Pumps, Pipes and Plants: Meeting Modern Water Infrastructure Needs
Chances are that deep within the ground beneath you as you read this is a vast network of infrastructure that is busy providing the necessary services that enable life to proceed at the pace it does in the 21st century. Electricity zips through cables to power lights and computers while other conduits move infinite amounts of information that light up computer screens and phone lines.
Beneath it all lies the miles of pipeline upon which homes and businesses depend for a reliable supply of fresh water. That delivery is the result of an extensive system that draws water from surface or underground sources, removes contaminants and transports it through a maze of plumbing to reach the tap of millions of people.
For the most part, that process is out of sight and out of mind to consumers, who have grown accustomed to the steady and reliable service provided by utilities nationwide. But hardware being what it is, time and wear take their toll on pipes, pumps, storage tanks, canals and all the aspects of water infrastructure installed decades ago as part of the West’s booming expansion. Older systems have components dating as far back as the late 1800s, coinciding with the establishment of new communities and the growth within established urban centers.
Today, as public agencies confront the reality of deteriorating infrastructure, questions loom regarding the extent of capital investment needed, the means by which projects are prioritized and the most equitable and feasible way to finance repairs and replacement that will serve future generations.
“We’re wonderful at developing standards, the right things we should do to maintain things,” said Steve Macaulay, executive director of California Urban Water Agencies. “You’ve got to be able to follow through with maintenance, and I think water utilities are real good at that. Ultimately you have to make reinvestments in our systems, and that’s more difficult because you have to go to the ratepayers for capital improvement budgets.”
Water infrastructure is an all-encompassing subject, incorporating every aspect by which people use and manage the resource. From the earliest communal settlements, where rudimentary canals and wells were excavated, to the megalopolises of modern America, water supply, wastewater management and flood control have involved extensive investment of private and public money as well as spectacular feats of engineering. Today, the discussion has focused on how California addresses its infrastructure needs with a population expected to reach 45 million by 2020.
“California must maintain, rehabilitate and improve its aging water infrastructure, especially drinking water treatment facilities, operated by state, federal and local entities,” the Department of Water Resources (DWR) recommends in its California Water Plan Update 2005.
Of course, in an era when proposed utility rate increases face greater scrutiny, water officials often find themselves hard-pressed to convince skeptical board members and a sometimes hostile public that increased revenue is required for the repairs needed to keep the flow of water for municipal use uninterrupted.
“Now it’s our turn,” said Jack Hoffbuhr, executive director of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), who noted that past generations paid for much of the infrastructure still in use. “We’re going to have to invest some of our own money now to make sure water systems are in good condition for our children and grandchildren.”
AWWA in May launched a public relations campaign, Only Tap Water Delivers, designed to reinforce the importance of the nation’s community water systems and the need to reinvest in aging infrastructure. “The network of reservoirs, pipes and treatment facilities are the lifeblood of our communities,” Hoffbuhr said. “Only tap water delivers public health protection, fire protection, support for the economy and the overall quality of life we enjoy.”
Infrastructure runs the gamut of the many components that make a water delivery system, from tapping the sources at the surface and underground to the more recent developments such as water recycling, seawater desalination and stormwater capture facilities. Treatment technology today focuses on water quality parameters unheard of in years past, partly due to scientific advancements that allow the detections of water impurities at trace amounts and improved knowledge of the associated health risks.
Infrastructure also includes unconventional pieces, such as the additions made to systems to make them more compatible with the fish, birds and wildlife that live in aquatic ecosystems. Although water infrastructure is usually associated with deliveries to urban and agricultural users, substantial investments have been made in projects such as fish screens and wildlife refuge delivery systems that also require long-term maintenance funding.
Drinking water regulations result in ever-increasing levels of treatment for many water providers. These agencies find themselves faced with a greater sphere of contaminant problems, such as naturally occurring arsenic as well as the byproducts of the water treatment process that may be a health threat to consumers. Consequently, agencies are faced with expanding their scope of operations or building new treatment facilities.
Agencies such as the Santa Clara Valley Water District, a Bay Area wholesaler serving 1.7 million people, are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in revamped treatment technology as well as source water protection in a “multiple barriers” approach that seeks to protect public drinking water from myriad threats. Smaller agencies are struggling to provide suitable water from their sources, given the tremendous costs involved in removing pollutants left behind by industrial, military and agricultural operations. More recently, water agencies have become cognizant of the need to address security vulnerabilities.
“Water systems have long included protections against vandalism and natural disasters as part of their water system improvement programs,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported in its most recent Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment. “However, systems have only recently begun to address more robust security needs to identify and protect the system from terrorist-type activities.”
California’s major water infrastructure is designed to convey supplies from the wetter northern portion of the state to meet the urban and agricultural needs stretching north to south and east to west. That process is commanded by a supply and distribution network that has few rivals throughout the globe. Like other major infrastructure, the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project (SWP) require extensive oversight and maintenance, given the vital service they provide.
“When you are moving that kind of water through a system you have to make sure all pieces are working,” said Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (Reclamation) Mid-Pacific Region, which operates the CVP.
Infrastructure requires investment, whether it is for rehabilitation of existing systems or for new projects such as surface storage. The latter is a perpetually controversial topic that draws little in the way of middle ground. Proponents of new facilities say the time for construction is long overdue and that added storage capacity is necessary to meet the future water needs of the state. But dams are expensive and alter the environment inexorably. That argument has held sway among many politicians and public policy advisors, who believe there are other means to ensure water supply viability, such as expanded groundwater storage and heightened conservation.
Conflict over the storage question nearly scuttled efforts by lawmakers to craft a $37 billion infrastructure bond proposal for the November ballot. After intense negotiations, an agreement was reached for a package that addressed the mostly non-controversial provision of flood protection. As such, some in the water community believe an opportunity was missed to bolster the state’s supply portfolio.
“Is it enough? We don’t think so,” said Steve Hall, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA). “It does not mean ACWA won’t support these bonds [but] we don’t think they solve all the water supply problems. We are working on a bond for 2008 that we believe does fully meet the state’s water needs.”
Of course, whether it is a new dam or a water main replacement, investment in infrastructure is a costly proposition. Wherever water delivery networks are located, there exists the need to fund daily operations as well as the priority list of improvement projects. In a 2004 report designed to assist utilities with capital improvement, AWWA found that “the need to evaluate rate structures is becoming more acute in many communities, because much of the drinking water infrastructure in the United States will need to be replaced in the next three decades.” Toward that end, utilities with “consistent communication programs build the credibility necessary to support rate increases.”
The problem is often one of “benign neglect,” for lack of a better term. Water supply infrastructure being what it is, the assumption reigns that what works today will in all likelihood work tomorrow. Macaulay, noting that “everything as it wears out has a problem,” said water supply infrastructure is no different in the deterioration that occurs within a system over time.
“The presumption is if you can’t see it, it must be working,” he said. “But just as you have to repair and sometimes replace our roads, the same thing is true with distribution systems for water. Pipelines wear out, they don’t last forever and the presumption I think by the consumer is that stuff lasts forever.”
But the tools used to provide water to a growing populace are wearing out, requiring substantial replacement projects that are costly and inconvenient in an age when even the slightest public works project can snarl traffic and cause air quality, noise and other quality of life impacts. This issue of Western Water looks at water infrastructure – from the large conveyance systems to the small neighborhood providers – and the many challenges faced by water agencies in their continuing mission of assuring a steady and reliable supply for their customers.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the July/August 2006 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart, http://www.watereducation.org/store/default.asp?parentid=7
From the Staff
The Foundation recently lost a wonderful writer and dedicated staff member. Many of you may have known Glenn Totten through his byline or personally. Before he died of cancer last month, Glenn was the Foundation’s fulltime special projects coordinator since 2003, but worked for us earlier as a freelance writer.
At the Foundation, Glenn’s thirst for knowledge about complicated issues helped him become well-versed in water issues, and an expert at distilling facts and figures into compelling articles. But his contributions extended well beyond his writing. He helped organize conferences, moderate panels and even operate the laptop computer and the endless array of PowerPoint presentations at such events. His dry sense of humor and observations never faltered during his long illness, and extended to comments to his sources about “projects being finished in my lifetime.”
Glenn was an integral part of our Colorado River Project, which encompasses the seven states, Indian tribes and the Republic of Mexico that share the river. Glenn wrote about the Colorado River in Western Water and River Report and fulfilled his informal title of “grammar guru” in editing the biennial Colorado River Symposium Proceedings. Closer to home, he became an expert on nonpoint sources pollutions issues and helped create our biannual newsletter The California Runoff Rundown.
Glenn also was an encyclopedia of information on the California Legislature – successful and failed bills, elected leaders past and present, and the legislative aides who work behind the scenes to formulate policy positions. His knowledge was invaluable as we established our “Encouraging Effective Governance” program, best known for the “brown bag” water issue lunches for legislative aides. Glenn was a strong believer in education and took the goals of this program seriously.
In his memory, we are establishing a fund in his name to help support this program, which aims to produce informed leaders in the water resources field. In addition to the lunchtime seminars, the program supplies legislative leaders with reference materials, and offers complimentary opportunities to attend Foundation events and water tours. If you would like to make a contribution to this fund, please contact us at the Foundation.
In the News
Proposed Settlement Paves Way for San Joaquin River Restoration
The possible restoration of the lower San Joaquin River below Friant Dam took a step toward reality June 30 when negotiators in a nearly 20-year lawsuit announced that a settlement had been agreed upon in principle.
Terms of the settlement were not released pending final approval of the many parties in the case. Once that occurs, the details will become finalized by the U.S. District Court. The action sets the state for an unprecedented restoration effort designed to lure salmon back to a watershed that has been largely devoid of any discernable run of fish for more than 60 years.
The matter of restoring the lower San Joaquin between Friant Dam and the Merced River has undergone a twisting journey since environmentalists and others challenged the basis by which the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) operated Friant Dam, which was built in the 1940s to provide irrigation water to farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. The case brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) against the federal government alleged that withholding adequate flows from the river violated state fish and game law.
The state of California in the 1950s essentially allowed Reclamation to bypass fish and game code in order to divert the river water for irrigation.
After much legal maneuvering and discussion, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton, in an August 2004 ruling, found “there is no genuine dispute” Reclamation failed to allow for the release of enough water from the dam to maintain the fisheries population.
Prior to Karlton’s decision, parties in the lawsuit, which included the Friant Water Users Authority (FWUA), had initiated steps to settle the dispute out of court. When that process lost momentum and it appeared the case was headed to trial court to determine the river’s fate, another round of talks led to the tentative agreement.
“We are extremely pleased by the efforts of all parties in seeking to settle this litigation,” said Ronald D. Jacobsma, consulting general manager for FWUA. “Now, as it has for many years, Friant stands ready to help make this process work.”
The more salient points of discussion related to the amount of water needed for restoration and the details of financing and oversight of what promises to be an extensive and historic rehabilitation effort.
Kate Poole, senior attorney with NRDC, said in a statement that the settlement means the litigants “can begin a new chapter - working together to restore the San Joaquin River in a manner that will benefit not just the environment, but millions of people around the state.”
Details of the agreement are expected to be released sometime in August.