those problems, and then took it up a notch after the Clean Water Act was passed in 1973 so that our sewage wouldn’t (usually) reach our rivers and lakes. There are many members of our human family who don’t enjoy such privileges.

But before we get too comfortable and smug about our water, we should pay attention to what Dr. Mark Borchardt has to say. Borchardt, a research scientist based at the Marshfield Clinic in central Wisconsin, studies groundwater-borne diseases, particularly those caused by viruses, and is coming up with some surprising results. Apparently the United States has about twenty disease outbreaks per year associated with drinking water. More than half of those are from groundwater sources, and that proportion is increasing. Earlier this week Borchardt shared some of the results of his recent studies with us at a Wingspread briefing.

(Aside: In case you want to Google Borchardt, be sure to include the “Dr.” part of his name. As I learned, there is an independent filmmaker of the same name, which whom he is frequently confused. Do you think the filmmaker Borchardt ever gets confused with the virologist Borchardt? It seems only fair.)

Here are a few things I gleaned from his presentation:
· Viruses move through soil farther and faster than bacteria. This is partly because they are smaller, and partly because their surfaces carry negative charges. Since soil particles also tend to be negatively charged, the viruses do not adhere and are carried by subsurface flows. And since many of the pathogenic viruses he studies can live for about two years, they have plenty of time to make their travels.

· Viruses can move through tiny fissures in rocks, and can even get through layers that hydrogeologists have always considered to be impermeable. In Madison, Wisconsin, the public water supply lies beneath an ‘aquitard’, but viruses moving through the sewage treatment plant are routinely found in it. The drinking water is disinfected before distributing, so it’s not a public health concern. But his results were a surprise. (For you non-believers out there, check out Borchardt et. al 2007.Human entericviruses in groundwater from a confined bedrock aquifer. Environmental Science and Technology 41:6606-6612.)

· Small municipal water systems that rely on groundwater are generally contaminated with at least some viruses that cause human illness. Treating the water with ultraviolet light prior to distribution reduces a significant portion of the illness.

· Some contamination is probably coming into the potable water distribution system from the sewerage collection system. In recent work, Borchardt has painstakingly studied the genetic fingerprints of viruses in sewage, and can say fairly definitively that this is happening in the places he’s studied. Probably the best way to address this is to fix the leaking pipes in both our sewerage collection systems and our potable water systems. Some would refer to this as “fixing our crumbling infrastructure.”

· People on private wells seem to not have the same problems as municipal wells. Borchardt thinks this is because most private wells are far enough from sewer lines that they aren’t coming in contact with human viruses.

The work of Borchardt and his colleagues is clearly shaking things up. At least one municipality in Wisconsin (Prairie du Sac) has upgraded its water distribution system to include ultraviolet disinfection as a result of his studies. And I presume that many municipalities, small and large alike, will be thinking about what this means for infrastructure, both the necessity for maintenance and whether or not there are better ways to rebuild.

Note: Shortly after I post this, Dr. Borchardt will be moving his lab to the USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratory, also based in Marshfield WI.

Earth Day Memories

Here it is – Earth Day. This is the 40th anniversary, which means that forty years ago today I was out picking up litter with my 5th grade class in front of Fairview Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia where I grew up. If my teacher had simply told us it was Earth Day, I doubt I would still remember what I was doing on April 22nd, 1970. But because we learned this date with our hands, it stuck.

Two years later I would be part of the inaugural class 7th grade class at James W. Robinson, Jr. Secondary School. My science teacher, Marylou Simon, used us as the guinea pigs for the ecology curriculum she was developing for the Fairfax County Schools. We had terrariums and fish tanks, learned about food webs, and took overnight expeditions into the wilds of Prince William County where I saw my first beaver.

Years later, when I was invited back to speak at the school’s 25th anniversary, I learned from another teacher that in August, 1971, as the teachers were setting up their new school, Mr. Samuel J. Coffee, our very progressive and popular principal, called the science teachers together and declared “I want you to teach ecology as part of your curriculum.”

The young teachers dutifully agreed, but as soon as they got back to the teacher’s lounge they looked at each other and asked “What’s ecology?” Clearly, times have changed.

Yesterday and today I was lucky enough to attend the Chicago Summit on the National Academy of Engineering’s ‘Grand Challenges’, and to host a panel discussion on water. The Academy has identified fourteen challenges it thinks we as a society, and engineering in particular, needs to tackle in the coming century. Among these are clean water and urban infrastructure, two issues that are near and dear to my heart.

Dr. Charles Vest, President of NAE, spoke to the group last night and pointed out that we need to increase the number of engineers graduating from our universities in order to creatively tackle these challenges. In conversations here at Wingspread and at last month’s Cities of the Future conference, we’ve discussed the need for a new mindset in engineering – one which thinks about sustainability and resiliency in our urban systems, and in how we handle water. And so, it seems, Earth Day’s tentacles are winding their way into the schools of engineering, and the halls of the National Academies. This is a good thing.

Meanwhile, Earth Day continues to be wrapped tightly into the fabric of my own soul. I’m fortunate enough to earn a living working on behalf of our environment. Ironically enough, I now live in the state where Earth Day was born, and sit on the Board of Visitors of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (as in Sen. Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And many days of the week, I can be found picking up litter along my running route. It’s a habit I acquired about 40 years ago.

Yesterday The Johnson Foundation had the pleasure of hosting Mary Ann Dickinson, President and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, for a presentation to a packed house of nearly 100. The audience was a mix of regional professionals working in water-related endeavors, elected officials, and interested citizens. From the engaged discourse that followed the formal presentation, it seemed that everyone left a little more knowledgeable than they were when they arrived.I first came to know Dickinson when she presented at a national River Rally a few years ago. It was one of those ‘wow’ experiences where I was writing furiously trying to capture all that she had to say. Yesterday was no different. Here’s a quick synopsis of her remarks:

  1. Shortages are here on a permanent basis, even in Wisconsin. Based on self-reported results, 40 states are experiencing some level of water shortages. She showed a ‘drought monitor’ map illustrating that even northern Wisconsin – a state known for its abundant water – was experiencing drought. People who live and recreate there have been suffering from low levels in inland lakes, which can really take the fun out of summer.
  2. Subsidies for water infrastructure are dwindling everywhere. Most of our water infrastructure was built with federal subsidies. However, those dollars starting evaporating a long time ago and in most places the fees for water services haven’t risen to make up for the decreased funding. The federal government estimates that there is a $550 billion dollar shortfall in the amount of funding available to repair and upgrade this infrastructure, with the heaviest burden being on Great Lakes states, and the California/Nevada/Arizona region. Failing infrastructure means, among other things, leaky pipes and inefficiencies. 
  3. New growth isn’t always efficient. You’d think that we’d get smarter over time, and by now all the new and retrofitted buildings in this country would use high efficiency plumbing fixtures. But you’d be wrong. And as if that weren’t bad enough, the growth is happening disproportionately where the water is not. For example, estimated population growth from 2000 to 2020 is 52% for California, but 10% for Wisconsin.
  4. Unmanaged irrigation is becoming a growing burden. 58% of residential water use is for landscape irrigation. This blows my mind. And that’s an average. In some places like Phoenix it’s as high as 80%. As someone who has a hard time understanding why someone waters their lawn (which makes one have to mow it more often) this is hard for me to handle. (Dickinson said “It’s kind of like buying Evian and pouring it on your lawn.”) But even if we can’t turn back from the expectation that lawn watering is a constitutional right, Dickinson tells us that much can be gained by making the practices more efficient.
  5. Water and energy are connected problems. But you probably knew that – water movement and treatment is a huge energy hog, and energy production uses a lot of water. Furthermore, they tend to create peak burdens at the same time (middle of summer). Dickinson questioned national experts, including Robert Glennon, author of Unquenchable, who state that 3% of our nation’s energy use is for water treatment and conveyance. In California, the one state where this has been thoroughly studied, 19% of the state’s electrical demand and 32% of the natural gas used is for water. Dickinson feels strongly that 3% is a gross underestimate, and upcoming studies will give us better numbers. (Here’s a link to some studies on this topic.)
  6. The consumer is still clueless. Most people have no idea how much water they use (average = 170 gallons per person, per day in the U.S., much of which goes for lawn watering), no idea where their water comes from (“the tap”), and water bills (which generally are billed in “units” which are the equivalent of one hundred cubic feet, which is the same as 748 gallons) obfuscate water use rather than illustrate it. People who know where their water comes from are much more likely to conserve. How about you – do you know how much water you use, where it comes from, and where it goes?
  7. Water rates need re-examination. This is something we’re hearing more and more of. We need rates that capture enough money to allow for maintenance and upgrades (not just operations), and which send signals that incentivize conservation. A few dozen areas around the country now use ‘budget-based rates’ with inclining block structures. These rates protect those who can least afford to pay, while sending price signals to those whose use is well beyond what is needed for basic comfort and health. More on this in an upcoming blog.
  8. Water efficiency is a cost-effective supply solution. Her anecdote about New York City paying to install high efficiency toilets rather than expand their wastewater treatment capacity caught the attention of the audience. Waukesha, a city not far from here, is embroiled in a battle to obtain Lake Michigan water to meet their growing water supply need. Maybe the New York example could save Waukesha some money?
  9. Federal action is finally starting to emerge. Since January 2009, Congress has introduced 26 bills that include water efficiency of some type, and federal buildings have been ordered to reduce their water use by 20%. These are hopeful signs.
  10. Wisconsin is adopting a statewide water conservation rule. The Great Lakes Compact requires that states adopt water conservation plans for the Great Lakes watershed. Wisconsin is taking it a step farther by adopting a rule that will apply to the entire state, though the rules are tighter inside the Great Lakes watershed. This is another hopeful sign.

Dickinson opened her presentation with words that continue to resonate with me: “Water efficiency and conservation makes sense no matter where we live.” Here in the Great Lakes, where municipalities frequently have excess supply and are anxious for new users, it’s rare to hear those words. But if for no other reason than to reduce our energy consumption and our greenhouse gas emissions, being smart about water is something that we all need to do.

The calendar may say that today is World Water Day, but at The Johnson Foundation it has been National Water Year for quite some time. As you may know, in 2009 we hosted a series of meetings with experts of all stripes, trying to discern the scope of freshwater problems in the U.S., and the various suggestions for how to better manage our water resources. We are now turning from this first phase, focused primarily on problem scoping and information gathering, to a second phase focused on action.

Today’s press release states it more eloquently than I, but in essence we are now looking for national leaders – CEO’s, elected officials, NGO presidents, executive branch leadership, etc. – to help us develop a national call to action around freshwater problems. The call to action will be the focus of our June 9th, 2010 Freshwater Summit, where participants will also be asked to commit to solution-oriented actions.

Much of this is still a work in progress, but we anticipate formalizing the call to action and accompanying commitments, and presenting them in a more formal, national venue in late summer or early fall. The behind-the-scenes work on the part of the Foundation staff and partners is immense: the old ‘tip of the iceberg’ metaphor fits well.

Which brings me back to my primary point: it may be World Water Day, but here at Wingspread every day of the year is focused on trying to solve our nation’s freshwater problems – the ‘quiet crisis’ as we have come to call it. And one of the perquisites of having every day focused on water is that I get to talk to lots of very smart people working on a range of water-related issues from a variety of perspectives. Those smart people are always sending me interesting reading. One thing that came across my desk recently was a detailed survey of Canadian opinions about water. A more complete covering of the report can be found here, but I’ve clipped one of my favorite pages for you to see here (below).

I must confess that it never even occurred to me to use a hose to melt snow in the spring, but I’m sure I’d be one of those responding that I’d be ‘upset to see’ it happening. In fact, I think I’d be upset to see any of these things happening. Doesn’t it drive you crazy to see people leave the water running while washing dishes? I bet if they turned it off, washing dishes by hand would stack up a lot better against commercial dishwashers.

I have some pet peeves that didn’t make it onto this list – like shaving one’s legs with the shower running. It makes no sense. What are your pet water peeves? I’d like to know.



Taken from 2010 Canadian Water Attitudes Survey, commissioned by RBC and Unilever Canada


It seems like everywhere we turn, there’s too much phosphorus in our waters. The resulting algal blooms are unsightly and frequently toxic. And of course, when the algae die and decompose, offensive odors and dead fish ensue. But you knew that.

Last week at the 2010 Marquette University Law School Conference on “Water and People” 300 of us had the pleasure of listening in on a presentation on how Boston can best combat the phosphorus problem in its beloved Charles River. Bob Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Charles River Watershed Association, led us through their analysis of phosphorus loadings in the Upper Charles River.

Their detailed TMDL included an analysis of phosphorus inputs by eight land use types. In addition to land use types, they included inputs from the five small to medium sewage treatment plants (POTWs) in the Upper Charles, as well as combined sewer overflows (CSOs). By comparing phosphorus loadings by land use type with the relative cover of that land use type, they were able to extrapolate which types were the biggest contributors in the watershed.

Agriculture is a small component (3%) of the watershed, and apparently contributes only 2% of the phosphorus loading in the watershed making it an average (not egregious) source. However, three land use types – commercial, industrial, and high density residential – contributed disproportionately high loadings to the river. For instance, commercial properties were only 3% of the land use, but contributed 10% of the phosphorus loadings. Industrial and high density residential properties were 5% and 12% of the land use but 14% and 26%, respectively, of the loadings. Other significant sources were from CSOs (6%) and POTWs (17%).

Knowing the sources of pollution gives the region a fact-based platform for improving its water quality. Combining these numbers with the cost for various practices that can remove nutrients from the surface waters, CRWA and its community partners can recommend the most cost-effective practices, and even has the platform for offering pollution trading schemes. Even better is that the green infrastructure practices that they recommend come with many co-benefits such as ground water recharge, reduced flooding, more attractive communities, etc.

The other interesting twist that we’ll be seeing unfold in the Charles River watershed is the implementation of “Residual Designation Authority” which is made possible by section 402 of the Clean Water Act. EPA Region 1 will be piloting a program in a few select sites in New England, including the Charles, where they will be requiring owners of existing impermeable sites greater than two acres to retrofit the site to remove 65% of the phosphorus from the site. I’m very curious to see how this unfolds, and whether other parts of the country will adopt a similar approach.

Water Hits the Bottom Line – Corporate Reporting on Water

Let’s face it – water is a big concern for a lot of corporations. Beverage companies need it to make their product, power companies rely on for efficient cooling, energy extraction companies use it for forcing natural gas and tar sands out from bedrock, clothing manufacturers rely on water indirectly through their supply chains, and so on.

Misuse of water can bring unwanted attention and put major capital investments at risk. But corporations traditionally have not told the public at large, or more specifically their investors, the ways in which they use water or what they are doing to minimize their exposure due to business dependence on water resources.

A recent analysis of corporate reporting practices on water may start to change that. The report,“Murky Waters?: Corporate Reporting on Water Risk”, authored by Brooke Barton of Ceres, benchmarks 100 publicly traded companies from eight industrial sectors, and ranks them by the transparency of their reporting practices. The report also highlights specific practices such asIntel’s water management system that has lowered its daily water demand in Chandler, AZ by 75% over the past decade.

Her analysis of the electric power sector, which uses the majority of the water in this country, turned up some good practices as well. Pinnacle West/Arizona Public Service (APS) reports that they use treated sewage effluent for cooling rather than potable water. American Electric Power reports on site-by-site use of water.

I’m sure the Ceres report will be a major topic of conversation at next week’s conference hosted by American Business Conferences, entitled “Understanding, Measuring, and Managing Water Scarcity Risks and Footprints in the Supply Chain.” If you go, please let me know how it goes.

Getting Started

Sort of a like a dog preparing to lie down, I’ve been circling around this blog thing for some time. When it was first suggested to me, I probably gave a verbal response that reflected my spirit of adventure about the concept. However, anyone able to read the thought bubble above my head would have seen something along the lines of “Are you freakin’ crazy?” But the more I thought about it, the more I knew I needed to make it happen.

It strikes me that I have a unique vantage point here at the crossroads of environmental discourse. I can’t help but want to share some of what I hear or read, and suggestions that emerge from our meetings here.

In my role with The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, I have the opportunity to talk to some of the best minds in the country – people who are passionately working to solve the significant environmental challenges our nation faces, particularly those surrounding our freshwater resources. In 2009, my first full year as The Johnson Foundation’s Director of Environment Programs, we hosted a few hundred environmental experts, many of whom came as part of our first Environmental Forum focused on how we can get our nation to change course on managing our freshwater resources. Topics included the impact that climate change will have on freshwater, how to handle water delivery and treatment in the urban setting, how we can continue to feed our nation while managing our water resources in a sustainable fashion, the interface between water and energy generation and use, and the broad issues surrounding water’s role in U.S. public health.

The conversations, connections and meeting results have been productive, and hopefully stand on their own merit. But in order to maximize the impact of the work that takes place here atWingspread, we need to make sure the conversation doesn’t stop when participants leave us and head back to the airport. I am hoping this blog will allow us to do just that – continue the conversation, leverage the impact. Equally important, I hope that you will join this discourse and bring your ideas, discoveries, and experiences to it as well. This work is too essential, too urgent, for any of us to try to do it on our own.

So, please join me in the conversation. I have experiences to share, but I’ll also have questions, and will want to hear from you. We should be learning from the good work that is going on all over this country, and around the world, and putting it to broad use.

One of the things I hear over and over again from the smart people I encounter is that if we want to solve our environmental problems, we have to be able to move beyond the small steps of change that have characterized recent environmental work, and be open to making true transformational change happen. Soon. Let’s get going.