Safe Water: A NOLA Ghost Story

Petra writes*

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and the subsequent lack of response and aid reverberated across the United States. The lack of communication, funding and support that New Orleans residents received during the disaster has persisted for the past 15 years and the city’s water scarcity issues have not been exempt. Given the city’s historic vulnerability to natural disasters, one would assume that transparency, communication and active aid services would be of the utmost priority to federal and local regulators. Unfortunately, even non-residents can see this is not the case. NOLA’s water management is characterized by contradiction and ambiguity. Accessible resources are scarce. Information that is available is unclear and potentially dangerously misleading.

First, let us assess the regulations. The Sewage and Water Board is the regulator for drinking and wastewater in the Greater New Orleans area. The standards for water quality and plant conditions are set and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has claimed that the city’s water quality exceeded standards, but failed to specify the details and results of the testing that did take place. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit that runs water quality testing nationwide, showed that the Carrollton Plant has tested positive for 28 contaminants, 8 of which drastically exceed the EWG’s health guidelines and include substances like Chloroform, Radium, Nitrate and Nitrite, all of which are carcinogenic. The New Orleans Algiers plant showed similar results with 24 total contaminants, 10 of which exceeded health guidelines. EWG’s website also states that both the water plants have passed the legal requirements for water quality but those legal requirements have not been updated in 20 years.

The next issue concerns the regulators. A recent interview with Buzzfeed News exposed some of these concerns. Four senior water board employees showed that they did not know how many lead service lines existed in the city or where they were, nor were there any valid records of high risk houses or lead lines. The EPA requires the city to test at least 80 homes with lead piping every three years but the aforementioned article revealed that former water board chief and employees tested the lead in their houses and those of their friends as opposed to the high risk houses they were supposed to test. Louisiana State University’s School of Public Health found higher lead levels than those published by the board: 96% of 1,604 samples had detectable lead (see figure).

The Sewage and Water Board has a seemingly never ending flow of reassuring remarks for its residents that water infrastructure is in top shape. Local journalists, however, report frequent water main breaks [link available to US-based internet users]; boil water advisory notices are regularly posted [link available to US-based internet users]; and the 106 year old Carrollton plant, responsible for almost all the city’s drinking water, recently suffered a major turbine explosion with no follow up from the regulator.

Bottom Line: The lack of service, transparency and honesty that the Sewage and Water Board have displayed is putting the lives of New Orleans residents and the city’s future in danger.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Miami’s rising water scarcity problem

Ilse writes*

Many cities around the world are facing water scarcity, and so is Miami. Although Miami may seem to have abundant water, it’s mostly salty Atlantic Ocean water. Miami actually gets its drinking water from groundwater aquifers. The Biscayne Aquifer provides 90% of the drinking water to Miami and surrounding areas.

Miami’s water scarcity is not due to overconsumption but environmental pollution. The Biscayne Aquifer is shallow and composed of very porous limestone, making it vulnerable to saltwater contamination from rising sea levels. The city’s water treatment plants cannot now desalinate water, and desalination is expensive, energy-intensive, and environmentally harmful.

Miami’s freshwater is also vulnerable to increasing rainfall and floods. Heavy rainfall has increased 7% since 1960, contributing to more and heavier floods that damage homes and roads but also carry toxins and pollutants from Superfund sites (contaminated locations in the USA that need long-term clean-ups) into the Biscayne Aquifer. Water treatment plants of limited capacities cannot handle heavy flows, resulting in raw wastewater discharges into waterways.

An environmental watchdog group stated that Miami’s water is badly contaminated compared to other US cities Using unpublished data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, EWG found ‘forever chemicals’ in the drinking water. These chemicals (perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS) do not break down in the environment, and their presence has been linked to liver damage, cancer, and other health problems.

Bottom line: Miami’s drinking water is threatened by rising sea levels, floods that carry pollutants into groundwater aquifers, and treatment plants unsuited of removing salt and pollutants. The government of Miami must take action to solve these issues.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Iqaluit: The True North Strong & Thirsty

Stephanie writes*

Climate change tells us the Earth is melting. For Canada’s economy, this damage has a silver lining: increased accessibility to the Arctic. Technology improvement in conjunction with more favorable climate means that there is new industrial potential for the Arctic. Canada is in disputes with Denmark, Russia, and the United States over who has territorial rights of the seabed, having officially submitted their argument to the UN in 2019. The federal government wants a stronger presence in the North to back up their claims. This formed their motivation for building Canada’s first deepsea arctic port in Iqaluit.

However in recent years, Iqaluit – the capital city of Nunavut, Canada’s largest northern territory – has been consistently making national news – not for its geopolitical significance in Canada’s territorial claims, but for its water shortages.

The past two summers Iqaluit has had to declare a water emergency. The city’s small population of 8,000 relies on one reservoir, Lake Geraldine, for its freshwater. Despite renovations in 2010 to increase its capacity, the summer of 2019 saw its record low. Both summers, the city had to issue car washing bans, PSAs pleading residents to take showers instead of baths, and in 2018 the opening of a brewery had to be delayed.

Maybe we should rephrase Benjamin Franklin’s famous quip: “When the beer shelves are empty, we know the worth of water”.

If the city’s water supply can’t provide for a small-scale brewery, how can it be expected to support the rapidly increasing population, never mind the country’s weighty political agenda?

A 2015 report said the reservoir has a capacity to support 8,300 people, but population is predicted to rise to 13,050 by 2030. The city’s water license has been amended to allow pumping from a neighboring watershed to the Lake Geraldine reservoir but only until 2026. Many fear this is just a band-aid fix to a greater issue: climate change.

Looking to the future, things get frightening:

  • The Arctic has experienced the most intense temperature increases in the world. An analysis of the last 30 years of meteorological data shows a 6.9% decrease in summer precipitation per decade in Iqaluit specifically. The Arctic relies almost exclusively on precipitation to recharge water supply, so headlines of “The Reservoir is at a Record Low” seem like they’ll become the new normal.
  • Permafrost is melting – leaving infrastructure in a precarious situation and literally draining lakes. Before the city sent a water task force to fix major leaks, it was claimed that “40% of the city’s drinkable water was wasted through aging infrastructure”.

With the environment changing so fast, how can a city of 8000 be expected to keep up?

Bottom Line: Canada’s political vision for this city is delusional when the constraints of water supply are considered.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Should Adelaide desalinate more water?

Nik writes*

Adelaide lies at the mouth of the Murray River, where Australia’s largest river system, the Murray-Darling Basin, meets the ocean. Today, the Murray River is struggling. It is being diverted at an unsustainable rate, mostly by farmers, as its tributaries make their way through four Australian states and at the capital territory before joining the Murray River and flowing into South Australia and Adelaide.

For decades in the 20th century, Australian state governments were handing out water rights left and right to farmers across the basin. By the 90s the Murray River mouth was silting up, threatening Adelaide’s water supply. The Millennium drought from the late 90s to 2010 added even more pressure on the ecological well-being of the river system and the people who depend on it.

At the height of the drought, in 2007, two important things happened. The Australian government passed the Water Act and Adelaide announced plans for a desalination plant. The Water Act gave birth to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan of 2012, which aimed to recover 2,750 gigalitres of water from irrigation back into the river system. Adelaide’s desalination plant was to provide water security to Adelaide and beyond.

As the health of the Murray River is threatened today, could this desalination plant be the silver bullet needed for Adelaide, other users in the Murray-Darling Basin, and the river itself?

With its capacity to produce 100 gigalitres per year, the idea is that supplying this water to the people of Adelaide could free up water allocations for users upstream. There is room to ramp up desalination. Currently the plant is at minimum output, even shutting off during wet seasons. And though desalination is relatively expensive, the Australian government said it would step in and subsidise the water for farmers upstream. While users in Adelaide would pay their ordinary price of around 2.00 USD per 1000 litres, farmers upstream would pay less than 0.07 USD per 1000 litres for the allocation.

But like any solution, there are costs. Most obviously, there is the difference between the production costs of desalination (0.63 USD per 1000 litres) and its price (0.07 USD per 1000 litres), a gap that taxpayers will cover. Additional allocations of surface water in the basin at extremely low prices will harm the health of the river system and won’t incentivize saving water. It is important for the health of the river, and for the ocean that the Murray River reaches the ocean, which it does less than 90% of the time.

If not desalination, then how can Adelaide and upstream users get enough water while ensuring the river flows? The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has so far spent nearly 4 billion USD on recovering water from irrigation, two thirds of which has gone to subsidising irrigation infrastructure. There is no evidence so far that this has increased river flows at all. On the upside, scientist analysed Australian government data and found that the government buying water from irrigators is far more efficient.

Bottom line: Adelaide’s desalination plant is not the silver bullet that will save the Murray-Darling Basin, because the allocations it would free up ultimately harm the basin and the beings that depend on its health. Policy makers should instead look for ways to incentivise users to reduce their consumption.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Interesting stuff

  1. What’s the point of money?
  2. Want Trump to let you out of prison? (1) Be a corrupt politician convicted of selling offices for “campaign funds,” (2) Note that your enemies are Trump’s enemies, and (3) Appear on Fox while Trump watches.
  3. Los Angeles tries to take back the data commons. Uber objects at this threat to its business model of profiting from data.
  4. Madeline Albright on how to respond to tyranny and populism 
  5. Our [American] institutions lost the capacity to mold character and have become platforms for performance instead.
  6. Here are 7 interesting visions of how the Netherlands might adapt to extreme (+2-10m) seal level rise. I am glad to see several in which Amsterdam is an island in a tidal lagoon.
  7. 100 ideas for better living
  8. Is there a science to better marriage?
  9. Why we need rules
  10. …and why we need freedom: “Modern liberalism fits the modern world of high human capital better than the old rightish model of dim-witted peasants properly led by the aristocracy or the old leftish model of gormless proletarians properly led by The Party. If ever there was a time to let people go, and to have a go, it is now, when they are so obviously ready for a liberal autonomy. Yesterday, one might put it, was the time for the aristocracy or the state. Now is the time for liberalism.”

H/T to BZ

La Paz at risk of drying out

Lea writes*

Since the turn of the century, water management in Bolivia has been a never-ending rollercoaster of shifting governance and responsibility. Previously, inhabitants of El Alto and La Paz experienced resource shortages and horrendous water quality due to corruption under the service of the private company “Aguas de Illimani”. The situation became so drastic that citizens began to strike and demonstrate against private water. Known as the water wars, individuals nationwide demanded a reformation of the water management. As a consequence of a political socialist uprising during that time period, water was finally proclaimed a human right in 2009 under the newly elected president Evo Morales. The right of water regulation was transferred to EPSAS, a public wastewater and metropolitan drinking water company.

People were hopeful the situation would finally change, however it never really did. In November 2016, La Paz and El Alto experienced their worst water scarcity crisis to date. A combination of low precipitation, high temperatures leading to increased glacier melting, and intensified southern oscillation of El Niño forced the company to ration water supplies for two months. La Paz has yet to recover from the drought and the government still struggles to provide safe, sufficient and easily accessible water for all sectors of the city.

La Paz and El Alto receive their water supply from the mountain catchments in Cordillera Real. Three main dams (Inkachaka, Ajunkota and Hampaturi dams) stationed within this region capture glacial meltwater which is then passed through four different treatment plants. However, water levels are falling due to increasing population, intensive industrialization and climate change. Households have experienced improvement in the water supply, but especially in rural areas they are still struggling to be supplied with water. El Alto’s and La Paz’s unique geographical characteristics due to being situated in the basin of the Andes Mountain range significantly complicates the challenge of water distribution 3600 meters above sea level. As early as 2025, the water system supplying El Alto specifically is expected to have severe water shortages.

Bottom Line: Privatization and municipalization have both failed to resolve the water crisis and deliver adequate living conditions to the population. Appropriate or innovate approaches need to be taken instead to ensure sustainable and fair management of the resource if the citizens still want to have sufficient water resources in the future. Pipes need to be restored, water lines extended, waste water plants made more efficient. National taxes can be augmented to cover the costs of the system renewal and avoid dependence on external support. Most importantly, a competent and motivated organization must attempt to effectively take into consideration economic, social, political and geographical challenges of water management in La Paz and El Alto and commit themselves to saving the habitants of this unique city from a rigorous drought.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Itzapalapa’s water trucks

Anna writes*

Water supply in Mexico City is a good indicator of the persisting inequality, as residents have to live with very different amounts of waters in this city of water scarcity. In Itzapalapa, the most populous and poorest district in the city’s east, people face severe water shortages. Therefore, their daily water supply is often brought by water tanks – or not. Whereas pipe pressure in rich districts like Cuajimalpa is about 14kg per cm² – enough to irrigate numerous golf courses – in Itzapalapa peoples’ pipes have a pressure of only 0,50kg per cm², which leads to dry taps and thus water scarcity. Due to the numerous leaks in the pipe system around 40% of the water that runs through the pipes is lost, which makes it extremely inefficient, but the funds that would be needed to renew the underground pipe system are immense. Thus, people in Itzapalapa must proportionally invest a lot of money and time to find and get water of acceptable quality. Alejandra Salgada, resident of Itzapalapa, estimates that about one fifth of their family’s income is spent on water, which makes them consider leaving the city because they can’t afford their life there.

Sometimes parents like Silvestre Fernandez have to choose between buying new diapers for their toddlers or buying water, which illustrates the severity of the situation in Itzapalapa. The district relies on the supply of water from 1000 tanks. The alternative to the tanks is getting water downhill from a municipal tap, that then needs to be transported on donkeys all the way uphill. Not only the residents suffer from the water scarcity, but the drivers of the tanks called pipas feel the negative consequences when they are threatened by desperate residents with guns and dry taps. This hopelessness for water also leads to water theft in form of illegal tank fillings. Apart from that, even if water reaches Itzapalapa it is often untreated and of low quality, which leads to health issues.

In order to relieve the miserable situation of water supply in Itzapalapa Clara Brugada, the mayor of this district plans to make use of the nearby located Xico lake to supply Itzapalapa with water. She wants the 600,000 residents of Itzapalapa who partially receive water only every week or two to have regular access through piped distribution. Apart from this possible solution, several pilot projects are under development to deal with the water crisis in Mexico-city. One of them is the rainfall catchment project, already realized in 25 schools in Santa Catarina, a part of Itzapalapa, which has been implemented by the Metropolitan Autonomous University of Iztapalapa. It allows the schools to be independent of water supply, as long as there is precipitation, whereas half of the water can be used in the school and the other half is used to replenish the degraded aquifer under Mexico-City. Unfortunately, those smaller scale sustainable possible solutions are often opposed by SACMEX, Mexico city’s water operator, which prefers larger-scale and more expensive solutions.

Bottom Line: There’s a need for new solutions and new policies if the water scarcity of Itzapalapa (and Mexico City) is going to be addressed.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Prague threatened by extreme weather

Veronika writes*

Hydrologically, Czech Republic is unique in Europe. No river from another country flows through the region, making the country self-sufficient on its own water sources. It may seem counterintuitive that a region which has suffered from great floods, could have its water security compromised by droughts. In Prague, the 2002 flood alone caused damages as high as €1 billion.

Moreover, compared to the communist era, Czechs have become more conscious of water prices and significantly decreased their clean water consumption. Since the mid-1990s, average water consumption has decreased by half. As the capital, Prague has the highest consumption of 109 liters per person per day but, compared to Western Europe or the United States, this is still a relatively low amount. In recent years, the average Czech drinking water consumption has been so low that it has reportedly reached the so-called hygienic minimum, which is determined by the World Health Organization to be 90 to 100 liters per person per day.

Also, as the representative of Association of Water Supply and Sewerage (SOVOK) Filip Wanner reminds, before the Velvet revolution of 1989 and subsequent downfall of communism, as much as 40% of drinking water was lost through pipeline leakages. This has been improved upon since the privatization of water services in Prague in the 1990s. Prague’s Water Supply and Sewerage Systems company (PVS) managed to increase the efficiency and steadily lower leakages to 13,5% in 2018 (see more on PVS’s website).

However, while the city of Prague seems to be improving its water conservation and service efficiency, increasing temperatures fuelled by climate change could present a considerable challenge to the region. Due to its low groundwater levels, the country is heavily dependent on surface water from precipitation and melting snow. Because high temperatures increase evaporation, droughts endanger surface sources and thus water security. Extended heat can also damage the underground water pipes and, as a consequence, increase water supply outages. In 2018, “the number of incidents exceeded 5 000 for the first time”.  Data supplied by PVS shows this trend to be increasing over the last ten years: in 2010, there were 3,960 incidents; in 2015 there were 4,677.

Bottom line: Drinking water consumption in the Czech Republic has significantly decreased since the communist era. However, increasing droughts and temperatures threaten the water security of a seemingly water -abundant region.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Hi-tech industry & low-tech H2O

Hannah writes*

2003 drought, 2005 flood, 2015 flood, 2019 drought. Chennai is experiencing a cycle of under- and oversupply of water that the climate crisis will only accelerate. Chennai’s water management strategy must address floods, droughts and climate change, but the city’s government has prioritized economic growth over sustainable water management.

This led the city to run dry on June 19, 2019, meaning that the population shifted to unreliable and unsafe private water supplies. This event was a result of many factors. One being the incentives for the IT business to settle along the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) area, which was previously wetland. Businesses were encouraged to move to the OMR by the construction of a 45 km road connecting IT parks. Furthermore, the municipality increased the floor space index, determining the built-up space, which meant that buildings could be taller and provide more housing opportunities.

How did this development influence water management? For one, the construction of glass buildings and cement foundations for companies like Amazon, PayPal and HP, headquartered in the OMR area, pushed away the marshland and natural infrastructure of channels which used to connect different water storages and served as a natural flood mitigating system. As water has no place to go the risk of flooding increases. Close to the sea, this water also gets contaminated with salinized water due to sea water intrusion in freshwater aquifers which means that drinkable water is lost.

Moreover, the marshy ground around OMR requires the water pipes to be resilient against high hydraulic permeability and sponginess. There is a lack of clarity as to why there is no proper network of piped water supply, but one could guess that it is due to the high costs and corporations’ tendencies to cut corners. As a result, OMR relies on water tankers. Most of those private-owned tankers extract from farm wells outside of the city. This leaves the farmers with less water for irrigation of the fields. People in the villages are upset as water is taken away from them for their drinking supply. Understandably, they do not want to cater to the non-piped supply in the OMR area.

According to the citizens of OMR, the municipality knew about these circumstances before construction. To remedy the situation, they promised to build piped supply, but they have yet to follow through.  The economic growth brought an increase of demand for water. Municipal tankers could not keep up, so the area increasingly turned to private tanker businesses. While the businesses are fairly reliable, they are not accountable as they steal water from the water sources of the surrounding villages. This is where it gets tricky: one deficit creates a network of deficits. The government failed to provide safe piped supply and regulate the over-extraction of water sources in the villages. However, the IT companies whose water consumption happens at the expense of the villagers, should also be held accountable. The companies must ensure that they do not support an inequal water management of the region while the climate crisis accelerates the overall demand.

Writing as a German who has always enjoyed the privilege of piped, unlimited water supply, I am trying to somehow capture one aspect of this downward slope of Chennai’s water management. Some of those IT companies originate in the West. Often, we, as Western consumers, see the benefit of outsourcing our software development but seldomly get to know about the impact of our consumption. My main point is not to criticize globalization or transnationals. I want to point out how our outdated Western understanding of growth (based on GDP and annual revenue…) has gotten some cities, such as Chennai, into some serious trouble to ensure basic services, specifically a secure water supply.

Bottom line: In July 2019, Chennai hit its Day Zero due to several overlapping failures of water management.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Poor regulation causes scarcity

Hannah writes*

In 2014, Flint was plunged into a water crisis. However, this was not the result of over abstraction or drought. Instead, the city’s water scarcity which continues today was caused by poor regulation. The tragedy in Flint demonstrates the critical role that regulators play in ensuring both the quantity and quality of the water delivered to communities.

Over the last five years, it has become clear that senior officials were aware of the water quality issues in Flint but continued to claim that the water was safe to drink. This inaction had serious consequences including multiple lawsuits and the trial of Michigan’s health director accused of involuntary manslaughter. From the start, much of the blame for the disaster was directed at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). The Flint Water Advisory Task Force Final Report [pdf] from March 2016 said that the MDEQ “failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations.”

The failures were not limited to responding to residents’ concerns about the water quality either; the chain of blunders date back to the original switch of city’s water source to the Flint River which triggered the crisis. The report said the shift was rushed, a concern which had been raised at the time by former utility’s administrator for Flint, Michael Glasgow. Furthermore, the report blamed the MDEQ for not treating the river water with corrosion control as is mandated by federal law. A 2017 review [pdf] of the MDEQ by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) heavily criticised the state, reporting multiple errors including failing to properly implement key provisions of the Lead and Copper Rule.

While the EPA may be prepared to dish out criticism, they must reflect on their own failures as well. The EPA are supposed to enforce federal safe drinking water laws, but they did not do enough to protect the residents of Flint. When the alarms were first raised, federal officials believed the city was exaggerating in order to get more financial help. Additionally, a report by the Inspector General of the EPA [pdf] found issues in the relationship between the MDEQ and the EPA. For example, a clear oversight role was not implemented, communication between the two organisations was weak and the EPA failed to use all tools at its disposal to ensure the compliance of the MDEQ. Criticism can also be levied at the EPA for the weakness of the thirty-year-old Lead and Copper Rule which has since been revised to strengthen requirements for lead testing.

It is understandable that the trail of lies has resulted in serious damage to the trust of residents in the water and those who are supposed to protect its quality. Some believe trust will never be restored, and it certainly does not help that there are continuing issues with regulatory transparency, communication with the public, and the pace of replacing service lines [pdf].

Bottom Line: The failures of the regulators in Flint demonstrate the critical role that regulators play in ensuring that utilities provide water of sufficient quantity and quality. Both the MDEQ and the EPA failed in their duty to enforce laws on safe drinking water. In theory, a city like Flint should not be short of drinking water since it is located so close to the Great Lakes but the events of the last decade show that poor management can create water scarcity where it never need to be.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂