LA: Importing water on sinking land

Clara writes*

In LA, there hasn’t been a “Day Zero” just yet. They are, however, only 8 places away in global ranking from achieving that. The birthplace of “Waterworld” and home of its cherished stars might well soon host its own real-life version of a dystopian future. Not only is it 9th globally in water-stress levels, but on the national level, it takes the crown.

Los Angeles imports 85% of its water supply from other parts of the state. It feeds on four aqueducts: the two Los Angeles Aqueducts, the Colorado River Aqueduct, and the State Water Project’s California (West Branch) Aqueduct that brings water from the North over the Tehachapi Mountains and into Southern California. LA also depends on local groundwater from the San Fernando Valley aquifer.

Importing so much of its water is a major issue not only for the reasons that it leaves other regions and ecosystems with less water. LA also depends on groundwater, even when often faced with the challenge of this water’s pollution. Groundwater may only represent 11% of usage on average but during dry season, and even more so in long-lasting droughts, groundwater reliance shoots up. This reliance hides a larger problem: land subsidence. Though LA city itself may be safe from sinking or rising sea-levels, the same is far from true for its outskirts and surrounding areas. The over-drafting of aquifers has, despite the presence of recharge pumps, resulted in worrying rates of subsidence due to the collapse and compaction of subsurface structures.

Sinking land is undesirable because the subsidence damages infrastructure such as the California aqueduct. Sinking land has already reduced its carrying capacity by a full 20%. The Los Angeles Aqueducts have also suffered from the combination of subsidence and uplift.

In addition to problems of supply flows, LA’s supplies are also endangered by heavy agricultural water consumption. California’s sunny climate allows a plethora of water- and sun-intensive crops to be grown. The most abundant crop is alfalfa. Why should anyone care for a simple grain, you ask? At 65%, the colourful grass is responsible for a majority of the land use, and water use with it. It is grown as high quality fodder for the state’s dairy industry. In addition to the impact of the agriculture, domestic consumption, though negligible relative to the former, attains levels between 295 and 510 litres per person (ranging from downtown LA to Beverly Hills, respectively) for domestic use daily. These levels are, independent of agriculture, too large when compared to cities such as Amsterdam, a city with, notably, far less water-scarcity.

Los Angeles, with its 4 million water-hungry residents, is over-dependent on imported water, which it is also condemning by encouraging land subsidence under its various aqueducts.

Bottom line: If Los Angeles does not adjust its consumption of water, management of aquifer use and improve resilience of aqueducts, it will be running head first into a irreversible case of water scarcity.

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

London: Increased droughts and demand 

Emma writes*

To many, London means the Thames, Big Ben, and rain. But London shouldn’t be known for rain, as it receives less rainfall than Dallas, Rome, or Sydney. Looking to the future, Water UK suggests that London will face more severe, frequent droughts.

The city already experienced a major drought in the winter of 2011-12. Facing shortages, London’s water utilities asked for a drought permit to allow them to increase supply. If it wasn’t for the extremely wet spring and summer to follow, heavy restrictions on demand would have been necessary. As droughts are likely to occur more frequently and as precipitation will become more uncertain, London cannot expect to always be saved by rain.

Thames Water gets 30% of its water from aquifers and 70% from the River Thames and the River Lee. Rainfall influences river flows and groundwater levels. According to Professor Adrian Butler of Imperial College London, the issue is that London relies on winter rainfall to meet demand for the entire year. “If you have a succession of dry winters, you are facing a catastrophe in summer.”  Due to climate change summers are likely to become drier and winters will be wetter. The increased rainfall in the winter will likely be experienced as extreme downpour which is hard to capture and save for drought. Thames Water anticipates that summers will be 3C warmer and 18% drier on average by 2050. In the United Kingdom, climate change will decrease available water by 7-17 percent.

A lower and uncertain supply is not London’s only issue. The population of London is expected to increase by 100,000 each year and is likely to be above 13 million in 2050. The growing population in combination with household growth is predicted to increase the water demand in London and the Thames Valley by 46-90%, depending on the conservation scenario. Besides greater population and household sizes, hotter and drier summers also raise water demand. The 2018 heatwave lead to a 30 percent increase in household water demand. The figure below compares London’s increase in demand with its decrease in supply, showing how their difference — a gap indicating shortage — will increase over time.

London supply and demand (megaliters per day) Source [pdf]
Bottom-line: London is not the rainy city we imagine. Due to climate change, the city is likely to experience droughts more frequently and more severely, resulting in a decrease in water supply. In combination with an increase in demand due to population and household growth and climate change, London’s risk of water shortages is increasing.

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

The (dehydrated) Big Peach

Ana Nico writes*

Metropolitan Atlanta has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. Recent projections suggest an increase equivalent to the current population of Denver of 2.9 million residents by 2050. Population growth and associated high demands for water are revealing increasing insecurities for water supply as the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority projects that within the next fifteen years, demand could increase from 201.5 to 311.6 million gallons per day in Fulton county.

Meanwhile, the warm climate and rising temperatures have made the city particularly vulnerable to droughts. Several initiatives have been launched to remedy the present shortcomings in the water management system and to ensure a steady supply to the city. Initiatives range from harvesting rainwater to the construction of tunnels to transport water up to a new reservoir. These initiatives, launched by the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, a public utility service and regulator for the city, have been few and far between.

The city of Atlanta relies on the Chattahoochee River for supply. The water is sourced through two reservoirs: Lake Lanier and Allatoona Lake. This water produces 70% of the supply for drinking, hydropower, industry, and agriculture despite being one of the smallest watersheds in the country. The issue which arises today is that high population growth increases the demand for water, while increasing droughts threaten supply. Further complicating the supply of water, the Chattahoochee River Basin provides water downstream to Georgia’s neighboring states of Florida and Alabama. If water usage continues to increase in Atlanta, an ongoing tri-state dispute on water would simply be amplified.

Parallel to emerging challenges, a case is ongoing before the Supreme court of Justice between the State of Florida and Georgia over water use. This battle, which has sprawled over two decades, has led Florida to seek legal means for a cap on Georgia’s extraction of water from the Chattahoochee River. This is the second time that the case appears before the Supreme Court where the state of Georgia’s leading argument is that metropolitan Atlanta is dependent on the current extraction levels. The case, starting on the 22nd of February, is likely to pose additional barriers to the provision of water to the city.

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

A water war in the West Bank

Jacob writes*

In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, water is not treated as a human right. It is a political tool, historically disputed in agreements between Israel and Palestine that is still part of the ongoing conflict. In a notoriously water scarce region, these facts create misery, anger and institutional gridlocks.

How does this affect citizens in the West Bank, which is located over the Mountain Aquifer and is divided into 3 parts (see picture)? The problem is not availability – the aquifer carries enough water to supply the entire West Bank population. Although being slowly depleted, this stems mainly from excessive withdrawals on the Israeli side, and diminishing quality through the absence of widespread sewer systems (only 30% of the population has access to sewers, the majority of wastewater is disposed in cesspits, which themselves have questionable efficiency [pdf]). The main problems are ineffective water policies.

Admittedly, the starting point is uncomfortable: 35% of water is Non-Revenue (NRW), that means it leaks from damaged pipes. Water distributed by the Palestinian Authority is often delivered by Israel, which means they have power to close the taps. In some regions during summer, the pipes open only once per 14 days. When this runs out, “trucked” water is available [pdf] at high prices.  Projects to improve water infrastructure in the West Bank have to pass through the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC), in which Israel has a veto. 100% of Israeli projects in the West Bank were passed, as opposed to 56% of Palestinian ones. Infrastructure created without permits is destroyed. Water utilities are decentralized, although under supervision of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), and the service providers are unable to cover operating costs with revenues [pdf] and are therefore dependent on subsidies.

All this is happening on top of the increasing depletion of the Mountain Aquifer, which still provides 95% of water for Palestinians in the West Bank.

The bleak outlook offers many opportunities for improvement. Removing the institutional gridlock that legally prevents Palestinians from managing their own water is a necessary first step. Of course, this depends mainly on the political situation, but collaborating with one of the world’s leading countries in water expertise holds many promises. Additional solutions would be reallocation of financial resources, and creation of larger-scale infrastructure, with a focus on wastewater treatment to “recycle” water in a notoriously water scarce region.

Bottom Line: A region in scarcity, a population in distress – this is the time for water managers to step in and work together on solutions that provide a basis of development for a long-neglected people.

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

Neglect in Neskantaga

Terra writes*

Canada, in the eyes of most foreigners and nationals, is a developed country with an abundance of water, which features in tourism advertisements highlighting the rainforests on the West Coast, the azure glacial lakes of the Rockies and the white-water rivers of the Yukon. No matter the region, there is likely a corresponding aquatic pastime: perhaps you grew up kayaking in BC, playing ice hockey in Québec, or canoeing through the many lakes and rivers of Ontario.

For Canadian First Nations*, however, water goes far beyond tourism and recreation. It is a deeply sacred element, both intrinsically and as a resource that sustains many traditional cultural and subsistence activities. However, it is also the source of much pain and anger. Currently, there are 57 long-term drinking water advisories in Canadian First Nations communities. Ranging from boil-water advisories, where water must be boiled before consumption, to do-not-use advisories, which prohibit all household water use, the advisories have all lasted for at least a year. The longest, in Northern Ontario’s Neskantaga First Nation, has lasted for the past 26.

Due to the legal and political circumstances of Canadian colonization, the federal government has a duty of care to First Nations [pdf], making them responsible for First Nation reserves. In Neskantaga, this led to a relocation to a new settlement in the 1980s, under promises of better infrastructure, including houses with plumbing and clean drinking water. At first, things seemed better: in 1993 a water treatment plant was constructed by the government, and things seemed hopeful.

By 1995, however, it was clear things weren’t working. Tests came back showing the presence of chlorine and other chemicals, including known carcinogens, in the water. The water treatment plant, which relied on a low-filter, natural sand method, was not disinfecting the water well enough.

Since then, the remote community has relied on boiling water and receiving weekly shipments by plane (it has no vehicle access except for winter ice roads). The average household receives much less bottled water than one needs for drinking, meaning that they must boil almost all their water. Babies, toddlers, and the elderly are also not supposed to bathe in tap water, meaning that water used to clean them must come from bottles or be boiled and then cooled prior to bathing. The water shipments alone are estimated to have cost the federal government C$1 million.

In recent years, the federal government has upgraded the water treatment plant to a new chemical-assisted system, but the unfinished project is plagued by mismanagement and poor contracting. This is due to procurement policies that require First Nations to choose the lowest-bidding contractor for projects, regardless of the contractor’s project record. Water contamination and further infrastructural issues led to two evacuations in late 2020, which required airlifting and housing nearly 400 people in hotels for weeks.

The underlying issue continues to be a lack of government attention and investment, as well as ongoing conflict over jurisdictional ambiguities between the federal government and the Province of Ontario. Promises of action and expressions of regret have come from both governments, but, as of January 2021, little has actually changed.

Bottom Line: The water security and the well-being of Canada’s First Nations are not high enough on the Canadian government’s priority list to warrant the investments in infrastructure needed to provide clean drinking water.**

*The predominant indigenous Canadian peoples south of the Arctic Circle.

** For reference, the Trudeau government has spent C$16 billion on buying an unpopular, floundering oil pipeline whereas the costs of upgrading the water infrastructure of every First Nation in the country is estimated at C$3.2 billion.

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

Leaky pipes & dirty water in São Paulo

Iris writes*

With Brazil owning one-eighth of the world’s fresh water it is surprising that São Paulo has issues with water scarcity. These issues originate from population growth, destruction of surrounding forests and wetlands, leaking infrastructure, and pollution. In combination with climate impacts (such as the 2014-2015 drought), these weaknesses can lead to problems. In 2015, millions of people risked losing their water supply due to “environmental degradation” and “political cowardice”.

Pollution from domestic and industrial sources has reduced water availability. Historically, the growth of São Paulo has gone hand in hand with increasing river pollution, which is due to inadequate sewage collection and treatment, urban sprawl, and a lack of proper solid waste disposal. The Anchieta-Grajaù community is one of the many unregulated slums, where fecal water flows directly into surface water, making this water dangerous to consume. This lack of sanitation leads to diarrhea, general malaise, and headaches amongst many inhabitants in this community. In central São Paulo, the Pinheiros River stinks. Today 25% of the population in São Paulo lacks access to sewage systems. Sabesp, São Paulo’s water and waste company plans to expand its sewage system, which will complement efforts to remove rubbish and improve water quality in the Pinheiros.

Another issue that is necessary to tackle is leakage. According to a survey, São Paulo lost more than 30% of treated water in 2012. These leaks result from distribution failures, inadequate connections, theft, and absence of measurement. According to inhabitants Sabesp is not doing enough to fix the leakages on their doorsteps.

Bottom Line: São Paulo needs to tackle its water scarcity issue by reducing pollution, improving sewage systems and reducing leaks, meaning that Sabesp needs to step up its game.

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

Sydney’s droughts and governance

Xenia writes*

Droughts are nothing new for Sydney. So how did 2019 come to be the first year in a decade in which water restrictions had to be introduced (The Guardian)? While various developments have led to this situation such as population growth or pricing, this blogpost focuses on the impact of climate change and the inadequate response from governance to the threat of water scarcity.

Let us first take a look at the changes in availability of water resulting from climate change. According to the Office of Environment and Heritage of NSW, temperatures in Australia have increased by 0.9°C since 1910 and the rate of temperature change has also increased. As the figure from the Bureau of Meteorology (below) illustrates, the temperatures in Australia have increasingly been above the mean temperature since 1980. Additionally,  these developments went hand in hand with a decrease in rainfall since 2013 (The Guardian).

The impacts of these changes are diverse. Most important for Sydney’s water security are the reductions in runoff, greater rainfall variability, and longer & worse droughts (Climate Council). Droughts pose a serious threat to Sydney’s water supply because of the way the supply system is built: the city relies on its 15 reservoirs, the largest one behind the Warragamba dam (Bureau of Meteorology). Droughts and reduced precipitation threaten the water supply to these reservoirs (WaterNSW).  Sydney’s desalination plant constitutes the only rain-independent water source, but it can only meet 15% of the city’s demand (Sydney Desalination Plant).

Given that climate change and its consequences are not a new phenomenon, the question is how those responsible in Sydney’s water supply have prepared for droughts. There have been a few shortcomings. The Metropolitan Water Plan of 2017  is supposed to set clear objectives on how to ensure the supply of water to Greater Sydney, but the plan is (according to The Guardian) based on data from the drought in 1939 without considering changes in population or climate. Obviously, these two factors greatly affect both the demand and the availability of water. Another concern for the stability of the water supply arises from the inadequate work of the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and Sydney Water Corporation. In 2020, the Audit Office of NSW charged both entities with failing to implement water conservation techniques from the Metropolitan Water Plan. The Department failed to assess investments or draft plans, and Sydney Water Corporation inadequately implemented existing initiatives. The Audit Office concluded that these failings leave Greater Sydney’s water supply vulnerable to droughts.

Bottom Line: Climate-change-driven droughts are putting Sydney’s water supply at risk, and inadequate governance is not helping reduce that risk.

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

General view of distribution

Book 6, Chapter 11

§1. Marshall’s summary of the book just past is really interesting to read; I don’t think I can summarise it, except to say that his consideration of scale and time is as necessary and insightful as the typical (modern) textbook is superfluous and opaque. Consider this:

Again, since human beings grow up slowly and are slowly worn out, and parents in choosing an occupation for their children must as a rule look forward a whole generation, changes in demand take a longer time to work out their full effects on supply in the case of human agents than of most kinds of material appliances for production; and a specially long period is required in the case of labour to give full play to the economic forces which tend to bring about a normal adjustment between demand and supply. Thus on the whole the money cost of any kind of labour to the employer corresponds in the long run fairly well to the real cost of producing that labour [p 550].

§2. Another interesting summary (worth a read) includes this:

A chief function of business enterprise is to facilitate the free action of this great principle of substitution. Generally to the public benefit, but sometimes in opposition to it, business men are constantly comparing the services of machinery, and of labour, and again of unskilled and skilled labour, and of extra foremen and managers; they are constantly devising and experimenting with new arrangements which involve the use of different factors of production, and selecting those most profitable for themselves [p 551].

§3. Managers and management have their role:

On the whole the work of business management is done cheaply—not indeed as cheaply as it may be in the future when men’s collective instincts, their sense of duty and their public spirit are more fully developed; when society exerts itself more to develop the latent faculties of those who are born in a humble station of life, and to diminish the secrecy of business; and when the more wasteful forms of speculation and of competition are held in check. But yet it is done so cheaply as to contribute to production more than the equivalent of its pay. For the business undertaker, like the skilled artisan, renders services which society needs, and which it would probably have to get done at a higher cost if he were not there to do them [p 552].

Marshall was no promoter of laissez faire. He often writes of abilities and effort rather than station or class. The excerpt above, followed by reminders of the risks capitalists take and the general rule that talent is rewarded, are meritocratic in the broadest sense (“society exerts…” translates easily as anti-discrimination).

§4 & §5. Capital(s) and labor(s), within and between, are competing and complementing, with each productivity gain “freeing” one input to find its use in other fields, thereby opening opportunities. People — as workers, managers and capitalists — will earn in direct proportion to their contribution to production and national wealth, with some random variations. Marshall’s optimistic vision here is unlikely to hold if/when transactions costs (delay) are high, market power inhibits entry and exit, and/or inputs do not have adequate buffers to absorb risks. Nevertheless, this feasible vision offers a benchmark for market promoters and regulators.

This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics from institutional induction to mathematical deduction.