The Value of Water
This week, the Value of Water Coalition asks us to Imagine a Day Without Water, which is no simple task. When you think about the Northwest, the first thought is water. Water falling from the sky and flowing though the colossal Columbia River. You think about months of rain, wellies, soggy streets, and landscapes dominated by a deep green and accented by more green. The Northwest is rich in water…right?
The current drought has shown that we are not immune to shortage. This year, the Northwest has seen record low snow pack with record high temperatures, resulting in fish kills, prompting fishing restrictions, and drawing down reservoirs to reveal cemeteries of long submerged tree stumps. These conditions are a reminder that even in the Northwest, we need to value the water that we have.
So do we value water? The short answer is not enough. In 2010, Circle of Blue did a comparison of water rates in 30 metropolitan areas across the country. The average family of four using 100 gallons of water per person per day could be paying anywhere from $19/month in San Antonio to $121/month in Santa Fe (find the full article and data here). If the upper end of that range sounds high, consider that many people pay far more for their family’s cell phone and data plans, for cable access, or a number of other discretionary expenses.
Clean water arrives at our homes at turn of a tap, and is available all day, every day. We take for granted that our water supply is safe to drink. Similarly, few people think about what needs to happen to the water after we wash it down the sink or flush it down the toilet – it just goes “away.” Rain runoff picks up pollutants, such as the oil from our driveways or the fertilizer in our yards, and flows into sewer drains – out of sight and mind. So if those figures for what we pay for water still sound high, remember that the liter of bottled water selling for $2.50 at the gas station would cost just one seventh of one cent coming from a tap in Portland, Oregon.
The disparity between price and value of water is an American tradition. Massive federal investments in water infrastructure in the 1800s and early 1900s covered the cost of building water delivery and sewer systems. Those are costs that Americans never had to see in their bill. Instead, the typical water bill went to operating and maintaining the pipes, pump stations, and treatment plants. This is analogous to keeping your used car running without saving for a new one. Now, much of that infrastructure needs to be replaced and federal investment is not part of the equation. Cities large and small need to find ways to cover the full freight of upgrading aging or obsolete infrastructure, which may include raising rates for their customers. Communicating the value of water is a critical piece of making the transition to rate structures that cover the true cost of drinking water, sanitary, and stormwater services.
Another piece of that transition is doing more with less and valuing water as a resource in new ways, including the water we typically consider waste, like sewage and runoff from storms. Those who manage the water that flushes down or runs off are thinking about and branding themselves not around “waste water” but “resource recovery.”
Reuse on the rise: Water reuse is taking treated wastewater (also “reclaimed” water or sewage) for beneficial purposes, such as drinking, irrigation, or industrial uses. To most, the thought of reuse is just plain yucky. While that reaction is understandable, resource recovery agencies think it is undeserved given the effectiveness of modern treatment techniques. This year, Clean Water Services in Washington County, Oregon, and Milwaukee’s, Wisconsin’s Metropolitan Sewerage District each brewed beer with reclaimed water and then faced off at a national conference over the right to claim the best sewage brew. The initiative has been successful at starting a conversation about reclaimed water because, as highlighted in this video, all water is recycled and beer is delicious.
Making the most of runoff: Another oft-maligned water resource is stormwater. Stormwater is a concern primarily in cities, where streets, buildings, and parking lots keep rain from soaking into the ground where it falls. Instead, it runs across the urban landscape causing erosion, flooding, and carrying dirt, oil, and other pollutants into rivers and streams. The City of Portland makes the most of runoff by using green streets, ecoroofs, trees, and other green infrastructure to manage stormwater, while also providing additional benefits to city residents. By reducing peak stormwater volume and flows, green infrastructure protects the capacity of existing sewer infrastructure and provides for more efficient operations. Green infrastructure also provides more green spaces for urban residents, absorbs heat and can provide shade to reduce urban heat islands, infiltrates rain to replenish ground water, and filters out water and air pollutants. These green additions to the urban landscape can also improve property values, provide habitat for wildlife, and even make us healthier.
These are just a couple of the examples that we have seen demonstrating a heightened value on water. So imagine a day without water, and then tell us how you value it – in what you spend and what you do.
Guest blogger, Jane Bacchieri, is a member of Willamette Partnership’s Board and joined the Bureau of Environmental Services as the Watershed Services Group Manager in January 2011. She is responsible for managing implementation of Portland’s Watershed Management, Sustainable Stormwater Management, and Science, Fish and Wildlife programs. Ms. Bacchieri has 20 years of experience in natural resources management, including 4 years as a Policy Advisor for Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski and positions with the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, Oregon Department of State Lands, Portland State University, and the National Park Service. She has a Masters in Environmental Management from Duke University and an undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Vermont.