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40 Years of the Clean Water Act

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Where does YOUR drinking water come from?
40 Years of the Clean Water Act

By: Lauren Alleman

Happy 40th Birthday Clean Water Act! You’ve been a lovely piece of legislation to all of us who love swimming, fishing, farming, boating, bathing, and drinking clean, tasty water. Personally, I’d like to thank you for addressing the issue of acid mine drainage into trout streams and mandating that impacts to wetlands are compensated. I’m also grateful that your standards mean I don’t have to think twice about turning on the faucet for a glass of clean drinking water.

As riveting as it might be to pick through the intricacies of the CWA’s 40-year legislative history, I propose we talk about clean water—pure and simple. Where does YOUR drinking water come from?

Clean water is a luxury not afforded by every country. In 2010, 6.1 billion people had access to clean water, beating the UN’s Millennium Development Goals target of 88% of the global population by 2015. Although the 88% includes the vast majority of the Western Hemisphere, the process required to treat and distribute water is not always without great effort and expense.

Map tracking of the UN Millennium Development Goal of clean water drinking.
Image courtesy of the International Monetary Fund.

Great Ecology’s offices are located in three distinct ecoregions—and the journey our drinking water takes from the source to our faucet in these three locations couldn’t be more different….

New York, New York: Land Preservation

Let’s begin the tour of clean drinking water in our firm’s founding location, New York City. NYC water is famously delicious—the LA Times described a young entrepreneur selling bottled New York City tap water! The history of NYC’s good quality water dates back to a series of decisions beginning in the 1830s, when city planners decided to invest in infrastructure to bring in clean water from as far north as necessary rather than build filtration works that would draw from less optimal sources.

NYC’s water supply system.
Image courtesy of the Dept. Environmental Protection.

The Croton River watershed, approximately 15 to 20 miles north of the city, supplied clean water until the 1910s when the growing population required the City to look to the Catskills/Delaware regions to meet demand. This was only a temporary solution; increasing development in the 1980s threatened water quality and rendered treatment necessary to meet drinking water standards. Again in 1997, the City was at another crossroads. It could construct and maintain another water treatment facility using water from upstate in the Catskill/Delaware watersheds, or it could protect and conserve the water source. The first option would have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually to filter and supply 1.2 billion gallons of water daily to 9 million people in the 5 boroughs plus Westchester, Orange, Putnam and Ulster Counties. Instead, after negotiating with the EPA, the city entered an agreement that would require land acquisition in the Catskills/Delaware watershed regions and a rigorous watershed protection program, in exchange for a Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD). A FAD is an EPA qualification that states no filtration is required to ensure the public water supply meets quality standards, and a watershed control program is in place to limit microbial contamination. This program proved to be so successful that the EPA issued another 10-year FAD in 2007. Since 1997, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection has protected more than 70,000 acres of land!

Annual Precipitation: 49 inches per year (Central Park)
Distance water travels: 80 miles from Ashokan Reservoir (Catskills)
Fun Fact: NYC has the United States’ largest unfiltered water system

Denver, Colorado: Water Law

The next stop is our newest branch location, the Mile High City. Water in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains starts as snow at 14,000 feet and melts to form major rivers, including the Arkansas, Colorado, Rio Grande, and the Yampa, among many others—158 to be exact. With so many rivers, it would seem that water would be plentiful—and it is, at least seasonally. Extensive reservoir systems are required to catch and store water for year-round use. Varying priorities such as minimum flows for fisheries, adequate water for recreation (kayaking, rafting, skiing), and irrigation for agriculture compete with residential water needs. These competing priorities are further complicated by the system of western water law—every single drop of precipitation that falls in the arid West is accounted for, belongs to someone, and is regulated. In addition, as part of interstate agreements, Colorado supplies water for many thirsty neighbors, including Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Image courtesy of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

In addition to moving water across state lines, Colorado moves water across the state to semi-arid metropolitan areas such as Denver.

Trans-mtn. Roberts Tunnel transports water across the state.
Image courtesy of DenverWater.org

75% of the state’s water falls on the western slope but is needed on the eastern slope, along the Front Range, which includes the cities of Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins. Water from the western slope travels through a trans-basin diversion system before reaching the Front Range. One such system, the trans-mountain Roberts Tunnel, took 16 years to build.

The city of Denver relies on the South Platte, Blue River, Williams Fork, and Fraser rivers for water that is cached in a number of reservoirs—the largest of which is Dillon Reservoir, which holds 40% of the city’s water supply. Additionally, Denver is making strides to recycle water and manage forests by developing watershed protection plans through key partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service.

Annual Precipitation: 15 inches per year (Denver)
Distance water travels: 60 miles from Dillon Reservoir
Fun Fact: It’s illegal to collect your own rainwater in Colorado, unless you have an exempt well permit

San Diego, California: Desalination

The last stop on the clean water tour is our West coast location, La Jolla, California. Southern California imports a massive amount of water to sustain its population. San Diego County alone imports approximately 80% of its water, including 50 to 70% from the Colorado River and the remainder from the Sacramento Bay-Delta. Only 4% of the city’s water comes from local recycled (non-potable) sources!

San Diego County imports approximately 80% of its water.
Image courtesy of the San Diego County Water Authority.

Keeping up with demand is a significant challenge. By 2050, the city’s demand for water will increase by a projected 37%. Combined with the expected decrease in the Colorado River’s flow, as a result of climate change, the demand will be more than imported sources can supply. To accommodate the difference in demand and anticipated supply, the San Diego County Water Authority turned to desalination to save the day.

Reverse osmosis desalination.
Illustration by Colin Hayes
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Desalination is the process of removing salt from saline water, turning it into fresh water. Last month, they released a proposed water purchase agreement with Poseidon Resources, private developers of the desalination plant. The plant will use reverse osmosis, an energy-intensive process, to produce 50-million gallons of fresh water each day, for an estimated one-time capital cost of $1 billion and $50 million in annual operating costs. The desalination plant will provide an estimated 7% of the region’s water. Unbelievably, the cost of producing water through desalination may be lower than resorting to additional local sources of water (like treated toilet water – yum!).

Annual Precipitation: 10 inches per year (San Diego)
Distance water travels: 400+ miles from the Bay-Delta
Fun Fact: North America currently accounts for nearly 20% of the total global desalination efforts (the Middle East represents 53.4%)

Regardless of where in the country you live, the CWA regulations ensure that your drinking water meets our national standards—even if it requires substantial effort and cost, as we’ve seen is the case in New York City, Denver, and San Diego.

We’ve come a long way since the 1972 passage of the CWA, which actually resulted from Congress overturning President Nixon’s veto of the bill by a 10:1 vote. Laws can evolve and change—sometimes for the better, but often to accommodate development or economic growth at the expense of the original law’s intent. Current challenges facing the CWA in Congress today include weakening protection to streams and small wetlands as well as key fish and wildlife habitat, due to a series of Supreme Court decisions made in the early 2000s. Learn more more about the future of Clean Water Act.

2 Comments »

  1. […] call San Diego home, most of us pay little attention to the actual lack of water in San Diego. The region imports 80% of their water from the Colorado River and Sacramento Bay […]

    Pingback by Ecological consultants analyze desalination — November 30, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

  2. […] as the climate warms. Snowmaking also is a strain on energy and water resources, and in states like Colorado, where water rights are recognized, snowmaking becomes increasingly difficult and expensive. There […]

    Pingback by Environmental consulting & climate changes for the ski season — December 7, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

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