The water tankers are not yet lined up to bring relief to Southeastern cities, and neither is a remake of “The Grapes of Wrath” in the offing for the Great Plains, but, severe drought conditions around the country definitely have brought a renewed focus on the public sector’s water management practices.
Last year, much of the Southeast was in the midst of what the federal government terms an “exceptional drought,” the highest level of drought intensity, while a good portion of the West and Great Plains were placed in lesser categories of “severe” and “extreme” drought. Georgia’s conditions even have inspired the state’s chief executive to lead a vigil praying for rain. “You have to recognize that Georgia is in a drought of historic proportions,” Gov. Sonny Perdue told National Public Radio in October. “Georgia is a blessed state. Usually we get adequate rainfall.”
At the request of the Western Governors Association in November, the federal government launched the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), which updates drought forecasts weekly on its Web site. With the situation growing dire, governors are declaring water emergencies, and states are suspecting that their neighbors are siphoning off water, proving Mark Twain’s adage, “Whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’.”
A plan that delivers
Yet, amid all the hubbub about water supplies, a growing thirst is surfacing for new and innovative approaches to water management that are both cost-effective and environmentally sensitive. In developing creative solutions to their water needs, some cities, counties and other water management districts anticipated today’s troubles by years and even decades.
Ironically, one solution can be found in Clayton County, Ga., right in the middle of the same metro Atlanta area that is suffering such severe drought and imposing rigorous water restrictions. “It’s [as if it is] raining every day in Clayton County,” says Michael Thomas, Clayton County Water Authority’s general manager. “We’re putting 10 million gallons back into our reservoirs every day.”
While most of the Atlanta area depends on Lake Lanier for its drinking supply, Clayton County draws from a series of 21 man-made reservoirs and wetlands. The key to the county’s system is its ability to recycle wastewater back into its drinking system, using water treatment facilities and nature’s own purification system.
Recently, Atlanta residents have seen the shores of Lake Lanier recede 60 feet, limiting water from the lake to about three months without rain and the worst lake level in a generation, while Clayton County’s water supply is estimated to last eight months or more, even without replenishing rains. The county has two reservoirs with a total capacity of 4.2 billion gallons.
The Clayton County system was devised about 20 years ago as a result of a drought that made the water authority aware of the unreliability of only drawing water from the Flint River and smaller creeks, as the rest of the area tapped into Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River. “These little creeks would dry up in the summertime, so they built reservoirs as the only way to provide for themselves,” Thomas says.
The county began digging ponds to store wastewater in the 1980s and then purchased a 4,000-acre forest, laid 300 miles of pipeline and installed 20,000 sprinklers throughout it. The sprinklers spray lightly treated wastewater into the forest, which soaks into the soil and eventually works its way back to the two man-made reservoirs.
To keep up with the demands of a growing community, the authority is replacing the forest system with 400 acres of wetlands, which are filled with cattails, bulrush, water lilies and prickle weed. Again, the water works its way back to the reservoirs. The cleansing process takes two years.
In both systems, the water receives a final treatment to ensure that it meets drinking water standards, but the wetlands area is a much more efficient use of the land, Thomas says. In addition to increasing the county’s supply of water, the wetlands area is attracting new wildlife, adapting to the change from woods to wetlands. And, eventually, the unneeded forestland may be opened for more recreational use.
“We get lots of visitors who never knew this was here,” Thomas says about the wetlands area. “We get visitors from Australia and Fort Walton Beach, Fla. They are impressed that we have a natural reserve of wetlands in an urban area. And we’re drought proofed.”
Drought motivates change
Wringing every drop of liquid out of the system and storing what is not used to get through the driest periods is San Antonio’s game plan to meet expanding water needs in a resource-poor environment. As in Clayton County, city leaders decided to diversify the water supply after a drought, says Karen Guz, director of conservation for the San Antonio Water System (SAWS). “The city decided that the primary source would be water conservation and built it right into the rate structure,” she says.
Unlike other cities that rely on reservoirs, lakes and rivers, San Antonio sits on top of its water, the Edwards Aquifer. Water runs down from the hill country and replenishes the aquifer.
In the 1990s, the area suffered from a severe drought, and city leaders revised the rate structure with dedicated funds that would be used for water conservation. The difference between the conservation programs in other communities and San Antonio’s is the reliable source of dollars, not subject to whims from changing administrations. “We have the results to show for it,” Guz says.
Established in 1993, the program anticipated a per person water use reduction goal of 12 percent by 2008. By 2001, the city reached its goal — seven years early. By 2003, usage was reduced by 20 percent. During the same period, the SAWS service population increased by about 28 percent while total water demand remained the same. The city estimates its total savings at 175.5 billion gallons since the program began, based on the comparison of current consumption to the predicted consumption trends that existed in the 1970s when no conservation program existed.
Considering that the system estimates that new resource supplies cost $3,130 per 1 million gallons, the city says that the 175.5 billion gallons conserved may have saved the community $549 million, based on current costs if water had to be developed at today’s prices. In 2005, San Antonio spent $3,572,832 on direct programming that saved an estimated 2.7 billion gallons.
The utility estimates that one-third of its 300,000 accounts representing 1.2 million people have taken advantage of its programs. Many nearby smaller communities have adopted conservation ordinances that mimic SAWS. Some also have contracted with SAWS for a variety of conservation services and have participated with them in joint purchasing agreements for conservation equipment like shower heads and super efficient toilets.
Money for San Antonio’s conservation programs comes from its biggest water users who pay at the highest end of the rate scale. Ironically, as the high-end users become more efficient, the original source of funding diminishes. For the first time, the city is considering a rate increase at the top tier to maintain the conservation funding, Guz says.
She admits that it may be more difficult to continue to maintain the water consumption savings at the same pace as in the last decade through conservation programs like fixing water leaks and giving away efficient toilets. “But we keeping finding new ways, and there’s always new technology that comes down the line. We don’t see the end in sight as long as the funding is there.”
Dam’s the consequences
Expecting an increase from 520,000 people today to more than 900,000 in the next 25 years, Portland, Ore., area water managers have taken another approach to meeting anticipated growth in the city’s metropolitan suburbs: Taking over a dam. “We went through a process to look at our options,” says Mark Jockers, government and public affairs manager for Clean Water Services, the area’s water utility. “We had to figure out where to get it.”
Managers decided they should add capacity to the existing dam and reservoir system, known as the Tualatin Basin, which draws its water primarily from Mount Hood. The federal government, which currently owns the facilities, suggested that the local governments take title to the facilities, which could considerably simplify decision making, and lessen the construction costs and wait time. “We can complete it in 15 years, which is lightning fast,” Jockers says. “And, we will save 25 percent on the construction cost.”
The project is waiting for an environmental impact statement, which is expected early in 2008. Because one of the proposed options is to raise Scoggins Dam, which is a federal facility, the federal partner in the project, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, will issue the Draft Planning Report/Environmental Impact Statement (PR/EIS), which will cost an estimated $6.87 million. Of that amount, the local governments will pay $3.97 million.
Some or all facilities in the Tualatin Project currently owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation could be transferred to local officials, including Scoggins Dam; Hagg Lake and the adjoining recreational facilities operated by Washington County; along with irrigation pipes, pumps and other facilities operated by Tualatin Valley Irrigation District. The transfer also would include operation and maintenance responsibilities, legal liability and regulatory requirements.
Title transfer offers several potential benefits to both local water resource managers and the federal government. In addition to reducing decision-making complexity, local ownership and control of facilities and water rights will improve flexibility, which could lead to more efficient management of Tualatin Basin’s water resources. Title transfer also would end the federal government’s responsibility for the project’s ongoing operation, maintenance, replacement, management, regulation and liability.
Community sewer and water customers will pay for the project. Though the dollar amounts are significant, Jockers says the cost ultimately will be a huge bargain for the communities involved in the project. The title transfer process is not unique, he says, but it is the largest undertaken by the Bureau of Reclamation. The original idea for transferring ownership of similar facilities to communities came from the reinventing government initiative under Vice President Al Gore in the 1990s.
The Tualatin Project has resulted in “integrated water resources management,” Jockers says, because so many different local agencies and interests had to come together to agree on the project. “We had to figure out how to balance all of the needs of the different groups,” he says. That included sportsmen, farmers and developers, in addition to the local governments that wanted to ensure a dependable water supply.
“This project may be a model for more, but the Bureau of Reclamation said that each time they do it, it’s different,” Jockers says. “This one is on a very rapid timeline, and it’s more complex than some.”
Robert Barkin is a Bethesda, Md.-based freelance writer.