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Water, water … recycling?

9 Dec 2014

6_weekWe here in Detroit  had far more rainfall this past summer than we usually get and between the long, cold winter and all the rain, our lake levels are nearing their normal levels.  Meanwhile, in the southwest, drought conditions continue to grow.  So much so that there’s a flurry of deeper well drilling in California. In Texas, some communities are installing mega-treatment and cycling water from their wastewater treatment plant back to their drinking water systems, under a trial permit.  San Diego’s Sea World announced it was using treated saltwater in its toilets.

I’ve blogged about so-called “toilet-to-tap” before.  At that point, it was more on the model of Orange County’s program – where treated water was discharged back into an aquifer from which drinking water was taken.  That program is a way of speeding up the water cycle we all learned about in elementary school.  Some call it “showers to flowers” and it is being expanded.  In Texas, it looks like they are taking a more direct approach.

At least one gentleman I know has decried this as dangerous due to the possibility of industrial and other contaminants finding their way into the public’s drinking water.  And, he’s right – there is a risk – but, as we have seen recently, there are risks to taking drinking water from a lake or river  which receive runoff and NPDES discharges.  Virtually all the water we see at the tap has been through a person’s body or has been impacted by some industrial or farming operation – it’s only a question of how much natural and professional treatment it receives prior to discharge, how long ago, how much dilution occurs and how much treatment before it’s put back into the drinking system.

The World Economic Forum has identified water as a key issue for the future.  There simply isn’t much freshwater on the planet as this video shows. As the video shows, some 80% of our water gets used for power generation and farming.  How we protect and conserve and, in some cases, recycle, this resource may be the story of the next 50 years.

Free Riders, the United Nations, “Affordable” Water and the Daily Show

18 Nov 2014

waterEt tu, Jon Stewart?  I was dismayed to read of the United Nations’ visit and evaluation of Detroit’s recent, well publicized water shut-off initiative.  I suspect that it’s a waste of time; interesting, but a waste.   First of all, the federal bankruptcy judge supervising the Detroit Bankruptcy refused to rule against the City on its now-revised shut-off program.  I am not certain what authority the UN has in Detroit (I suspect none), it is possible that the UN could assert that the United States has violated some treaty.  It is interesting that the UN human rights declaration does not discuss water.  A commentary to that declaration does state that  “the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses“ and notes that it can be a violation when arbitrary or unjustified disconnections occur or when there are discriminatory or unaffordable increases in water tariffs.

that the shut-offs fell disproportionately on the poor while ignoring those businesses with the ability to pay seems backward and should have been the protesters’ focus

It is the word “affordable” that is crucial here.  The UN documents do not state that government provided water must be free.  In fact, as I noted in my earlier blog post and as the New York times noted previously, not letting market forces set water prices can lead to, in some cases, dramatically bad outcomes.  Water in Detroit cannot be provided for free without a dramatic shift in how we pay for municipal services (i.e., raising taxes).  At present, a significant segment of the population has been taking water for free and leaving the rest of us to pay for it.  This is a classic “free rider” problem and it has led to exactly the sorts of problems that economists predict – an inability to provide the good (in this case water and sewer service) at a reasonable cost.  The bottom line, getting the water to drinkable state (see this video which estimates that it takes $9 Million/year) isn’t free nor is the cost of maintaining the delivery system. So, if we want to have a world class system (vs this sort of jury-rigging), we need to find a way to pay for it.

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Michigan Pipelines Under Review

29 Oct 2014

pipeline

Spills from pipelines were very newsy over the last couple of years.  There was the Kalamzoo River oil spill and a number elsewhere.  As with most things, eventually the public and news media tire of it and move on to something else.  A recent Indiana spill into Lake Michigan barely made any news.  Interestingly, this summer, the State of Michigan created a Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force to review issues relating to pipelines transporting petroleum products around the State.  Despite federal jurisdiction by the  federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Task Force is looking at issues including:

  • Michigan’s emergency management preparedness for spills,
  • Coordination of permitting issues for pipeline upgrades and replacement, and
  • The creation of a state website to serve as an information clearinghouse for residents who have questions or concerns about pipelines.

The Task Force’s members are Co-Chairs: Dan Wyant, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Bill Schuette, Michigan Attorney General, and John Quackenbush,  Michigan Public Service Commission, Keith Creagh, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Jon Allan, DEQ’s Office of the Great Lakes, Kirk Steudle, Michigan Department of Transportation and Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, Michigan State Police.

As Michigan is looking at pipeline risks and preparedness, so should you.

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Lake Erie – so is it Ohio’s fault?

22 Aug 2014

t1_11246_1533_LakeErie_143_250mThe recent shutdown of Toledo’s water system due to an algal toxin in the water caught everyone’s attention.  Our friends at Dragun note that the Toledo water problem was triggered by some odd weather, but the algal source problem remains out there.   The MDEQ announced this month a five point plan to protect the lake: (more…)

Toilet to Tap? I don’t see overcoming the “ick” factor any time soon

2 Jun 2014

drinking_waterAs drought conditions settle in across much of the United States, some communities are beginning to look at the concept of “water reuse,” which sounds very conservationist.  Generally it means so-called “grey water” reuse where water that’s been used once (such as for laundry or car washes) is reused for other non-potable purposes. It also means the capture of rainwater for irrigation (think the barrels that some people have at the end of their downspouts). (more…)

Climate change adaptation; don’t put all your bananas in one basket

28 Apr 2014

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Climate change seems to be in the press pretty much all the time these days.  There are stories about the UN reports on climate change (see also here); the President has a two-pronged plan (attack causes of climate change and harden systems against climate events) and, recently, the President requested $1 Billion in the 2015 Budget to support developing climate-resilient infrastructure.

A couple of years ago, a report prepared for the United Nations suggested that as the climate changed, three of the world’s biggest staple crops — corn, rice and wheat — would decrease in many developing countries, and the potato, which grows best in cooler climates, could also be affected by warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns.  The report suggested that bananas could replace potatoes in a warming world as a critical food source.

Unfortunately, now there are reports that the Cavendish banana that most of us buy at the grocery store is under threat of a seemingly unstoppable fungus.   You might say that this is alarmist non-sense and an entire fruit couldn’t be wiped out.  However, you’d be wrong – it happened with an earlier variety of banana called the Gros Michel which virtually no American under the age of 50 has ever eaten.  These bananas were reportedly in every way superior to the ones we eat today but were largely wiped out by a fungus similar to the one that is now ravaging the Cavendish variety.  This is an example of the risk of  cultivating only one type of fruit or vegetable – the same sort of mass production technique that led to the potato blight and famine in Ireland.

Of course, the best method to adapt and become resilient to climate change (although not the most economical) is to diversify – something we Americans have become less inclined to do when it comes to our desire for predictable and consistent groceries.  Will the fruit companies win the fight against the fungus? Will we replace the Cavendish with a new single type of banana (there are still hundreds of varieties mostly unknown to the United States)?  Will we find something else to grow instead of corn, wheat, rice and potatoes? Perhaps the much touted but less well known superfoods of quinoa, freekeh, or teff?  Time will tell, but one thing seems certain, greater diversity leads to greater resilience.  This is something that no environmental law or regulation is likely to fully address.

Change is hard – with great technology comes great upheaval

23 Apr 2014

carcharger

For the last 60 – 70 years, we have lived in an era of significant stability.  That seems to be over.  We’ve all seen how the internet has changed certain businesses (music, newspapers and bookstores).  Technology can be a huge boon but it can be quite disruptive.

The transition from gasoline to electric or hybrid vehicles has been somewhat bumpy as governing bodies struggle with whether dealerships are required and how to pay for roads when less (or no) gasoline will be used.  This is a growing issue as more electric and hybrid vehicles take to the road and as the condition of our Michigan roads continues to cry out for repairs.

As I’ve blogged about before, recent rhetoric suggests that Oakland and Macomb Counties may declare their independence from the DWSD.  With both counties now spending money to evaluate their options, what happens next is less clear. Given that DWSD has apparently not set its rates high enough to cover all the infrastructure improvements needed over the next 5 – 10 years, it is possible (although perhaps unlikely) that a Macomb-Oakland system might actually cost less to develop, construct and operate than the DWSD system.  Such a separation could lead the DWSD to owning over-sized water and waste treatment systems relative to their customer base and the oldest waste and water lines which are likely most in need of repair.  Given DWSD’s well publicized collection issues, this has to be making the investment community nervous as reflected in two investment firms’ recent subpoenas.  This much turmoil would seem to make the DWSD’s recent RFP less appealing than usual.

as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess

Finally (for the moment), we have seen many advances in the development of solar energy – some of which we’ve discussed on this blog – while those are exciting, they, like changes to gas driven cars and changes to 100+ years of centralized water and sewer systems, challenge the status quo.  For over 75 years, utilities have generated and supplied the electricity and natural gas that we consume in our homes and businesses from centralized points. As part of the deal, those same utilities have maintained the infrastructure needed to both generate and transmit gas and electricity.  So, what happens when people can start generating electricity on their own roofs?  Some hail it as a triple win (saving money, the environment and societal benefits) but most solar generators stay “on the grid” and as a result sometimes are contributing electricity to the grid and other times are drawing on the grid.  Under most systems, including Michigan’s, smaller generators can sell their electricity back to the grid at the utility’s retail price – so called “net metering.”

The ability to sell excess power back at the retail -not wholesale- price, raises the question of who pays for the infrastructure necessary to provide the electricity to those on the grid.  Utilities argue that those installing solar are not paying their “fair share” of such costs.  There are those who say that the price of electric service includes roughly 50% for non-generation expenses.  Some experts argue that there is no such “cost-shifting” occurring because there are savings on power plants, transmissions lines, lost energy as well as the ability to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals without utilities having to make the capital investment.  This is a tough debate and is not something easily reduced to 60 second soundbites and at present is being decided on a state by state basis.

Ultimately, the challenge of existing infrastructure combined with legacy costs makes the transition in technology and improving efficiency much harder and far more political than a “free market” would prefer.  But, as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess.