Water wasters: Worrell decries waste, centralization

 

The latest UN-designated World Water Day, according to a panel of environmental experts gathered at McGuffey Arts Center last week, was not a particularly happy one. Among many startling things learned at the March 22 forum sponsored by a new locally-based non-profit were that 900 million people around the world don't have access to fresh water, that every 17 seconds a child dies of a water-borne illness, and that ever bigger centralized systems for water, food, and waste are depleting our resources.

 

"We are still building centralized infrastructure as the Romans did," said former Daily Progress owner turned water management visionary Tom Worrell, "just under a new regime. Our goal is toward decentralization of our waste/water systems."

As our local water debate heats up again with the recent filing of a lawsuit to block construction of an approved but controversial dam project at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area, the panel of experts gathered at McGuffey criticized gluttonous world water use and emphasized the need for more conservation and innovation.

"We've got to stop living in denial," said Worrell, who, also with several panelists, asserted that fresh water is a finite and shrinking resource. "There's a problem with the planet."

One journalist described attending a historic designation ceremony for a famous spring in Florida– where senior citizens described leaping into the cold waters in their youth. However, by ceremony day, the spring was completely dry, due to over-pumping of the ground water. Even the Hoover Dam, America's premiere symbol of water abundance, could be dry by 2021, the journalist said. 

"We're still thinking bigger and bigger," said another journalist, Tara Lohan, a senior editor at AlterNet, "and the biggest thing is a dam."

Lohan, who covers food and environmental issues, said that research has shown that dams have a negative environmental impact, such as blocking fish migration and fragmenting delicate eco-systems, and are counter-intuitive to the idea of water conservation.   

"What infrastructure do we really need, and what we can do differently?" she asked. "Communities need to think about that." 

That's where Worrell comes in. His company, Worrell Water Technologies, produces something called a Living Machine, which operates as a kind of high-tech estuary that purifies waste water for re-use. Now he's launched a non-profit, Living Technology Institute, with a mission to advance ecological water treatment strategies and technologies. 

Centralized systems may once have been seen as great feats of engineering, bringing water in and waste out of cities and towns, and supplying massive amounts of food on a large scale. Such industrial systems– which may maintain what a panelist called the "illusion of abundance"– may now threaten the source.

Conspicuously absent from the McGuffey event were any representatives from the local waterworks, though Albemarle Supervisor Ann Mallek attended. Neither Worrell Water officials nor Rivanna Water & Sewer officials have uttered any criticism of the other– though they're clearly pursuing missions at odds with each other.

At one point in the McGuffey event, nearly all the audience members taking a water usage test found they fell into the "water waster" category. More surprisingly, the audience learned that until they make decisions to change their infrastructure, even the best intentions can backfire.  

For example, Jerry Yudelson, a renowned author and green-building consultant, pointed out that low-flow toilets may seem like a great idea, but that most sewer infrastructures weren't designed to handle them. 

"In San Francisco, for example, they were doing so well at water conservation that there wasn't enough water to push the sewer through the sewer pipes," Yudelson said, "and they had to spend millions flushing them out with chlorinated water." 

It's not enough to take short showers, cease lawn watering, or install low-flow toilets, the panelists said; we need to think about replacing the systems we use to supply water and get rid of waste water. If we don't, the experts say, water will become a new and vicious battleground.

"Water is the 21st century oil," said Yudelson. "As the earth's population grows, and as fresh water becomes more scarce, we're going to be fighting over this for a long time. To avoid a crisis, something dramatic needs to change in the next 15 years."

That change, said the panelist, needs to be the widespread acceptance of conservation, even if it means making it more expensive to use. 

"We still have a high-water-use lifestyle," said Yudelson, "and water is still cheap. That's an inhibiting force to conservation."

While researching for her book, Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis, journalist Cynthia Barnett discovered there were 63,000 square miles of grass lawns in the United States, basically a 51st state of fescue. However, as Lohan pointed out, there are places in the world where people wait 10 hours to get two buckets of water from a dirty well. 

"We need a new water ethic, a set of shared beliefs," said Barnett. "Otherwise its going to take a major crisis." 

Barnett pointed out that crises has already hit. 

In October 2007, following a prolonged drought, Lake Lanier, the primary source of water for greater Atlanta, had only about a two- to four-month supply of water. That created a water war among Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. According to Barnett, $30 million was spent on lawyers, with the water problem still unsolved (and officials are considering building a new dam) while Atlanta-area water prices are among the nation's highest. 

"Water is the next big green thing," said Yudelson, and while the challenges are great, so are the opportunities for water-related businesses, he said. 

To that end, David Andrews, a representative of non-profit advocacy group Food & Water Watch, said that local communities need to learn to live in harmony with nature, sourcing both food and water from local sources in smart and innovative ways. 

"We have to change our culture," said Andrews. "Food and water security should be considered together, we need to talk about this holistically, and to appreciate the complexity of our ecological systems."

Instead, Andrews pointed out, governments tend to coerce nature into serving needs with centralized farming operations that only produce three or four things, or damming rivers that had served surrounding ecological systems perfectly for eons.

"We have to have a better relationship with the earth," said Andrews. 

Could be, however, that the desires of so-called civilized cultures too often clash with nature. As Barnett pointed out, Thomas Jefferson is often applauded for building a rainwater-catching cistern system at Monticello. The problem, Barnett explained, is that the visionary Jefferson never really got the system to supply Monticello with sufficient water.

"He had to work against nature, particularly gravity, to get water to Monticello," said Barnett, "because he had decided to build his house on top of a mountain." 

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13 comments

If we pull water out of the river, use it to take a shower and then clean it and dump it back in the river to run its course are we not just "borrowing" the water?

I understand lake lanier and droughts, but when it rains if the lake were bigger it would have enough to get eveybody through would it not?

Nature makes its own dams begiining with tree branches, beavers all the way to earthquakes.

It sounds to me like water is a local issue not an international one.

If someone does not have water at their home then perhaps they shgould move nearer the water supply.

There is more than enough water to go around we just need to get the people and the water together.

Oh by the way, on the way home I passed by the rescue squad building at 250 and McIntyre? they were washing a car outside.

Well and septic is a good thing since the water is all recycled, but you can't do that in high density areas.
Charlottesville has unique hydrology for a city in the east. Most eastern towns have better access to durable water sources (greater Atlanta like Charlottesville is a notable exception). Our problem here is there is no true aquifer for ground water storage and we rely on the flows of what are essentially local creeks like the Rivanna River. All the streams have no groundwater sources to keep them going during dry spells and they have watersheds of very modest size. Hence it is a "run of the river" system very vulnerable to drought conditions. All this represents a challenge to significant population growth. Of course we always have plenty of water available form the streams in winter and most of the balance of the year. The problems arise during periodic summer droughts and could be mitigated by an absolute ban on irrigation during summer months. Green lawns are not really essential to a full life and brown lawns come back when the rain does. irrigation for agriculture isn't a factor here as it is in the west. A stiff fine for even having a hose connected to an outside spiggot would go a long way to eliminate domestic water supply problems. You want to water your grass, then collect rainwater off your roof.

There is far more ground water available in our watershed than previously thought, see this study:

The Role of Groundwater Ecosystem Services in Determining an Optimal Sustainable Population Size for the Charlottesville/Albemarle Community, by Nick H. Evans and Michael C. Collins (2010)

We have never had a professional study done of our watershed to determine the best way to supply water and care for our streams and rivers. Our Water Authority ( RWSA), although they have spent easily 20 million planning for our water supply has done so in an unprofessional manner with their eye to exactly the opposite of what this organization promotes.

After years of misleading the public RWSA is on the brink of closing the deal with an overbuilt, overpriced water system from the dark ages - a dam and uphill pipeline whose water source is 10 miles away. A plan written by the Nature Conservancy for their own self interest. If you are confused why they would do this read this article -

http://www.readthehook.com/99648/flaws-tripled-rates-spun-numbers-and-co...

Charlottesville is smarter than this - This nonsense must stop. If elected officials continue to support this type of planning they should not be re-elected and citizens with the skills to plan for a better future need to be elected or we will all pay a huge price in dollars and resources in our community.

Pay attention to Mr. Worrell, or be forever complicit in a tragedy about to happen.

" We've got to stop living in denial," said former Daily Progress owner Tom Worrell in a rare public appearance. "There's a problem with the planet."

Citizens from this community fought for years to stop this tragedy but the development community assisted by the Nature Conservancy beat them at the ballot box. Now there is a lawsuit and this is the last hope to stop this monumental mistake in water planning.

By donating to this cause you will be part of the solution and not complicit in this plan that will further damage the planet and our community.

Please donate now and thank you for helping to stop this tragedy.

http://www.cvillealliance.com/

The big problem is that years of conditioning has led the public (that means you and me) to expect limitless quantities of potable water to pour forth from faucets at costs which , if not absolutely free, might as well be. The rancorous public discourse about gasoline prices reflects this for the same reasons. All manner of resources are expected to be available at "convenience fee" prices and the real world isn't that fantasy made real. We badly need a tiered water rate system with basic necessity rates for water set fairly low and rates for profligate consumption levels rising rapidly. What would be a fair rate of water usage for a typical household? How much for a shower of 5 minutes duration. How many 1.6 gallon commode flushes? How many loads of wash, etc? In other words, how much essentially free water is everyone entitled to? The voting public says; "As much as we want" . So until we move past that we have overpriced and destructive projects all so thoughtless people can run hundreds of gallons onto their lawns and let half of it run down the gutters. Nobody is going to save anything if it's free or close to it, and that's the problem we have in this society with all kinds of things. Water is the least of it. Electricity and fossil fuel are the other big deals where people in a culture based on no limits expect to be able to just use it as though it were free, then complain if the already ridiculously low prices are raised in the least.

erik, The conundrum with the current water plan is- that it is so costly and stores so much more water than even water hogs could use, it necessitates ever increasing rates beyond a normal person's ability to pay. The ever higher rates will of course mean people will use less forcing our water authority to raise rates even higher to cover the debt on what will be $200 million for the system they are planning.

I see another Harrisburg Pa on the way for Charlottesville/Albemarle when rates have maxed out, but debt service is pending .

Harrisburg Files for Bankruptcy on Overdue Incinerator Debt

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, facing a state takeover of its finances, filed for bankruptcy protection after failing to pay the debt on a trash-to-energy incinerator.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-10-12/pennsylvania-capital-harrisburg...

If you are new to our local water debate here is an excellent source of information .

If you care at all about our local water resources please read this.

http://cvillewater.info/

The Hook won the highest state journalism award for their coverage - another excellent resource

http://www.readthehook.com/73751/story-archive-hook-water-supply-articles

"The ever higher rates will of course mean people will use less forcing our water authority to raise rates even higher to cover the debt on what will be $200 million for the system they are planning."

Ever since the lies about the cost of dredging etc. began, I've wondered if bankrupting the system here was actually the plan. Once that happens, the arguments for privatization will be made and the city will not be able to do anything to stop it. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/10/08/the-race-to-buy-up-the-... Nestle, who funds the Nature Conservancy, just happens to be in that business.

"Even as many U.S. cities look toward ceding their water infrastructure to private interests, others are waging expensive legal battles to get out of such contracts. In 2009 Camden, N.J., sued United Water (an American subsidiary of the French giant Suez) for $29 million in unapproved payments, high unaccounted-for water losses, poor maintenance, and service disruptions. In Milwaukee a state audit found that the same company violated its contract by shutting down sewage pumps to save money; the move resulted in billions of gallons of raw sewage spilling into Lake Michigan. And in Gary, Ind., which canceled its contract with United Water after 12 years, critics say privatization more than doubled annual operating costs. “It ends up being a roundabout way to tax people,” Hauter says. “Only it’s worse than a tax because they don’t spend the money maintaining the system.”"

Not sure it would be much worse than our water authority . They haven't maintained the reservoir at South Fork, the pipeline from Sugar Hollow or upgraded the spillway at the Ragged Mt dam. No, they just want to throw away what we have and start over .

"Our commitment to water advocacy, environmental sustainability, and community partnerships has helped make us the industry's leading bottled water company." That doublespeak comes from Nestlé Waters North America a major player in the $15 billion US bottled water industry. They profit immensely from filling disposable containers with water and selling them to people who already have perfectly good water supplies.

"In San Francisco, the municipal water comes from inside Yosemite National Park. It's so good the EPA doesn't require San Francisco to filter it. If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000."
http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/117/features-message-in-a-bottle.htm...

Nestlé Waters can charge far more for water than any municipality could ever dream of and could easily sweep in an make a cash strapped local authority, oh like maybe RWSA, an offer that they might gladly accept even if it was not in the best long term interests of the citizenry. The structure that is being put in place would leave us powerless to stop them. The recent procurement scandal in city hall shows us that questionable practices are allowed to happen even when there isn't evidence of a payoff to the city staff involved. Imagine what a huge company might be able to swing if they did show up with cash to spread around under the table I have no evidence of any impropriety in the past dealings over the water plan, but I would not be surprised at all if an investigation were to reveal that evidence.

Since I've used up my one link, I'll leave it to anyone interested to search for information on Chicago's 75 year lease of it's parking meters to a foreign based sovereign wealth fund. That's relevant because of the shortsightedness of the scheme, ie. a quick payoff for an asset that obviously has high value, as well as the fact that a lease rather than a sale was involved. Leasing is the legal loophole that the city has tried to exploit in the current deal and would most likely be the way for them to skirt any legal challenges future attempts to privatize the local supply.

Lets try to think long range and introduce something practical in high school curriculum.
How many kids know how power arrives at a wall socket or how water arrives at a spigot?
Most homeowners don't know either, they just gripe about the cost.

Well i've got news for them, the true cost is far higher than the monthly bill, Hooo, Haaa, Hoo,WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.