Is Water Service a Privilege?

A disturbing trend involving access to water is emerging in the United States. People in communities around the country are struggling to stay connected to their local water services, primarily due to large price increases. Lower-income households are being hit the hardest and unlike with other utilities, financial assistance is usually not available. This begs the question of whether access to water should be considered a moral obligation or a privilege?faucet

Certainly, in our country’s early history, access to water was far from a God given right. Early pioneers had to walk to creeks, streams or rivers to get the water they needed for daily life. Over time, technology in the form of windmills and wells and then electric pumps and wells, made getting water from the ground easier and easier. Now our country has a vast system of dams, reservoirs, canals, wells and pipes to deliver water precisely where and when it is needed.

In this modern era of seemingly abundant water, should access be limited to only those who can pay for it? Our gut reaction may be ‘no’ but our wallets may be saying something else.

There are several reasons for the substantial increase in water service costs. In December 2017, Michigan State University (MSU) published research concluding the main reasons behind rising water rates include aging infrastructure, shrinking populations in urban areas and climate change.

Other factors contributing to burgeoning water prices are mentioned in a 2017 Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) study. This study discusses the need to recover costs due to declining demand (often a result of conservation programs) as well as rising operations and maintenance costs, all of which contribute to higher rates.

A loss of government funding hasn’t helped the situation. As noted in a University of Pennsylvania online article, Congress switched from offering grants which covered up to 75% of water infrastructure, to offering loans. This change means that local communities are now fully responsible for their water projects and are expected to repay the loans. Due to all these issues, cities and towns have raised rates to cover costs.

Exactly how to handle increasing service costs is a compelling conundrum. In 2016, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) highlighted the growing problem of water unaffordability in the United States. The UUSC report notes the “cost of household water services has risen 40% from 2010 to 2015” in some major U.S. cities.  Couple this with MSU research projections estimating  that “the number of U.S. households unable to afford water could triple in five years, to nearly 36 percent” and you can quickly see the significance of the problem.

Rising rates combined with inflation have crippled lower-income households. The UUSC report notes that in “some communities’ water and sanitation services command 4–19% of monthly household income, well beyond what could be considered affordable” for people in the lowest 20% income bracket. Internationally, its agreed that expenses for water and sewer services should not exceed between 2-5% of household income.

As troubling as all this data is, the crux of the problem may lie in the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poor in this country. As reported in a March 22, 2016 Circle of Blue online article, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the U.S. Census Bureau has data showing the income of the top 5% of American households increased 60% between 1980 and 2014 while the bottom 10% had incomes that fell over the same period.

As the old saying goes, “the poor get poorer and the rich get richer” and now there’s data to prove it.

 

The Price of Comfort

It may surprise some Americans to know that within our thriving, capitalist culture there is a growing segment of people living in third world conditions, with limited access to water and proper sanitation. What is not surprising is most of these people live in or on the edge of poverty. In an era of large corporate tax cuts and the slashing of social welfare programs, what will become of people without access to services most of us consider essential?

The prognoses for their return to normalcy looks bleak. Researchers at Michigan State University are projecting “the number of U.S. households unable to afford water could triple in five years, to nearly 36 percent”. The study concluded there are three main factors behind rising water rates: aging infrastructure, shrinking populations in urban areas and climate change.

Population trends show wealthier citizens moving out of inner cities and into the suburbs, leaving lower income residents to fend off the costs of large, aging infrastructures. Detroit is a perfect example of this type of mass exodus of wealth out of large cities.

In a March 22, 2016 online article, Circle of Blue reporter Brett Walton describes how after World War II, Detroit was the wealthiest city in America with a population of 1.8 million people, 80% of whom were white. Now its population is 680,000 (less than half of its peak) and 80% black with 40% percent of them living below the poverty level. Walton states “Those remaining have inherited the legacy costs of a city built for an absent 1 million people.”

Detroit is not the only city facing an uphill water pricing battle. A December 13, 2017 Circle of Blue online report featured a similar story for Philadelphia. The piece notes how the Philadelphia Water Department has about 86,000 household accounts, but one in five accounts have had their water shut off at least once over the last 5 years largely because of overdue bills. The culprit here is not only lack of money but also local policy.

The problems of aging infrastructure are well known among the utilities sector. This issue has been highlighted over the past several years in various technical media. The 2012 American Water Works Association (AWWA) report “Buried No Longer – Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge” revealed that “restoring existing water systems and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years.”

In a 2016 American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) report, every American household is projected to lose $3,400 annually between 2016 and 2025 because of deteriorating infrastructure. Furthermore, the 2016 ASCE report contends the economic impact of America’s infrastructure issues could cost 2.5 million jobs by 2025 and up to 5.8 million jobs by 2040 if appropriate investments are not made.  Clearly, the time to act is now.

In addition to aging infrastructure and shrinking urban populations, climate change has been implicated in future water pricing trends. Scientists are increasingly finding evidence directly linking extreme weather events to human-caused climate change, suggesting that observed trends are likely to continue.

This is startling when you consider The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a compilation of “U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather & Climate Disasters 1980-2017”. In the report they detail 218 weather and climate disasters that have occurred since 1980 in which overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. As we have seen again this past year with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, these large weather events are becoming more common. If this trend continues, we have to ask how much more can our economy take?

If our overall economy is at risk, what chance do our poorest citizens have of maintaining basic services? There must be a better way.

Recent Water Worries

A good mystery always entails intriguing circumstances and a circuitous pathway to its solution.  Whether it’s a deceptive villain intent on causing mayhem for the masses or a calculating killer, focusing single mindedly on his next victim, the goal is always the same – stay undetected and strike again.  This same objective may be true for a new genre of mysteries involving water borne illnesses. The solution, however, may not be as “elementary” as Sherlock implied.

Getting sick from ingesting or being in contact with contaminated water is nothing new. Nasty illnesses such as dysentery, cholera, botulism, and many others, have probably been impacting people since they first began gathering around the communal watering hole.

Historical records reveal water contamination problems have been around for centuries and offer basic solutions for dealing with them. Sometimes it was boiling water and other times it was replacing water with other beverages. For example, European sailor’s in the 1700’s were known to brew a beer with a higher alcohol and hops content, which acted like a preservative, for their long journeys to India.  It was referred to as India Pale Ale and has recently made quite a come-back in the burgeoning micro-brewery market.

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that water treatment practices starting to take hold in the United States. Water experts figured out a combination of filtration and disinfection, typically by chlorination, would keep water sources safe for consumption. While this simple, yet effective, treatment technology has prevented countless outbreaks of water-borne illnesses over the last century, it may have met its match.

Strains of bacteria and protozoa are being found that are resistant to chlorination, making them extremely difficult to kill. Worse yet, only a small number of these germs are required to cause an illness. One parasite of concern is cryptosporidium; a protozoan originating from human and animal feces as well as seasonal run-off. “Crypto” is known to stick on water filter membranes and even high doses of chlorine have difficulty terminating this culprit.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently announced there were twice as many crypto outbreaks in 2016 as there were in 2014. States hardest hit on 2016 were Alabama, Arizona and Ohio.  Specifically, the CDC website reported “Arizona identified 352 people sick with Crypto for July–October 2016, compared with no more than 62 cases for any one year in 2011–2015. Ohio identified 1,940 people sick with Crypto in 2016, compared with no more than 571 cases for any one year in 2012–2015.”  The mystery here is whether the increase in outbreaks is due to increased reporting, better detection or simply more cases occurring.

Another perpetrator guilty of recidivism is the bacteria Legionella. Different species of this bug are responsible for Pontiac Fever and the more well-known Legionaries’ Disease.  According to a June 6, 2016 Washington Post web article, Legionnaire’s outbreaks have quadrupled over the last 15 years. Recent large outbreaks occurred in Flint, Michigan and New York City.

Unfortunately, the health impacts of Legionella are more serious than Cryptosporidium. Crypto can cause nausea, stomach cramps and diarrhea for up to three weeks but Legionella can kill.  Medical treatment costs are high. CDC Director Tom Frieden has stated “The annual cost of treating Legionnaires’ disease, based on hospital claims, is about $434 million…”

The mystery to be solved with Legionella is how to detect it before an outbreak occurs. Legionella can be eliminated with proper water treatment but often it goes undetected until it’s too late.  It can build up in older plumbing infrastructures and strike when people breathe in small droplets of water containing the bacteria.

Legionella is a more challenging culprit to arrest. It’s costly to replace antiquated water infrastructure and It’s not easy to check closed-systems for bacterial contamination. Still, the CDC recommends proper maintenance of building water systems as the key to prevention.

But for now, that key may have fallen into the wrong hands…

Arizona Water Pioneers – Carl Hayden

Few people might equate silence with power but that’s just the sort of paradox that defined Carl Hayden. Known as the “Silent Senator”, on the occasions when Hayden spoke before Congress, it was always with brevity and impact. What little Hayden said usually spoke volumes to his colleagues. He was known as a man of “sterling character” and his solid reputation and modesty helped usher in an era of water projects which would tame the West. He will especially be remembered as a persistent, driving force behind the massive Central Arizona Project (CAP), which ultimately helped Arizona acquire the water resources needed to become the burgeoning state it is today.

Hayden had a natural understanding of the importance of water in the West. He knew early on that the West’s greatest challenge with water was there was either too little or too much. As a child he experienced the great flood of 1891; one of the largest floods known to hit the Phoenix area.  This flood was devastating to the frontier town which was cut it off from communication with the outside world for three months. Farms, homes, bridges and more were wiped out. Families were displaced and several people were killed by the raging torrent. Locals began to clamor more fervently for controlled sources of water.  Hayden saw the destruction first hand which provided him with valuable insight on Western water issues.

In addition to his understanding of water issues, Hayden also had the benefit of political longevity. He was so well regarded by the citizens of Arizona that his political career spanned an impressive sixty-seven years. He began his calling at the local level, serving in a number of local and county positions within territorial Arizona. When Arizona became a state in 1912, he was elected to the House of Representatives for seven terms.  He then became a U.S. Senator in 1926 and remained there until he retired in 1969.

His support for consistent and reliable water resources in Arizona began with one of the first federal reclamation projects – the Salt River Project. The purpose of the newly founded Reclamation Service was to “reclaim” arid lands by providing a regular source of water for irrigation. At the time, the federal government believed that irrigation was at the heart of making land hospitable enough for settlers to move west. Without a reliable source of water, it was very tough for early pioneers to make a living.

Hayden was also successful in getting an engineering study completed for his Gila River constituents who wanted piece of the reclamation service pie. This ultimately led to the construction of the Coolidge Dam on the Gila River and the San Carlos Irrigation District.

In the 1970s, he wrote and secured passage of a provision which allowed local water-user associations to ultimately take over the maintenance and operations of federal reclamation projects. This seemed to make life easier for the locals as well as the feds.

His ultimate water resource accomplishment would culminate when the Central Arizona Project was finally authorized through the Colorado River Basin Project Act in 1968. He carried forward a collective vision from the 1920s for a centrally located Arizona water project but was unable to overcome continued resistance by various factions and special interests both inside and outside of the state.

The history of the Colorado River water allocations are far too complex to express in a couple of paragraphs. Suffice it is to say that it took decades of committees, meetings, negotiations and eventually multiple Supreme Court cases to work though some of the water rights issues pertaining to the Colorado River.

The finalized Central Arizona Project would provide much needed water for the rapidly growing state.  The CAP is now one of the nation’s largest and most expansive water resource projects. It flows an impressive 336 miles from the Colorado River’s entry point at Lake Havasu and ends about 14 miles south of Tucson. Its flow provides water to more than 5 million people.

Hayden’s support for western water projects also extended outside his home state of Arizona.  Hayden supported Oregon with the Bonneville Lock and Dam and other water projects seeking to control the Columbia Rivers.  He also backed some projects in California, Arizona’s water nemesis, mainly because he saw the greater good that could come from such an approach. He helped secure federal funding for northern California’s Central Valley Project and supported southern California’s Metropolitan Water District.

Bruce Babbitt, former U.S.  Secretary of the Interior and former Governor of Arizona may have summarized Hayden’s career contributions the best when he stated: “Westerners living in the modern era and those of future generations would always be indebted to Hayden for his help in bringing life-giving water to arid lands and the countless benefits that flow from multiple-use developments of the river resources of the western United States.”*

 

* Babbitt quote from the Introduction to “Vision in the Desert – Carl Hayden and Hydropolitics in the American Southwest” by Jack August, Jr.; page 2.

Bibliography:

August, Jack L. Jr. “Vision in the Desert – Carl Hayden and Hydropolitics in the American Southwest”. Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, 1999.

History of Central Arizona Project, Central Arizona Project website. http://www.cap-az.com/about-us/history. Accessed 5-March 2017.

Hundley, Norris Jr.  “Water and the West – The Colorado River Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West.” University of California Press, Berkley, 1975.

Powell, James Lawrence. “Dead Pool – Lake Powell, global Warming and the Future of Water in the West”. University of California Press. Berkley, 2008.

“With a Crash – Fell Many Adobe Homes Last Night”, Arizona Republican, 20 February 1891, pp. 1, 4.

Arizona Water Pioneers – William Beardsley

beardsleys-crop
William Beardsley (left) and his son Robert Beardsley, around 1920. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, HAER ARIZ, 7 -PHEN.V, 5.8)

Like a late-blooming teenager, 19th century Arizona was still trying to define itself.  Soldiers, miners and rugged pioneers gradually made their way to Arizona to begin life anew in a challenging landscape. These early pioneers quickly realized water was both the key to their survival as well as a powerful force to reckon with. Water, in the Arizona territory, was a double edged sword – there was either too much or too little.

By the late 1800’s, entrepreneurs and visionaries realized Arizona needed consistent, reliable and controlled sources of water to kick-start its growth. In their mind, the best way to meet this goal was by damming rivers and building canals to deliver water where it was needed. Tens of thousands of men were involved in engineering and building dams and canals from one end of the state to the other. One man, unknown to many current Arizonans, devoted a large part of his life to ensuring central Arizona would have the water it needed.  This man was William Beardsley.

What was notable about Beardsley was the fortitude with which he pursued his mission of building a dam and canals to store and divert water.  He would endure a series of setbacks over a 40+ year period that would culminate in a controversial, multiple-arch dam harnessing the Aqua Fria River. Such long term persistence and commitment is a rarely seen among men in any age.

Beardsley was part of a group of “speculative businessmen” who banded together to privately develop the Aqua Fria River. They wanted to harness the river by building a reservoir, diversion dam and series of distribution canals. Work on the diversion dam and canals began in 1892 but stopped 3 years later due to lack of funds. To make matters worse, in the fall of 1895 a flood tore away the west side of the preliminary dam. Things looked bleak. Beardsley was unable to raise money and legal complaints from unpaid contractors forced him into bankruptcy.

The story could have ended here but in a fairy-tale twist, a group of Beardsley’s associates from Ohio took possession of the assets and deeded them back to him so he could continue work on the project. For years he tried to restart the endeavor but the project remained stalled.

As 1902 approached, he started to run into issues with the federal government, specifically with the Department of Interior and the newly found Reclamation Service (now called the Bureau of Reclamation) who was the 800-pound gorilla in Arizona’s water world. Technicalities with surveys and public lands would hold the project up for another 17 years.

Finally in 1919, construction began on a multiple-arch dam designed by engineer Carl Pleasant. This style of dam was selected due to its strength and economy to build. William Beardsley died in 1925 and his son Robert would ultimately finish the project. The dam would be named the Carl Pleasant Dam in 1926 and then renamed the Waddell Dam in 1964 after an investor from New York.

More issues would follow the construction of the dam. Cracks appeared in the buttresses of the dam and much controversy loomed over its safety.  Several engineers poured over plans and reviewed the integrity of the dam. None seemed to agree on the significance of the cracks. Ultimately, modifications were made to ensure the dam’s safety. The required upgrades were completed in 1936.

Historically this dam was unique because it was the only Salt River Valley water storage project successfully completed by a private interest. All the other central Arizona water storage schemes were developed with federal government assistance.  It was also the world’s tallest multiple-arch dam; quite an accomplishment for a private outfit.

Today the project is known as the Maricopa Water District (MWD) which provides power and water service to 60 square mile area west of Phoenix. The new Waddell Dam (built in 1994 and successor to the original Waddell Dam) and resulting Lake Pleasant hold 157,600 acre-feet of water. Water is feed through the 33 mile Beardsley canal and diverted for use through a series of laterals and sub-lateral piping. This lateral piping system is almost 100 miles long. The MWD also has an “interconnect” with the Central Arizona Project (CAP) for collaborative use of the regions water.

What started out as a construction project with his brother George, turned into a multi-generational water business with his son, Robert. Thanks to the fortitude and sheer determination of William Beardsley, the Phoenix area will have water and power for generations to come as well as a beautiful lake for recreation.

Beardsley family – Arizona thanks you!

Bibliography:

  1. Waddell Dam (Pleasant Dam). “Photographs – Written Historical and Descriptive Data”, Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, Western Region, Department of the Interior, San Francisco, California, HAER-ARIZ-7-PHEN.V.5.
  2. Giordano, Gerald. “Images of America – Lake Pleasant”. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2009.

Sushi, Seaweed and Sewage

Ah, the delectable taste of sushi. Depending upon on the type of sushi you choose, those tidbits of tastiness embraced in a dark green “nori” wrap are actually encased in seaweed. “Seaweed?” you say. Yes. Seaweed.

Nori is the Japanese name for edible seaweed species of the algae genus Porphyra. While this algae has been a delightful addition to cuisine for centuries, other forms of algae are being put to use in industrial applications ranging from biofuels to wastewater.

algaewheel-closeup
Algaewheel image used with permission.

Arizona can pride itself on being on the cutting edge of algae biofuel research. In the Fall 2014 issue of Arizona Water Resource, The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Water Resources Research Center (say that three times, fast), reported on two algae testbed projects being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. The goal of this research is to promote advances in algal technology while being sensitive to the emerging technology’s water footprint.

Essentially what researchers are trying to do is figure out the best conditions to produce a large quantity of algae-based biofuel with minimal water usage. Algae’s high lipid content and the fact it is a renewable resource are two reasons it is suitable as a biofuel.  Currently “estimates for water use range from 3 gallons of water per gallon of algal biofuel to a thousand times that quantity.” With such a disparity, clearly more research needs to be done to minimize water use while maximizing biofuel production. Still, as oil supplies continue to dwindle, we can remain hopeful that algae may become a potential alternative renewable source of fuel.

Another promising algal innovation is from an Indianapolis based company called OneWater. They have developed a small scale waste water treatment system called the “Algaewheel” which was awarded the 2015 Water Environment Federation (WEF) Innovative Technology Award.

Typical waste water treatment systems use a mixture of microorganisms called “activated sludge” to breakdown waste products using a series of aeration tanks, clarifiers, filters and digesters. Most treatment plants are large scale and serve an entire community. They are expensive to build and operate and are usually located on the outskirts of town to reduce the nuisance conditions of odor and noise,

The Algaewheel system is remarkably simple. True to its name, it is essentially a series of rotating wheels coated with a biofilm of algae. OneW
ater’s company website describes the process saying “Algae grow on rotating wheels, using light, CO2 and nutrients. Algae produce oxygen, consume carbon-dioxide, and generate polysaccharides (sugars). Bacteria consume the oxygen and sugars and produce carbon dioxide – completing the cycle.”

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) retrofitted their seasonal waste treatment plant at Summit Lake State Park with an Algaewheel system with very good results. Commonwealth Engineers, the consulting engineers for the IDNR Summit Lake project, noted seasonal waste treatment systems have special challenges because the variability in flow rate and load can make it difficult for small treatment systems to meet permitted effluent levels.

Commonwealth Engineers has been pleased with the results at Summit Lake State Park. Their website mentions several benefits the Algaewheel waste water system offers.  Specifically, “it is modest in cost, easy to operate and maintain, readily meets effluent standards even with high variability in flows / loadings, and is operated at a fraction of the electrical costs required by competing “activated sludge” package plant facilities.”

So next time you’re out for sushi, remember that algae isn’t just for lunch anymore.

– Sandra Hurlbut

*I wrote this article in the Fall of 2015 for the Southern Arizona Contractors Association.

East Meets West

Living in the arid west, most of us are keenly aware of how precious water is.  Just being outdoors in the sun for a bit is subtle incentive to drink water to quench our thirst. Most of us don’t leave home without a bottle of water in our car, purse or backpack. It’s just natural to bring water with us.

This hasn’t always been the case in eastern states. Certainly when I was growing up in the northeast, we never carried bottled water with us. In fact, I don’t even remember bottled water being available as a child. Water was always close by so why would anyone buy it?

The convenience and easy accessibility of water in the east has dramatically changed. Incidents of contamination, crumbling infrastructure and unexpected drought have left many eastern locales scrambling for solutions to an uncommon problem – how to provide potable water of sufficient quality and quantity under stressful conditions?

Who can forget the water crisis of Flint Michigan this past year? What started out as an attempt by officials of an impoverished city to find a cheaper source of water turned into one of the greatest public health crises in decades.

In spite of Flint’s overt oversight, a more insidious threat may be the crumbling infrastructure of our aging cities.  While Arizona may have just celebrated its centennial, many eastern cities are hundreds of years old. It’s hard to imagine Boston was founded in 1630 – almost 400 years ago!

Many aging cities are cash strapped and infrastructure repairs only occur during some kind of local crisis; broken water mains being an almost common occurrence. Circle of Blue Water News reported in a 2012 article entitled ‘America’s Water Infrastructure Shows its Age’ that “hundreds of billions of dollars are needed for renovation and improvement.”

Fortunately, the legislature may be finally listening. On September 19, 2016, the Senate passed the “Water Resources Development Act” which would authorize $10.6 billion to conduct feasibility studies for 30 large projects, provide money for sewer overflows and lead pipe removal (in Flint and other cities), create a water loan program called WIFIA, restore Lake Tahoe and the Great Lakes and other measures. The Bill still needs to pass the House which may have its own, less costly version. Re-negotiations are likely and the legislature will need to act quickly to enact this law since there are only a few weeks left before the election.

While the House and Senate have been hammering out Bills to combat infrastructure problems another, unforeseen dilemma occurred for many eastern towns and cities over this summer – drought!  Reports of widespread drought in northeastern and southeastern states were rampant. Especially hard hit areas included New England and Georgia.

Online news source WXShift (Weather Shift) recently reported “Three months ago, only 8 percent of the Northeast was in a moderate drought. That number has swelled to 39 percent in the most recent Drought Monitor, released on Thursday (September 22, 2016)”.  (See U.S. Drought Monitor at www.droughtmonitor.unl.edu).

To put that in perspective, Boston received only 38% of its typical rainfall from June through August; 3.92 inches. (By comparison, Sierra Vista logged 4.86 inches of rainfall from June 15 – July 15, according to University of Arizona CLIMAS Monsoon Summary data.) The situation has become so urgent that the Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton started to ramp up water conservation efforts, calling for the elimination of outdoor watering by residents and businesses around the state to avoid stressing drinking water reservoirs.

Similar concerns were reported by various local news agencies in Ohio, upstate New York, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey and others. Areas once accustomed to dependable water are being forced to consider alternative measures to keep water supplies flowing to customers. Is this just a foreshadowing of things to come? It depends upon who you talk to.

As scientists continue to accumulate data showing rising tides, record high heat, rapid melting of polar ice, and significant changes in precipitation patterns,  one has to wonder if the oft used slogan attributed to water in the West, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting for” may soon be relevant to the East.

-Sandra Hurlbut