Water, the key to Infrastructure

OK, the UUS needs a lot of stuff. Oddly universal high-speed internet access is not even near the top. After all, there is at least a mechanism for the private sector to provide the service.

Compare that to our water infrastructure. We know the climate is changing in unpredictable ways. City growth, especially in the West is outstripping our ability to deliver water. The conventional way to deliver water is (for better or worse) through public funding.

Sure we need a lot of stuff, but resolved:

The central organizing idea behind stimulus spending ought to be improvements in water distribution, conservation and recycling.


The central organizing idea behind stimulus spending ought to be getting the economy moving in the short term - and I don’t think infrastructure spending is the way to go here. The planning and regulatory phases are so long for projects that real capital spending kicks in years down the road.

I’m in agreement about the importance of water - I’d rank it on par with transportation. But infrastructure spending ought to be considered a long term investment and not a short term economic fix.

This isn’t the Depression - we can’t take out of work stockbrokers and put them to work on labor intensive works projects. Nor should we if we could.

Is the problem out west the ability to deliver water or the available supply of water in the first place? I was just reading an article on planned water rationing in San Diego in 2009. The issue (in San Diego anyway) doesn’t seem to be a lack of pipes but rather a finite amount of water and an asinine desire among people to dump the liquid on their lawns despite not having a lot of it.

I have to agree with Mr. Moto. If you’re goal is to jumpstart the economy, projects that are ten to twenty years out aren’t going to cut it.

That said, we should be creating plans for upgrading our infrastructure and have a regular planned way to roll them in. But the next time there’s a recession, we could compress the rollout schedule in order to get an immediate jumpstart. But my reading leads me to believe there aren’t enough planned upgrades in the works of this type that we could meaningfully impact the current recession.

We should definitely be working on desalinization and water recycling. Does anyone here know what the upcoming plans are for this sort of thing?

Adding, yes I know the difference between “you’re” and “your.” I should have proofed better.

Looking over the past year’s issues of the ASCE Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, I see articles on privatization of water systems, ‘sustainability’ of urban water systems, new advances in desalinization, etc.

Desalinization is always in the news in the trade publications; it’s an ongoing research thing. The problem with it historically has been the cost of treating the water. The process is still energy-intensive, apparently.

Glancing around the 'net, I see that Texas is getting serious about building a plant.

Water recycling is already being implemented in the form of graywater recycling - used for irrigation and such - in ‘green’ buildings. It is my understanding that Australia does a lot of this, but there is significant effort in the U.S. as well.

I think the Green Building Council is doing a good job of educating the industry about the benefits of green building (which includes water recycling), especially in helping folks to understand that it is achievable.

It’ll always be energy-intensive. There is a real energy cost involved in desalinization, enforced by the laws of thermodynamics. The question is just whether it’s worth that energy cost.

The problem with the water is that they simply shouldn’t be building like they are in Arizona and Nevada. Luckily for a while, they won’t be.

The problem is that people don’t understand that this IS a problem. Water is cheap enough that people don’t even notice the increase in their bill when they start watering their lawns every day. I don’t know how or why water is so cheap, but I suspect the local governments subsidize water with tax money. If they stopped doing this and people started paying what water was really worth, we wouldn’t waste it here.

I’ve thought about this before, and I think water is so cheap because you’re not actually paying for the water, you’re paying for the pipes, the pumps, and the wells. When those are piping millions or billions of gallons, the price per gallon, or per thousand gallons, is quite low.

The price of water is regulated by local governments, isn’t it? Otherwise water would cost much more in places where it’s harder to get and make drinkable, like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and it would cost much less in places where fresh water sources are close and abundant, like the east coast. Somehow I don’t think New Yorkers are paying less per unit of water than Las Vegans though.

I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the single biggest consumer of water in the American West is agriculture, by a long shot. The ag sector is also probably the place where you can get the biggest bang for you buck out of conservation efforts - instead of convincing people one household at a time, you can go to land managers or irrigation districts and implement practices that affect huge areas of land and volumes of water. Historically, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service has done this by working with producers to develop and fund water conservation, and these projects have been continued in the last two farm bills (2002 and 2008).

On the other hand, those conservation practices don’t always have the intended result. If you save a producer 5 acre-feet of water that were previously lost to infiltration, that doesn’t return 5 acre-feet to the river; it means he can grow alfalfa instead of a crop with lower water demand. It also means that that water, which used to percolate back into the water table, doesn’t get there anymore. The end result of the whole project is a happy farmer and a drier environment.

Ultimately, the main problem is what Jophiel said: there’s just not enough water in the West to support the current populations, let alone growth. The Colorado River, for example, is fully allocated - on an annual basis, 7.5 million acre-feet go to the upper basin, 7.5 million acre-feet go to the lower basin, and 1.5 million acre-feet have to be delivered to Mexico per a treaty. Unfortunately, that allocation was based on a particularly wet year (1928, maybe?) following several consecutive wet years. Today, the Colorado River flows average between 13-14 million acre-feet/year.

That doesn’t stop development or planning based on the existing allocations, though. The shortfall can be temporarily buffered with reservoirs, but Lake Mead and Lake Powell (the two biggest reservoirs on the Colorado) are both half empty, and there’s no water on the horizon to fill them. Groundwater pumping on the scale that would be required to make up the shortfall won’t swing it, either. Groundwater and surface water aren’t really separate - if you depress the water table enough, you’ll disconnect the rivers from their base flows, and you end up with even less surface water. There are other significant potential impacts to groundwater extraction as well, including land subsidence, drying of existing wells, and impacts on endangered species habitat.

We can’t just create water. Desalinization has potential, but Chronos is right about the energy demand. The Department of Energy is funding some work in coupled energy-desalination processes, and some coastal areas have pilot scale stuff in the works. Aside from that, the reduction of consumption is really the way you have to go, either through reuse and recycling or just reduction. But the temptation is there to say, “well, we save a million gallons a day here, so we’ll use that water on this other project.” We can’t do that, because “that water” doesn’t physically exist. It’s a legal construct, it’s considered to be somebody’s property (specifically, it’s the property of the state and allocated to the holder of the water right), and it has a monetary value, but it ain’t wet.

Without attaching a cost to the use of water (rather than a one-time cost for the acquisition of water rights), there’s no realistic incentive for that kind of use reduction.

On the stimulus side of things, I don’t water infrastructure as a big job-maker. The state of the technology require research, not huge public works projects. With the way we’re managing our water now, we’re not going to create any jobs for construction or operations - we’re going to be creating work for lawyers.

How about moisture farming?

No incinerating the farmers allowed, though.

There are no taxpayer subsidies that I’m aware of (I acknowledge that it may exist in places unknown to me).

In our state, the water prices are set by the cost to produce drinkable water. Here’s how it works: The water provider (city or ‘water association’) keeps an accounting of all costs - personnel, maintenance, treatement, etc. Every few years (four or five) they check what’s been spent, and what is likely to be spent in the future. They run a cost analysis and figure out the cost per gallon. That is what they charge the customers. They have to charge what is the best estimate of the actual cost of providing the water (by state law IIRC). They are not allowed to charge more than that; they are not allowed to “give away” water.

Santo Rugger is correct; the water itself is free. If you live in the country and dig your own well, the only cost is your cost to install the well and keep the pump running.

I also think that it’s too cheap.

Each state regulates water withdrawals in its own way. In Mississippi one has to get a permit to drill a well or construct a dam; the state reviews each application and determines if the well is too close to another or in an already overburdened aquifer (or in the case of surface water, impacts to the watershed from impoundment and withdrawal). Perhaps states should begin charging for the water itself. Regulating that would present other problems, both logistic and political.

Why not? We have a whole generation of entitlement whores sucking money - if they actually had to work for a living instead of creatively scamming the world it might be a good thing… I would love to see various types of design engineers actually work a manual labor position using examples of what they are designing … I used to work in a chemical repackaging plant. The toters [plastic milk crates] to hold 61 gallon jugs of bleach had the cutesslt little holes as grips. The guys working there could manage to slide in 2 fingers in work gloves … I could slide in a whopping 3. The only way you could get all 4 fingers in was without gloves. Did I mention that a toter of bleach was 56 pounds? Can you comfortably lift 56 pounds with the weightbearing edge being just under 1 cm/just over a quarter of an inch and carry it/move it around safely? Now do this for a truck load of toters…

And how about the people with the cute little suggestions about just work an hour or two overtime a day, and pick up overtime on weekends to pay your bills. Lets see them work a physically stressful job for 8 hours, then add a couple more hours here and there, and another 8-10 hours on a weekend … add in travel time, needful chores like cooking, cleaning, lawn work, caring for kids/parents/whomever … some of us actually need to do stuff NOT at the job site, and when you are dog tired from hard work, the cooking cleaning shopping and everything get harder and harder to do. Some people actually have a second job already … or go to school, or hav special needs family members. Try juggling your responsibilities and a heavy labor job … see how much time and energy you have left.

Really, I think you should have to do some sort of factory or labor job between high school and college just to understand what getting tired for shite pay really is.

But then again, capping income for executives is not a bad idea either … and capping profitability might be interesting, force companies to actually sink money into employees in the form of health insurance and benefits instead of squeezing every penny out as profits for shareholders … It is getting to be as bad as it was pre-union sometimes. Companies want you to give 110%, have no life outside work, and be under company control every minute of the day, and get nothing but the bare minimum of money …