Category: Commentaries

Water and COVID-19: Challenges and Opportunities

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of life in the United States. It has significant implications for water and wastewater systems. Consider these examples. Drinking Water There is mostly good news about drinking water. We know that infected individuals can shed the virus in fecal matter, which then enters the sewer system. But wastewater treatment technology regularly removes viruses and pathogens, so there is little risk that COVID-19 would end up in drinking water. It could get into the environment through cracks in sewer pipes or after heavy storms, when treatment plants are overwhelmed with combined storm and sewer…

Great Lakes’ biggest worries much closer to home than arid Southwest

Thirsty businesses and unsustainable groundwater use by agriculture pose the biggest threats to the Midwest's water supply. A few years ago, a Michigan billboard—reading "Back off suckers: Water diversion . . . the last straw"—showed caricatures of Southwestern states with giant straws going into the Great Lakes. Is this the Midwest's future? Whenever I come to the Midwest for a talk, I usually display a slide of the billboard and then scold the audience: It's preposterous to think that we in the Southwest want to divert all the water in the Great Lakes. We'd settle for just one of the…

Water harvesting as a solution for island communities

As Maine’s island communities and coastal residents address water supply problems created by rising sea levels (see "Monhegan's water supply threatened," December/January issue, they may want to borrow a tool developed in the arid West. Water harvesting involves capturing precipitation, whether rain, snow or sleet. Saltwater intrusion into coastal groundwater aquifers has bedeviled Maine homeowners as well as others on the East, Gulf and West coasts. When water gets pumped from wells, the pumping creates a hydraulic vacuum that moves water, fresh or salt, laterally until the pressure subsides. Gravity relentlessly moves water to its lowest level. As ocean water warms, it…

Local Opinion: Drought contingency plans embrace water marketing

At Hoover Dam on May 20th, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hosted the seven Colorado River Basin states at a ceremony to celebrate the signing of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans. The jubilant mood of the dignitaries masked a grim reality facing the Basin states: legal rights to Colorado River water exceed the amount of water in the river, which supplies water to 40 million people and irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland. The act authorizing the plans, which Congress enacted in a rare display of bipartisanship, is only a few paragraphs long. It simply instructs the secretary of…

Does Arizona have enough water? Why that’s such a tough question to answer

Maricopa County is the fastest growing in the nation. The allure of the Southwest remains strong, and demographers predict that the state's population will climb from 6.8 million in 2017 to 8.2 million by 2030. Finding enough water will challenge water managers. Warmer temperatures mean more rain - and ironically, less water to store The Earth is getting warmer. 2014 was the hottest on record – until 2015, which was the hottest until 2016 and 2017, which was even hotter. Climate change has already started to alter Arizona's weather. Climate scientists predict lower precipitation levels for the Southwest. Warmer temperatures…

Wading Into Colorado River Negotiations

Time is almost up for Arizona to approve a drought contingency plan. The Arizona Legislature has until Jan. 31 to approve a drought contingency plan for the Colorado River. A working group has spent months trying to come up with a plan that satisfies cities, farmers and Native Americans with a stake in the future of the Colorado River. The Colorado River is at record lows, and a shortage is expected to be declared in the coming year. Tucson Water is a major player in the construction of the drought contingency plan. The water utility agreed to give water to…

2 not-so-smart things Arizona has done in the name of water

Gov. Doug Ducey proclaimed in 2016: “If there’s one thing Arizona is best in the nation at, it’s water.” The governor has good reason to boast about his state’s surprisingly robust record in innovative water policy. Yet the state has stumbled in proposing seawater desalination as a way to obtain additional potable water and failed by allowing our rivers to suffer horrible degradation. Desalination is no magic bullet Plans to import new sources of water face practical, financial and environmental challenges. In a 2012 study, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation concluded that trans-basin diversions and interstate canals fail basic cost-benefit…

6 innovative water policies that helped Arizona grow during a drought

One seldom sees the words “Arizona” and “progressive” in the same sentence. But when it comes to water, Arizona has often been at the cutting edge of legal and policy reform. An arid climate, surging population and declining groundwater tables drove Arizona to be creative. Innovation 1: Slow groundwater use The 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act banned the drilling of new wells in areas of the state suffering the greatest water table declines and required developers and municipalities to show that they have an “assured water supply” before they receive permits to break ground for new projects. Innovation 2: Store…

Technology is cropping up in our lettuce fields

In Yuma, Arizona, agriculture has embraced technology to increase yield. In his 1986 classic, Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner portrayed agriculture in the Yuma, Arizona, region as a poster child for what’s wrong with how water is used in the West. He sketched a situation that would have amused the cartoonist Rube Goldberg: The Bureau of Reclamation built a hugely expensive desalination plant in the desert, and the water it produced cost $300 an acre-foot so that irrigators could continue to grow federally subsidized surplus crops that cost them $3.50 an acre-foot. Reisner suggested a far cheaper solution: Buy out the…