Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum


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Reaching A New Low

The Associated Press reports that water levels in Lake Mead in Nevada have dropped to the lowest level since it was originally filled in the 1930s,  leaving Las Vegas facing existential threats unless something is done. Las Vegas and its 2 million residents and 40 million tourists a year get almost all their drinking water from the Lake and at levels below 1075ft (the level is currently several inches below that mark), the Interior Department will be forced to declare a “shortage,” which will lead to significant cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada.

The lake is now approximately 37% of capacity and features a distinctive white mineral bathtub ring that demonstrates the 130 feet in surface level that has been lost since the turn of the century.

From USA Today:

The downward march of the reservoir near Las Vegas reflects enormous strains on the over-allocated Colorado River. Its flows have decreased during 16 years of drought, and climate change is adding to the stresses on the river

As the levels of Lake Mead continue to fall, the odds are increasing for the federal government to declare a shortage in 2018, a step that would trigger cutbacks in the amounts flowing from the reservoir to Arizona and Nevada. With that threshold looming, political pressures are building for California, Arizona and Nevada to reach an agreement to share in the cutbacks in order to avert an even more severe shortage.

As population growth and heavy demand for water collide with hotter temperatures and reduced snowpack in the future, there will be an even greater mismatch between supply and demand, said Kelly Sanders, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in water and energy issues.

“The question becomes how to resolve this mismatch across states that all depend on the river to support their economic growth,” Sanders said. She expects incentives and markets to help ease some of the strains on water supplies, “but it is going to be tricky to make the math work in the long term.”


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Using Sex To Sell Water Conservation

From the Huffington Post:

It’s been said that sex sells when it comes to everything from cars to clothes, but can it actually change consumer behavior when it comes to something as, well, unsexy as water conservation?

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission seems to think so. The commission announced earlier month that it will extend an unusual water conservation campaign, which it says was responsible for helping the city’s residents surpass usage-reduction goals in the drought-plagued state, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The campaign features a number of racy, double entendre-laden messages such as “Go full frontal,” “quick and easy” and “Short and steamy,” in an ad blitz that includes ads on billboards, buses and social media, plus television spots such as the clip below. The city is spending $300,000 on the latest campaign.

This campaign worked,” Tyrone Jue, SFPUC communications director, told KPIX, CBS’ San Francisco affiliate. “We want to use the same provocative theme to get people involved and engaged again.”

As San Francisco has the lowest rate of water usage in the state of California, it appears many have gotten on board with the commission’s message.

Others across the nation say they would, too. A majority of respondents to a recent national Reuters/Ipsos poll agreed that they would support rules limiting the use of water to wash their vehicles and water lawns if they lived in a state experiencing drought conditions like what California and other states in the Western U.S. are currently enduring. 

In April, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called for the state’s urban areas to cut their water consumption by 25 percent. Gov. Brown has further proposed fines of up to $10,000 per day for the worst-offending water-wasters. 

Still, others have resisted the call to conserve. As the Washington Post reported Saturday, some wealthy residents of the state have been pushing back, with one Rancho Santa Fe resident telling the paper, “No, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”


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Stealing Water

It was bound to come to this as the drought in California lingers.  Individuals and/or groups have started stealing water.  From Accuweather:

With the state of California mired in its fourth year of drought and a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water usage in place, reports of water theft have become common.

In April, The Associated Press reported that huge amounts of water went missing from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a state investigation was launched. The delta is a vital body of water, serving 23 million Californians as well as millions of farm acres, according to the Association for California Water Agencies.

The AP reported in February that a number of homeowners in Modesto, California, were fined $1,500 for allegedly taking water from a canal. In another instance, thieves in the town of North San Juan stole hundreds of gallons of water from a fire department tank.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 46 percent of California is under exceptional drought conditions, the most intense measurement of drought according to the monitor. The drought is forecast to worsen this summer.

In Madera County, District Attorney David Linn has instituted a water crime task force to combat the growing trend of water theft occurring throughout the state and to protect rightful property owners from having their valuable water stolen.

Jennifer Allen, spokesperson for the Contra Costa Water District in Concord, about 45 minutes from San Francisco, said it’s not uncommon for her agency to receive reports of water theft, but as the drought has continued, she said there has been an uptick in reports.

With the drought showing no signs of letting up, California continues to formulate new strategies to preserve as much water as possible. On May 5, the California State Water Resources Control Board adopted an emergency regulation that calls for a 25 percent reduction in overall potable urban water use in accordance with the governor’s order.


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Lake Mead at Record Low Levels

We have posted several stories on what is happening to Lake Mead and the impact it will have on Las Vegas, Arizona and Southern California.  This is a recent update on the water level and what another 5 foot drop will mean.  From Brookings:

This week, the water level in Lake Mead dropped to an all-time low, falling below 1080 feet above sea level for the first time in 78 years. As drought continues to afflict the American West, the dire situation at Lake Mead will continue to have consequences for states like Arizona, California, and Nevada  that draw their water supply from Lake Mead.

In a new video Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Pat Mulroy, who served as general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) when one of the worst droughts in the history of the Colorado River hit the region, predicts the current crisis at Lake Mead and why it is a problem.  

 


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California Drinks to It: Toilet-to-Tap Becomes a “Thing”

We have posted about “toilet-to-tap”  initiatives in several cities in Texas in the past.  Now, California, is expanding their embrace of the technology.  From CNBC:

As the California drought worsens, some communities such as Orange County, San Diego and the Silicon Valley are expanding water recycling programs, and support for “toilet to tap” programs appears to be growing from a once-squeamish public.

 The Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center, located in San Jose, began operations last year and produces up to 8 million gallons per day of purified water from wastewater. The facility was built at a cost of $72 million in a partnership between the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) and the city of San Jose. The facility treats wastewater that would otherwise go into the San Francisco Bay for use as reclaimed water in irrigation, construction and industrial uses. They eventually hope to use some of the purified water to refill groundwater sources.

The Santa Clara County facility gets wastewater from the cities of San Jose and Santa Clara, and the goal had been to expand the recycled water to make up at least 10 percent of total county water demand by 2025. But due to the 4-year-old drought, the water agency is pushing its goals further: It’s pursuing plans to expedite that goal by three years—to reach the 10 percent number by 2022—and partnering with other cities in the county to purity their water.

Meanwhile, the Orange County Water District (OCWD) is undergoing an expansion of its own at the water agency’s high-tech Groundwater Replenishment System in Fountain Valley, California. The $481 million plant has been operational since 2008 and currently processes about 70 million gallons of treated sewage wastewater each day into drinking-quality water that goes into groundwater basins for later reuse as potable water. OCWD, which serves more than 2.4 million people, is spending $142 million to increase capacity at the facility to approximately 100 million gallons per day, or enough water for 850,000 residents.

“Recycled water is a huge benefit,” said OCWD General Manager Michael Markus. “We can produce the water for about half the energy it takes to import water from Northern California and about a third of the energy it takes to desalinate sea water.”

Orange County’s plant, for example, can produce recycled water for about $480 an acre-foot—well below the estimated $2,000 per acre-foot a new desalination plant in nearby San Diego County will be paying for new water. Similarly, the recycled water runs about half the roughly $1,000 per acre-foot price of water from the Metropolitan Water District, the giant water wholesaler for Southern California, which on Tuesday announced a 15 percent reduction in the amount of water it will supply to its 26 member agencies.

Purified wastewater could provide enough potable water to supply all municipal needs for more than 8 million people, or roughly one-fifth of California’s projected population for 2020, according to a report released last year and sponsored by the WateReuse Association, an organization supported by water utilities and companies that promote water reuse. The report also pointed out that NASA and the International Space Station already use a technology that produces potable water for six crew members from a combination of condensation and collected urine.

In 2014, two Texas towns launched the nation’s first direct-to-potable reuse water programs. Wichita Falls and Big Spring, about 230 miles apart, treat wastewater with a multistep cleaning process and then send the purified water directly to homes. The last U.S. Drought Monitor data shows 49 percent of Texas suffering from some level of drought.

San Diego is targeting an initial 15 million gallon per day water purification facility to be in operation by 2023—and there’s a longer-term goal of producing up to 83 million gallons of purified water by 2035, or enough to supply one-third of the city’s future drinking water supply. San Diego conducted a four-year demonstration project starting in 2009 and found it could produce water that met all federal and state drinking water standards.


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Lake Mead Has Resumed Shrinking

We have highlighted in the past the frightening reality of Las Vegas’ dependence on water from Lake Mead, not to mention the reliance of much of Arizona and the city of Los Angeles.  As the lake lost volume during the Summer of 2014, alarm bells started going off regarding the epic decline in the elevation of the lake.

While the lake gained approximately 7 feet of elevation from mid-November to  mid-January, that has all been given back as of this week.  For context, the lake went from 1082 feet in elevation to 1089 feet.  A “full pool”, meaning the optimal elevation, is 1220 feet.  The all-time highest elevation was 1226 feet and the all-time lowest was 1080 feet.

So, as we near the beginning of Summer 2015, Lake Mead is only two feet above the all-time low reading.

Bathing may become just one more extravagance for those visiting Vegas.

Lake Mead Water Levels


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It’s Time to Focus on “Local Water”

Beyond the need to invest significant capital in municipal water infrastructure improvement projects, towns both big and small can contribute to their water well-being by embracing the concept of local water outlined by Brian Young, Sustainable Infrastructure product manager at Autodesk,  in this recent article featured in the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In a world increasingly dry or flooded – depending on the circumstances –, city leaders and infrastructure experts are quick to advocate mega-projects to tap, convey or treat our most precious of natural resources: water.

California spends 5% of its electricity just conveying and treating water, and is in the midst of building a US$1bn desalination plant. China’s South-North Water Diversion Project plans to reroute enough water each year to submerge the United Kingdom 18 cm deep, over a distance between London and Barcelona.

Yet these Herculean efforts – both in terms of cost and engineering – fail to acknowledge a basic efficiency principle: use water where it falls. “Local water”, which exists even in arid regions, provides more benefit than adding new mega-projects, in three major ways:

Financially: Desalinating water can cost twice as much as recycling and four times as much as conservation. Furthermore, desalination plants become stranded assets once the rains return.

In contrast, local sources of water – the under-tapped streams of stormwater, wastewater, leaks, and conservation – can shrink the supply and demand gap at a fraction of the cost of desalination. In fact, a study last year found that simple conservation, reuse, and stormwater capture could save as much water every year as all of California’s cities require annually.

The city of Philadelphia is using code to convert stormwater into a resource, requiring developers to install green infrastructure like rain gardens and cisterns to capture rainfall that once drained away. Melbourne uses leak detection and metering technologies to reduce their water losses, which in some cities reach 40%. Parts of Virginia and California opted to recycle wastewater for use in irrigation and cooling, rather than create more water demand. These local alternatives enable cities to find more water without placing all their chips on one big bet that may become a very expensive matter.

Environmentally: Capturing rainfall, reusing wastewater and plugging leaks reintroduces lost water back into the system, offsetting the need to draw water from fragile ecosystems or convey it from other regions. And recycling it requires less than half the energy of desalinating saltwater.

Capturing and reusing water also keeps runoff and sewage overflows from contaminating nearby rivers and oceans, one of the leading causes of surface water pollution, while also acting as air and heat “filters”. Even in a place as arid as Arizona, a government study recently found that “green infrastructure” to capture and retain stormwater would generate a significant return on investment by reducing heat stress mortality and air pollution.

Socially: The “buy local” food movement (food production and distribution that is geographically localised, rather than national or international) educates shoppers as to where their food comes from, leading them to value it more. Governments and water utilities have done a good job of making water infrastructure invisible (i.e. below ground or behind walls), so much so that consumers don’t use water wisely, nor do they see the need to pay for infrastructure upgrades.

This wasteful type of behaviour is starkly different from communities that rely upon wells or stormwater, where water is considered precious. Local and visible solutions around rainwater capture, water recycling and conservation will help consumers appreciate the value of water more, and create a virtuous circle in their willingness to pay to protect it.

Cities aiming to solve their water scarcity problems should begin their search within their own municipal boundaries. With today’s technologies, water that was once lost to leaks, discharges, and wasteful use can now be found. And unlike the freshwater sources from afar, this rediscovered “local” water carries lasting financial, environmental, and social benefit.