Tom Trice

Water Resources: No longer taken for granted

Tom Trice
APWA President

Those living in most parts of North America are blessed with adequate sources of drinking water that we enjoy every day. We owe a debt of gratitude to the APWA members who are part of the profession that designs, constructs and operates these complex systems. They, along with those in the companion disciplines of wastewater treatment and stormwater control, provide a vital necessity—drinking water.

But the traditional methods of producing this largesse are changing. We are becoming acutely aware of limitations to resources, once thought to be inexhaustible. With ever-increasing urbanization and population, we must rethink managing our natural resources. The era of building massive projects has ended. Institutional and management strategies are replacing engineering feats in securing water supplies.

In December, Executive Director Peter King, Government Relations Director Jim Fahey and I met with Tim Ryan, Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and discussed how the economics of a region can grow and how the quality of living is affected by bringing water to areas that have people and little else. We also discussed how—with good, clean water and proper wastewater disposal—communities could grow and prosper based on the economy produced by the infrastructure.

The western states have been grappling with limited resources for years. The Colorado River Compact signed in 1922 is still being modified and disputed. This mighty river which once created the Grand Canyon is now a relative trickle as it reaches the Gulf of California. In North Dakota, plans to divert Missouri River water to the northeastern portion of the state have been proposed, and opposed, for decades. Last summer, the Army Corps of Engineers was caught between two conflicting federal court orders for releases of drought-diminished flows of the same Missouri River.

Now, even in my native state of Michigan, surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes and home to thousands of smaller lakes and rivers, the allocation of water has become a contentious subject. In 1998, a proposal to draw water from Lake Superior and transport that liquid cargo to Asia showed the shortcomings in existing international agreements controlling water diversion outside the Great Lakes basin. By 2001, the eight Great Lakes governors met with their Canadian counterparts in Ontario and Quebec to solidify regional authority to control future out-of-basin transfers.

Not everyone agrees that this update (Annex 2001) of an earlier pact is a final solution. The Michigan legislature is presently considering a constitutional amendment to prevent tapping of the Great Lakes. Michigan's Attorney General believes such an amendment unnecessary and counterproductive. Annex 2001 also brings up the possibility of new intrastate regulations. Local business leaders and farmers worry that new mandated water use restrictions/permitting could negatively impact economic development or their livelihoods.

Other areas, also with an abundance of water, have similar decisions. The States of Georgia, Alabama and Florida are having second thoughts about 1997 agreements governing three (Coosa, Chattahoochee and Flint) river basins. A major concern is the City of Atlanta's growing need for water. This need has also alarmed communities in the northeastern part of Georgia. These communities share the Savannah River basin with South Carolina, and while Atlanta is outside of that basin, there is still concern. Water is already being diverted to cities such as Greenville, SC, also removed from the Savannah watershed.

Tennessee, crossed by a number of major rivers, passed legislation to address growing water shortages. The Interbasin Water Transfer Act allows the State's Department of Environment and Conservation to monitor and regulate water transfer from one basin to another. Prior to the Act, the State had no controls over transfers.

Local scarcity in potable water has resulted in a quantum leap in the technology for and number of water reuse projects. The concept of using highly treated wastewater effluent for irrigation, aquifer recharge and indirect drinking uses is slowly gaining acceptance. Some areas simply have no choice but to seek nontraditional sources of water.

There are also new challenges for operators of wastewater treatment/collection systems. Increasing federal scrutiny and more restrictions on the quality of discharges to the nation's streams and rivers have utility managers trying to hit a moving target.

An example is the anticipated final version of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) guidance on the wastewater treatment practice known as "blending." This practice allows plants to bypass a portion of occasional high-volume wet weather flows rather than disturb or wash out the biological processes normally used to treat the sewage.

These bypassing procedures had been approved, in principle, for over 30 years. However, inconsistency in regional EPA offices' interpretation of the guidance led to an EPA's review of its guidelines and a proposed national blending policy. The draft policy, introduced over a year ago, is still not in place. Until the guidelines are formally approved, managers of the 300 publicly-owned wastewater treatment agencies have to wait to see if an estimated $100M to $200M of plant upgrades will be required.

Stormwater engineers are finding that many of the fundamental tenets of their craft are also changing. The standard practice of removing stormwater as quickly as possible has often proven to be a short-term or limited solution, as problems tend to migrate downstream. As Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco, states in a December 8 Washington Post article, "Saving America's Wetland," "The roots of the erosion (of Louisiana's coastline) ...lie in the unintended consequences of federal efforts to provide for the nation's needs."

In an attempt to mitigate adverse effects of previous work, the Army Corps of Engineers, builder of massive river shaping and flood control projects, is now restoring wetlands and flood plains lost when the projects were built. There also is increased emphasis in the field of stream restoration or the "daylighting" of existing urban stormwater systems. Removal of some of America's estimated two million dams is being pursued as we are beginning to recognize that dams aren't environmentally benign.

On a smaller scale, a new technique for designing urban subdivisions, Low Impact Development, completely reverses the old idea of rapid offsite conveyance of stormwater. By retaining rain in a controlled manner, the quality/quantity of the stormwater runoff can be improved. A similar approach is used by a City of Santa Monica stormwater treatment facility that turns approximately 225mgd of urban runoff into reuse water for irrigation and flushing.

The above examples are a small sampling of the ever-changing environment in which our water and wastewater professionals must operate. But I believe that the expertise, hard work and problem-solving skills exhibited by these dedicated men and women will come through, as they have in the past. To again quote Governor Blanco, "the more we learn, the better we perform."

I would like to thank Art Gall and Kevin Clark from our Kansas City staff for contributing to this article.