Predicating Our Future on a Faulty Water Infrastructure Model

Last month I attended the Texas Water Forum, held at the Capitol Building and moderated by Senator Kirk Watson.  A panel of academics, politicians, water agency employees and interest group representatives carried on a discussion of the water future of Texas, centered a good bit on if and how we can implement the State Water Plan.  There was much hand-wringing among the panelists about our ability to fund that plan.  Afterward, I pointed out to one of the panelists that the State Water Plan has simply presumed that we are constrained to work within prevailing infrastructure models, that all “solutions” must derive from, at most, tweaking them, that the controlling institutions seem to find “inconvenient” discussion of other infrastructure models.  And that is no doubt a good part of the reason for the estimated $53 billion price tag of that plan.

During his introductory remarks, Senator Watson, referring to the volume of communications to his office about water issues, mentioned jokingly that his female aide “drew the line” at dealing with pitches about water-saving men’s urinals.  After the Forum ended, by way of saying “hi” to the senator, I asked wryly, why do the urinals in the Capitol use SO much water?  I was of course riffing on his comment, but indeed the urinal I used consumes much more water per flush than any urinal I’ve seen in a long time.  Senator Watson responded as if the question were “serious” and immediately observed that it really doesn’t make much difference because this flush water could be “purified” and reused.  I responded, yeah, but at what cost?  And THAT was the central conundrum of the whole discussion that morning – where are we going to get the fiscal resources to assure sustainable water resources?  So don’t we need to be sure we are indeed pursuing sustainable water by the most efficient means possible, not just by the means that appear to be, at the moment, institutionally convenient?

Sure, we can “tweak” the prevailing infrastructure model to make this “waste” flushed from this urinal into a usable form of the resource it was, and always will be, by adding on treatment processes at the end of the pipe.  And we could then install another large-scale delivery pipe infrastructure to get it back to points where it could be used to defray non-potable demands.  But we could INSTEAD not only install fixtures that wouldn’t flush “away” so much of this resource to begin with, but ALSO retool to an infrastructure model that recognizes the resource value of the water from the very point of “waste” water generation.  A model that focuses the majority of our fiscal resources on utilizing this resource near that point, rather than on infrastructure that does nothing but move the stuff around, to make it go “away”.  Replacing fixtures with more efficient models is the stock in trade of most conservation programs, of course, but changing the infrastructure model appears nowhere on the radar screens of the institutions that plan, design, fund and implement water resources infrastructure.  And because of that, we are gobbling up a lot of fiscal resources doing things the “old” way, resources that could be dedicated to other societal priorities.

An essential truth about water is that a gallon saved by any means is just as valuable as a gallon saved by any other means, so what is an economically efficient strategy really comes down to economic value of the water-saving activity.  Another essential truth is that water is like real estate in that the three most important factors in determining its value are location, location and location.  So saving water where you already have it is typically of high value.  These points suggest:

·         Point of use treatment and reuse confers high value, in that it obviates both the cost of transporting the “waste” water to “away” before it’s treated and the cost of moving the saved water back to the point of use.  The former is, in most cases, a large majority of the total investment in a “waste” water system.  We could be saving most of that, and dedicating it toward more pressing problems than making a resource misperceived to be a nuisance to go “away”.

·         Likewise, building-scale rainwater harvesting obviates the cost of moving water around and some of the costs of treating it (as it has not been polluted to the degree that water which gathers in reservoirs is).  It also imparts a much, much higher efficiency in transforming rainfall into water supply, right there at the point it is needed.  This contrasts starkly with the prevailing system of collecting rainwater over whole watersheds into an aquifer or reservoir – entailing high rates of loss along the way so the collection efficiency is very low – and then piping it back to where the rain fell in the first place.

·         Then too there is LID stormwater management (essentially rainwater harvesting off landforms) helping to preserve the hydrologic integrity of the site – and by a multiplicity of such sites, the integrity of the watershed – as the watershed is developed, as an option to the end-of-pipe, make-it-flow-“away” prevailing stormwater infrastructure model.  Though of minor direct impact on water supply, this can blunt the heat island effect, reduce irrigation demands while still maintaining interesting landscapes, and perhaps enhance baseflow in creeks.  Or at least blunt the loss of baseflow due to the “flash hydrology” created by development.

Each of these functions – water supply, wastewater management, stormwater management – is addressed by the prevailing infrastructure model essentially each within its own “silo”, artificially separated from the other functions.  And the basic model is that water is piped in and the “nuisances” are piped “away”.  By failing to recognize that the “nuisances” are resources which, if utilized in place, would defray – if not eliminate – the investments required for the piping in and “away”, that infrastructure model features long water loops, entailing many inefficiencies.  By employing an infrastructure model that integrates these functions and so tightens the water loops, we can eliminate much of the inefficiency and so – while not actually creating any water – we do more with less water, AND do it at less cost.

We need to design water sustainability into the very fabric of development, not attempt to append it on, as if an afterthought rather than a prime goal.

Let’s look at an example, the sort of “waste” water infrastructure model to which the institutional infrastructure defaults.  A small but growing Central Texas city that shall remain nameless, currently generating about 0.7 million gallons per day (MGD) of wastewater flow, is going to install a centralized wastewater treatment plant sized for the 1.7 MGD flow projected to be generated at the end of 20 years of forecast growth of the city.  Right off the bat, this is economically inefficient, because a significant portion of that additional 1 MGD of capacity would not be utilized for many years.  Indeed, if the water supply issues of this region – issues which this make-it-go-“away” strategy will exacerbate – are not resolved in a manner that allows the projected growth, some of that capacity may NEVER be used.  It would be far more economically efficient to add treatment capacity in small increments, as needed to serve only the development that is actually imminent.  And by using systems that integrate reuse of the treated water right into the very fabric of the development, we would defray use of the “original” water supply to serve non-potable demands.

Exactly because all the wastewater would be gathered at one point, that city insists it “needs” the ability to discharge to surface waters, even as it purports its intention is to route the treated wastewater to irrigation reuse.  Understanding that nearby reuse opportunities would be limited, and that the additional fiscal resources required to pipe that reclaimed water to points of use in other areas of the community might not be available in a timely manner, the city knows that choosing this infrastructure model has “condemned” it to discharge as its prime “disposal” option, with reuse PERHAPS coming on line at some undetermined time to utilize some of this water resource.  Which is to say that this city is much more dedicated to instituting the form of infrastructure prescribed by the controlling institutions than it is to actually maximizing the reuse opportunities.

This decision in turn imparts the “need” to add something like $10 million to the treatment plant cost in order to remove nutrients, due to the sensitive nature of the receiving waters.  In societal terms, this is an utter waste of fiscal resources.  Those nutrients would also be resources if the reclaimed water were routed to irrigation reuse, so this is really a doubling up of the waste of resources.

Then add on that it has not been determined where this additional 1 MGD of flow would be generated relative to the treatment plant location.  The facilities needed to make it go “away” from those locations to this plant would be an additional cost, currently unaccounted for.  The presumption no doubt is that “growth will pay for it”, implying that installing and upgrading conveyance facilities would add those costs, along with the cost of treatment plant capacity, to the price of creating that development.  This is cost that could be pretty much avoided by expanding the treatment capacity a small increment at a time in distributed facilities, within or very near the development, so obviating those conveyance facilities.  This is another manner in which the proposed course of action is economically inefficient.

The upshot is that some, perhaps much, maybe even most, of this “waste” water will truly be wasted, at great cost, while water is found from somewhere and piped to the development to provide irrigation water and other non-potable demands.  In this community, where that water would be found is an open question.

When asked why the city would not consider its options, why it was so dedicated to pursuing that prevailing infrastructure model, and ONLY that infrastructure model, the mayor responded that they had spent three-quarters of a million dollars and five years setting up this plan and they were not about to even consider changing course now.  Essentially saying, because they excluded from consideration any options that did not conform to that infrastructure model, they could not now consider any other infrastructure model.  Classic circular reasoning.  Also the understandable human resistance to admitting they could have been mistaken.  AND a statement that oxen could be gored if the matter were to be reconsidered and another direction were shown to save considerable money, and water.  Bottom line, they find it “inconvenient” to question their infrastructure model.

Tragically, and predictably, none of the rest of the institutional infrastructure that is supposed to be looking out for society’s best interest ever even suggested to this city the “density” of such an attitude.  Certainly, neither TCEQ nor TWDB ever questioned this waste of water and money, rather they act as if what this city proposed is exactly how society “should” be addressing its water resources infrastructure.  Indeed, TCEQ – dedicated to a rule system that makes wastewater management all about “disposal” rather than resource management – would resist permitting a distributed management concept.  Sadly, “institutional convenience” is a far more highly rated value than is the actual point of making these investments, to maintain a safe and secure water supply.  And so it seems no one can be bothered to even stop and ask if the prevailing infrastructure model is the one and only path we “should” be following.

This same pattern is being repeated in and around every city in the state, as water resources infrastructure is being planned, designed, funded and installed to serve growth.  Around Austin, the SH 130 corridor is a high profile case in point.  Likewise, the dual benefits of high efficiency water supply generation and reduced stormwater/water quality burdens afforded by building-scale rainwater harvesting is being roundly neglected, and it is presumed that all new water supply – including the supply “required” because the “waste” water is wasted – must be generated elsewhere and piped in.  Altogether this represents a rather inefficient use of fiscal resources to accomplish the societal ends at which they are aimed, and it is this inefficient strategy that is embodied in the State Water Plan.

An abiding tragedy of proceeding in a manner that caters to this prevailing infrastructure model is that, because we are dealing here with infrastructure that has a long service life, we are literally cementing in place this inefficient management model for decades to come.  We’re doing this simply because it seems to be “institutionally inconvenient” to question that infrastructure model.

An apparent reason that the controlling institutions proceed as they do is they simply presume that the future will just be a linear extension of the past.  In 1999, I wrote a piece about that very matter, in regard to Austin’s long-term water deal with LCRA in that case.  Using the example of the “silicon” industry in Austin, which was totally unknown 50 years prior in 1949, I pointed out how very unlikely it is that our understanding of future conditions regarding something like water use would be accurate if we do just extend the trends.  Most importantly in regard to the present conversation, I observed that we might support the same population on roughly half the “original” water use if we achieved a high penetration of various more efficient strategies, such as those noted above, rather than just continuing to extend and perpetuate the currently prevailing strategies.

So clearly there is ample reason to question a State Water Plan that is predicated on extending and perpetuating the prevailing infrastructure model, and thus to predicate a funding strategy on that plan.  But of course, unless/until the institutional infrastructure that plans, designs, funds and implements water resources infrastructure becomes willing to so much as put on the table for discussion the infrastructure models it pursues, it will be very problematic to generate a plan which gets us to the point where we could support twice the population on the same amount of “original” water.

There are opportunities just about everywhere we look for designing sustainable water into the very fabric of development, opportunities that are being blunted by existing institutional arrangements.  It’s like the controlling institutions are FAR more concerned about perturbing the status quo than they are about the sustainability of this society.

As is so often the case, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

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