What can we learn from California’s water crisis?

California’s long-running drought made national headlines earlier this month when Gov. Jerry Brown announced sharp reductions in water use that will affect everyone in the state. While we here in the Midwest aren’t as worried today about water use, we wondered what lessons we should be learning from what’s happening out west. We turned to a local expert in water and water quality for answers. Here’s our conversation with Huntting W. Brown, Senior Lecturer Emeritus in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at Wright State University. He includes a list of websites for further reading on this important topic. — Ron Rollins

Q: Americans have long taken water for granted – it seems the California story is challenging the comfort level and the assumptions we have about always having enough water. What lessons should we be taking away from the situation there?

Brown: California is currently in its fourth year of severe drought, but in recent years other areas have suffered from a lack of water planning — even in the well-watered eastern United States, for example, Atlanta. We need to recognize that we are part of nature and should better adapt to local environmental conditions while also benefiting from studies of past variability of those water resources. We have at times made assumptions based on short-term information only to find out that later we were wrong. That happened when allocating Colorado River water during what were, in retrospect, high-water years. Together with a growing Southwest population, the river is now over allocated — there is not enough water to meet all needs.

Q: Do people in the Midwest, and Ohio in particular, have reason to be concerned about water? What is different here?

Brown: It is often said that water is our most precious resource. We need to be sure that we have both enough water and that the water is of high quality. The Midwest is fortunate in having abundant precipitation but it varies between areas within the region. Dayton precipitation averages about 40 inches of water each year and we get this throughout the year. Thus we do not have a pronounced wet and dry season as in California. The combination of abundance and distribution over the year accounts for the variety of vegetation we have here.

Q: Talk about the Miami Valley’s aquifer. Is it safe? Are we protecting it properly? Could it ever run out or become unusable?

Brown: Layers of sand and gravel saturated with water underlie the Great Miami River and many of its tributaries. Called an aquifer, it contains over a trillion gallons of water. This aquifer is thus a huge, more constant and renewable supply of water that is also of higher quality than surface waters like the Great Miami River. More than 400,000 people in Montgomery County and parts of Greene County rely on that aquifer as the source of their drinking water.

Dayton and other nearby communities relying on the aquifer have benefited from programs to protect that resource. This has happened in several ways. One was the designation of the Great Miami River Buried Valley Aquifer by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a sole source aquifer. The designation “protects an area’s ground water resource by requiring EPA to review certain proposed projects within the designated area. All proposed projects receiving federal funds are subject to review to ensure that they do not endanger the water source.”)

Second, Dayton and five other area jurisdictions overlying the aquifer have since the late 1980s benefited from an internationally recognized source-water protection program (also called a wellfield protection program.) The program has sought to ensure that activities near the well fields are conducted in ways to minimize risk of polluting the aquifer and having that impact the wells supplying our drinking water. Proposed changes in the program have generated some controversy and news coverage.

Have these and other efforts helped protect our local drinking water? The U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act requires that public water suppliers provide information on the quality of the water they provide. The most recent report for Dayton covering 2013 states: “We are proud to report that the City of Dayton complied with all MCL (drinking water) standards for drinking water during 2013.” Similarly, the report for Montgomery County states, “Montgomery County is proud to say that your drinking water has once again met all state and federal water quality standards.“ So, efforts so far to protect our water supply seem to be working. Any changes made to the source water protection program should continue to assure that this remains true.

Q: Some people talk about sending water from regions that have it, such as the Great Lakes, to California. Is that even feasible? Aren’t the Great Lakes protected from that kind of use?

Brown: It is technologically feasible. However, water weighs over eight pounds per gallon and is thus expensive to move over long distances and especially over mountain ranges.

In addition, the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact is a “formal, interstate compact has the force of a federal law, with standing in federal court. It was signed by all eight Great Lakes state Governors in December 2005. It then began a journey that included being passed by each of the eight state legislatures, ratified by the United States Congress, and finally signed into law by the President on October 3, 2008.” In part, the compact states the “Parties shall adopt and implement Measures to prohibit New or Increased Diversions (out of the watershed), except as provided for in this Agreement.” So unless Congress changes its mind, there is little likelihood of the Southwest sticking a straw into the Great Lakes.

Q: What about desalination? How does it work? Is it an option for California? Will we ever end up using it in the United States?

Brown: Desalination converts salt or brackish water into fresh water. It works using a variety of techniques, most commonly reverse osmosis, a process that forces water through a very fine membrane that separates impurities from the water. Desalination is currently used in many parts of the world, including California. Santa Barbara is said to be gearing up to restart a plant built during an earlier low water period, and San Diego is in the latter stages of construction of a large plant. Desalination is expensive, and is unlikely to be used for anything other than drinking water. Agriculture in California, which uses about 80 percent of the water, will not likely benefit directly from desalination and Californians are already rethinking high water use crops. For example, it takes one gallon of water in California to create a single almond Perhaps California almonds are not in our future!

Q: What are other pressing water issues in the nation?

Brown: The climate is changing. This will bring changes in temperature and precipitation that will then impact both human health and the environment in a variety of ways, many of which will cause challenges. Limiting the extent of climate change needs to be a priority of the U.S. Congress. A recent report from the U.S. National Climate Assessment is not encouraging from the perspective of long term human health, or the environment, including agriculture.

Reports recently appeared projecting economic impacts of climate change on the U.S. and a separate report from the same group focusing on the Midwest, including metro areas in SW Ohio. These reports are not encouraging and provide further support for taking action to reduce the likelihood that the projected scenarios play out.

Q: What other pressing water issues around the world?

Brown: Privatization with associated questions of equity; impacts of water transfers on stream ecology; dams; pollution; salt water intrusion into coastal aquifers, etc.

Q: Should we worry about water conservation? What are good ways to practice it?

Brown: Even in the Miami Valley, where we have abundant water, we should be smart about our water use. First, not all areas in Southwest Ohio have access to the buried valley aquifer and more isolated aquifers can be drawn down by high use during dry spells. Second, conservation of resources is always the right thing to do for adults and as lessons for our children who may face water issues elsewhere if they move away.

Q: Is water too cheap? Should it cost more, in order for us to treat it more preciously?

Brown: There are two conflicting positions here. First, access to a reliable supply of safe freshwater is often considered a basic human right. On the other hand, there is plenty of waste – both in leakage in the supply and inefficiency in use. A pricing structure that allows moderate domestic use at inexpensive rates and higher rates for others might be one way of tackling the use issue. As for needed upgrades in the system, according to American Society of Civil Engineers, Ohio alone “has reported $12.2 billion in drinking water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years.” Finally, there are many things that individuals, businesses (including farmers) can do to improve efficiency both within their facilities and on their properties.

Further Reading

The drought in California and elsewhere in the U.S. is depicted at:

http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/news/us-drought-monitor-update-april-7-2015

Listen to a recent audio discussion on the California Drought and efforts to deal with it:

http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/03/23/california-drought-desalination-los-angeles-rain-snow-water

Written Q&A with California groundwater expert on how California can survive the drought:

http://www.nature.com/news/how-california-can-survive-the-drought-1.17265?WT.ec_id=NEWS-20150409

Desalination and how is it being used in California:

http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/533446/desalination-out-of-desperation/

Recent report from the U.S. National Climate Assessment on projected climate changes and impacts on the U.S., including a section on the Midwest:

http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report

Recent reports from the Risky Business Project that focus on quantifying and publicizing the economic risks from the impacts of a changing climate:

National Report

http://riskybusiness.org/uploads/files/RiskyBusiness_Report_WEB_09_08_14.pdf

Midwest Report

http://riskybusiness.org/reports/midwest-report/executive-summary

Dayton’s Current Source Water Protection Program:

http://www.daytonwater.org/index.php?page=source-water-protection-program

Proposed Changes in Dayton’s Source Water Protection Program:

http://daytonohio.gov/cmo/Pages/SWPP.aspx

What a “sole source aquifer” is and why is it important that our local aquifer has received that designation:

http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/drinkingwater/sourcewater/protection/solesourceaquifer.cfm

Consumer Confidence Reports detailing the quality of our drinking water:

City of Dayton

http://www.daytonwater.org/uploads/documents/wst/2014/2014WaterQReportfile.pdf

Montgomery County

http://www.mcohio.org/Montgomery/2014_Montgomery_County_Water_Quality_Report.pdf

Information on efforts by the Great Lakes states to protect water from being diverted out of the watershed can be found at:

http://www.watershedcouncil.org/water%20resources/great%20lakes/threats-to-the-great-lakes/great-lakes-water-use-and-diversion/

The American Society of Civil Engineers Report Card on Infrastructure needs in Ohio can be found at:

http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/ohio/ohio-overview/

The Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer:

http://www.miamiconservancy.org/water/aquifer_what.asp

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