If water is essential to human survival and we are running it into a state of scarcity, why doesn’t the price change? The past two blog entries on the ‘Worth of Water’ have reflected the reliance our economy has on the steady supply of water, leading to the question: what is the worth of an inch of water?
All goods have a market value, even if there isn’t a market price—but with water the value is too high to be given a suitable price. The economic paradox about the price of water versus the value originally comes from Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations who asked: Why do diamonds cost more than water? Smith states “[n]othing is more useful than water,” but it doesn’t have enough monetary value to be exchanged for anything. On the other hand, diamonds have nearly no value in their usefulness, but are worth so much money they can be exchanged for nearly anything—leading to the question: how do you price a priceless asset?
The price of water needs to not only encompass the supply and demand, but also should absorb the cost of maintaining the quality of the water—also known as internalization. Moreover, there is hidden water use in everyday products—almost all materials and products require water to be produced. For example, it takes more than three gallons of water to make a single sheet of paper, seventy gallons of water to produce one gallon of gas, and thirty-five gallons of water to produce a bicycle. Nearly everything we use, eat, and drive/ride requires water to produce.
In general, government regulations require companies that damage natural resources like water to clean up their mess. The full cost to society from the production of goods is a reduction in water resources and, if the water isn’t properly processed, contamination leads to further externalities seen in pollution and, therein, health costs where the citizens are absorbing the costs of a manufacturers externality.
When the manufacturer cleans their own water through a waste water treatment process, they are internalizing their own externalities and absorbing their own costs. After cleaning the production water through chemistry and system treatment, the water is worth the same as when they received it from the POTW. They paid for the water, used it, and cleaned it themselves—this is known as an equilibrium where the cost for all absorbed externalities are seen in the cost of the manufactured products themselves. The manufacturer must choose to discharge the water back to the POTW or reuse it by rerouting it to the beginning of the manufacturing process to be reused. If the manufacturing facility were to discharge this water back to the POTW after the water goes through a treatment process, they would be in a constant state of cost as every time the water goes through a treatment it absorbs cost through chemicals, man power, hours, solid waste discharge, and the overall cost of operating the treatment system. However, by using a reuse system in this process and reusing their own waste water, they are not having to pay for new water from the POTW. Manufacturers are absorbing their pollution externalities by cleaning their own water, and, by doing so, are cost-shifting their activities. By decreasing liability on their neighbors, improving safety, health, and environmental hazards, manufacturers are also phasing into a cleaner, green economy and continual economic equilibrium.
In a future installment, we will give a cost-based example of how environmental economics works in the industry setting.
Katie McIntyre represented ProChem and our collaborative venture (KLeeNwater) with EES by presenting this week at the MEGA Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland.
MEGA focuses on the power plant industry response to upcoming environmental policy and consequent operational challenges. Acting as the power plant industry’s leading technical conference, MEGA includes policy discussion and sessions on water and air technology to meet the challenges of current requirements and regulations. The 2018 MEGA emphasized approaching up-coming regulations through the use of recent technological practices which meet operational demands while advancing industry toward sustainability.
Partnering with organizations such as Air & Waste Management Association, Institute of Clean Air Companies, EPA, and DOE, sessions were centered around one idea: maintaining the power grid through the lens of regulations. Steven Winberg, Assistant Secretary of Fossil Energy from the DOE, was the opening keynote speaker. Mr. Winberg has 39 years of experience in the energy industry and stated the DOE’s goals under the current administration are two-fold: “Meet (the) continually growing need for secure, reasonably priced…energy supplies through… realizing the promise of clean coal and developing America’s oil and gas reserves…” and “…executing regulatory responsibilities.” The following presentations reflected the question that was suggested by Mr. Winberg’s address: How do we maintain and strengthen our countries power grid while meeting the increase in environmental regulations?
Although many sessions included presentations on the detailed data surrounding the chemicals and practices used in the power industry, such as selenium, mercury, and ash ponds, the transformation of the power industry and technical solutions maintained the focus. The solutions to current regulatory compliance needs were broken up between air and water.
The issues surrounding air balanced between emissions and abatement strategies that followed, while discussions on water encompassed our specialty: reuse. Our presentation at MEGA was a ‘Detailed Overview of the KLeenNwater Pilot System for ELG Compliance.’ The report, written by Katie McIntyre on the pilot system, describes KLeeNwater as a platform with a “novel approach to pretreat and concentrate wastewater streams to meet ELG and ZLD requirements.” This strategy has end result of both cost and water volume reduction with the highest recorded value achieved at 99% recovery. The KLeeNwater approach is able to use the current ProChem pre-treatment options, including sand filtation, physical/chemical treatment, and take further steps in microfiltration and ultrafiltration to greatly reduce contaminates and meet and exceed proposed water regulations. “A brackish RO polishing system can be utilized as the final step of the system, which has proven to have the ability to reduce TDS to below 25 mg/L to meet voluntary BAT. Additionally, KLeeNwater is capable of providing multiple options for concentrate management including fly ash wetting, solidification, and evaporation. The system consists of one 40’ Hi-Cube steel conex container housing a complete fully automated wastewater treatment system.”
The KLeeNwater system presentation highlighted that multiple pilots have been completed—yielding “excellent results to prove that it is an ideal system to meet upcoming ELGs, provide high levels of water reuse and cost-effective solidification-based concentrate management.”
Based on the information given by the paper and presentation, “A Detailed Overview of the KLeeNwater Pilot System for ELG Compliance” – Katie McIntyre
While improving water culture and citizen awareness to water-related issues are the first steps to buffering potential water crises, collective responsibility through city planning and local water restrictions must follow. An industrial economy strengthens under smart water management and policy, but a lack of policy can prevent growth and diminish currently thriving cities.
Nearly everything we use, from the cars in our driveways to the phones in our hands, requires hundreds to thousands of gallons to create and maintain. How will we continue to produce these everyday goods when wells start to run dry? The world is currently experiencing rapid population growth and urbanization, two factors which are making development of water polices even more complex and demanding. Governmental officials and city planners are collectively responsible for making water the lens in which they draw out the future of a city—making room for policy that calls for fundamental change in the way water management is implemented.
Below our feet lies an immense infrastructure of channels and pipes, sustaining city life through the transfer of water by moving it from large aquifers to densely populated areas (Note: Some of the issues with existing water infrastructure is discussed in the first blog here). High-density urban developments like those in Las Vegas overburden already exhausted water systems. At this rate, the end result will be a water-deficient environment that suppresses industry and censors individual water supplies.
Over ninety-percent of Las Vegas’s water comes from the Colorado River, the diversion of which depletes flow through the Grand Canyon. Through this water, the Las Vegas population has hit 2.2 million and is growing by 127 people a day— increasing the city’s already massive demand.
Las Vegas’s problem is compounded by one fact: the city doesn’t have a water reuse system. Instead, water evaporates out of the water features on The Strip, is used to maintain the bright green planted grass that seems to be everywhere you look, and is generally perceived as ‘single-use’. How low will the city’s reservoir get before planners implement conservation strategies? Of course, taking actions like recycling water, turning off sprinklers, and putting their many golf courses on a diet won’t eliminate the threat to the city’s water supply. It’s a slow start to say the least. A true solution starts with asking the question: “How do you grow a city without depleting water reserves?”
To propose a simple first step toward protecting this environmental and sociological necessity: stop watering the grass. Your lawn may go from blazing green to Tuscan brown, but sustainability isn’t always pretty. It may be a cultural about-face to put aside current notions of what is aesthetically pleasing, but it is a critical part in creating efficiency. Second, the city must improve public transit. Although not particularly intuitive, more cars cause more water use. Producing, maintaining, cleaning, and fueling cars all create water waste that could be negated through investments in public transportation. Third, cities must encourage a creative and knowledgeable workforce. A water-sustainable city starts with its citizens (city planners included) recognizing problems and being educated on current environmental issues. Education gives individuals the platform to question the lifecycle of their clothes, cars, and water, and can result in a different, more sustainable end-point for reuse.
The way city planners cope with urban water issues should reflect public concern for environmental quality of water resources outside of the city limits and exploitation of land and water that keeps the city afloat. Controlling development of any city rather than growth for the sake of growth presents water resources into the planning process and recognizes the hydrological consequences that result from neglect. Operating through a lens of conservation culture can absorb the shock to city water resources before the tap runs dry.
This is the first in a series of articles that will explore “The Worth of Water.”
“Water culture” is the set of shared practices, values, and attitudes surrounding the use of water in a community. It’s multi-dimensional, with its many aspects determined on individual, community, and national levels. Water culture encompasses both personal and collective responsibilities, from how much water you use in the shower, to water restrictions on a city level, to the general feeling about water scarcity or surplus in an entire nation—with effects rippling into the rest of the world. Appropriate water culture should result in smart water management that begins with awareness, ends with policy, and is the first step to combatting water scarcity.
How aware are we of the water we use every day? We use it to make our coffee in the morning, wash our clothes and dishes, cook, and shower—but how often we do these things and how much water we use for them depends on how much water we believe is available to us and our communities. Different communities naturally have different levels of awareness. Ghana, where clean water is scarce, has a much different water culture than the United States. But what about differences within our own country? In Elliston, Virginia, we don’t hesitate to water our plants or take a 30-minute shower, but residents of Las Vegas have to be more thoughtful about those activities.
Even though the water culture in the West produces heightened awareness of water scarcity, that doesn’t always lead to changes in policy. Las Vegas, for example, doesn’t have a municipal water reuse system. Moreover, much of the water they do use is evaporating from the many water features on The Strip. Even though the city relies on the dwindling Colorado River for its water, residents still plant grass and water their lawns, and there hasn’t been any large-scale public utility action, such as increasing employee awareness of water use, choosing water-efficient models for fixtures and equipment (such as dry urinals), or widespread leak awareness (the effects of which are discussed here). Unless this water culture changes, how long will it take for the well to run dry?
What is the worth of an inch of water on the East Coast? Is it the same on the West Coast? Should it be? Las Vegas and Phoenix are the least sustainable cities in the world. There, the issue of running out water is not a matter of if, but when. We would assume that residents and municipal governments would react differently in that water culture, since it’s a desert with very few adjacent lakes and rivers. With less water available, shouldn’t they value water more highly? But the Colorado River is running dry as cities in the West hatch plans to draw water from other parts of the region. There is heavy demand on water bodies in the Southwest, but many cities aren’t going the extra mile to take proactive actions restricting water use.
On the surface, it seems like the issue of water sustainability should be cut and dry. But overuse of water resources flows even further into the undercurrents of communities. Deep water culture is revealed in how a city allocates its budget to water stewardship. Industries that require tens of thousands of gallons of water a day to produce a good should not be based in cities where water is already scarce. Likewise, communities should practice good water stewardship. California has been dealing with various levels of drought for more than 100 years—but even this state, a leader in environmentalism and sustainability, is just beginning to experience residential water restrictions. A law set to be implemented later this year will restrict residential usage to 55 gallons per day. The downfall of this law is that although its goal is to create a “culture of permanent water conservation,” water agencies are not required to ensure this new target is kept.
Combatting Water Scarcity
Beginning with awareness and education, water culture should be the lens through which a strong industrial economy evaluates the best areas to generate public goods. The more water a product requires to develop, the closer the industrial plant should be to a large body of water—revealing smart economic development and water policy. Awareness in these issues will affect the votes of citizens, resulting in city and state representatives who will make the choices that will allow the city to buffer the withering effects of water depletion.
Citizens experience a reflection of their own water culture in their daily relationship with water. How long do you leave the water on while your brushing your teeth or shaving? Do you unravel your hose unnecessarily for yard work? Lawmakers and private interest groups influencing water policies demonstrate their own priorities in their private lives by these small tasks. Looking at water policy through a bottom up process that starts with the foundation of our own water culture reveals that we don’t yet consider the current water crisis be as pressing as it is.
Fresh from Hurricane Harvey, Houston has suffered through the consequences of their inadequate flood mitigation strategies. The flood conditions could be even worse this season—starting June 1—and preparations made by local and state governments will be under the microscope. Will they set aside the money for mitigation efforts, or will they roll the dice?
The social, economic, environmental, and structural effects of flooding vary depending on the location and severity of the flooding. Moreover, flood mitigation strategies themselves can expose the vulnerabilities of communities. Implementing successful mitigation requires cross-district and state policy regulations—storm water, for example, doesn’t obey municipal lines. To implement flood abatement and prevent catastrophic events from potentially raining down on their citizens, cities and townships should decide how to allocate funding: education, city infrastructure, or public services. Government officials and local professionals must draw upon current flooding data in their geographical range to justify appropriate funds and move forward with plans that can preserve not only economic dignity but also the lives of those at risk.
Educating citizens about how to prepare and having emergency plans for every department are crucial in developing a more resilient city. Local communities are responsible for mitigating repetitive flood problems by implementing educational measures, including information about emergency routes and actions to take in the case of a flood event—such as not crossing a flooded area, not re-entering homes prematurely, or not drinking tap water that could potentially be contaminated. Education, however, is only a small part of this equation and should act as a catalyst that spurs citizens to push their government to allocate the funding to support the physical components of the mitigation strategy.
Both built and natural infrastructure affect the extent of flooding consequences from storm surges. Natural structures include channels and natural floodplains, while built structures are comprised of damns, levees, and flood walls. Investment in city resilience planning reduces the flood time within a city, decreases property loss, and lessens the mortality risk while also keeping a city economically afloat during a tragedy—because businesses remain open.
Strong organizational commitment to flood protection is not a one-time deal. It requires long-term adjustment of policy. Analyzing what worked, what didn’t, and the changing conditions of the built environment inform smart policy. These factors should be adaptive instruments used to respond to various ecological and human-made systems.
Within the past 20 years, we have begun to see dramatic shifts in rain patterns, which lead to extreme weather events. The swings in air and ocean currents are changing global weather patterns at a high rate (some research on that can be found here). Every community has flooding risk, but deviations show increased likelihood of flooding in places with little to no experience with extreme flooding, as Houston discovered last summer.
As our weather shifts, our priorities should follow suit. Commitment to preemptive flood abatement measures needs to be demonstrated in community budgets. Among the noise surrounding climate change and weather shifts are many helpful and potentially life-saving pieces of wisdom. At the very least, we ought to be concerned about the economic benefits of taking preemptive action—a precautionary strike may be the only way to protect ourselves and our communities from the potentially ruinous effects of storm water.
For Further Reading: