October 21, 2015 | General

Connections: Long Hot Showers

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle October

One thing I fantasize about is a guilt-free, long, hot shower with enough water pressure to make it a good surrogate for a massage. These types of showers can be found all across the U.S. However, my knowledge of existing and pending water shortages in combination with my awareness of the high CO2 equivalence we have for energy mean that my guilt prevents me from enjoying them on a regular basis.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With appropriate changes to our existing water and energy infrastructures, these long luxurious showers, now a bimonthly treat for me, could become an almost daily occurrence.
Right now, we have our infrastructure for each of these in reverse. Energy is typically generated and dispensed by a single utility within each region. Even if that energy comes from multiple sources, it is consolidated by a single provider into the energy portfolio that provides power for a region. Our potable water is also typically managed by a single utility. However a separate utility and a separate regulatory agency typically manage our wastewater. There are also different agencies and different regulations in charge of allocating water for growing food, including water rights from streams and water from the ground. With very few exceptions, these agencies and regulations do not talk to each other and can often contradict each other. This top down approach for energy and this splintered approach for water means fewer and fewer hot showers for me. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
My assertion comes in part from what I’ve been reading in the New York Times. “Solar Power Battle Puts Hawaii at Forefront of Worldwide Changes” (4/19/15) illustrates this point. About 12 percent of the homes in Hawaii have rooftop solar units. By law, the utility is required to allow these homes to provide their own electricity as well as to feed into the grid and take from the grid as needed. The number of people wanting to do this has overwhelmed the utility. Waiting times now stretch into years for home power to be credited. Utility “feet-dragging” comes in part from the realization that the traditional revenue model for the utility is disappearing. The more people they allow to generate power, the less revenue for the utility. And because of this realization, the waiting times drag on and on.
This phenomenon is not limited to Hawaii. Similar growth in home solar units with resistance from utilities has been seen in other sunny states. As solar becomes cheaper and more efficient, it is likely that this growth will spread north even to cloudy Seattle. In order for this to happen we need regulatory muscle behind policies that allow for multiple generators. But unlike the spread of cell phones, we still likely need the grid and so have to figure out how to keep that grid operational both for large-scale storage and for feeding the grid when the clouds come. The potential to generate sufficient renewable energy on a household level means greenhouse gas savings and it means increased resilience. Both of these are wonderful. What it also means is more energy to heat that water for that shower.

Water Hopefulness

A similarly optimistic picture for water is painted by two other articles in the New York Times. Both highlight similar approaches. “Aided by the Sea, Israel Overcomes an Old Foe: Drought” (5/30/15) describes how after a crippling drought, the Israeli government set up a centralized Water Authority that considered all water sources and all water needs in a unified fashion. The Authority changed rates, subsidizing household use at what is considered normal levels and increasing rates for those that love those showers. They also increased water costs for agriculture — something that we have not had the courage to do. Increased desalinization was combined with use of 86 percent of reclaimed water, primarily for agriculture. Additionally, infrastructure for water conveyance and distribution has been upgraded with new pipes being built, also helping to make Israel drought proof. For comparison, average U.S. use of reclaimed water is currently at about one percent.
“How California Is Winning the Drought” (5/16/15), an op-ed piece, bragged about more efficient irrigation systems, conservation, desalinization and use of reclaimed water. All of these things are starting to happen in California, though I wouldn’t call it anywhere near a complete transformation. What struck me about this article was the point that municipalities need to recognize that all types of water, however they are currently regulated or allocated, are in fact all part of the broader and most important category — water. Considering these types and flows as part of a whole rather than as distinct entities is critical to making California and the U.S. drought proof, just like Israel. It is also what would give me endless guilt-free showers.

Overcoming Regulatory Complexities

Our current regulatory structure is a mess. Eastern states where rainfall tends to be plenty have one set of regulations on ownership of streams and lakes. Here where drought has not been a concern, property owners do not own water rights. In the dryer Western states, property owners own the water and the land. In fact, some utilities are prohibited from using reclaimed water if treatment plant effluent has traditionally constituted a significant portion of stream flow. In Colorado, this restriction shows up in rules against systems to collect storm water from roofs. The justification is that that water would flow to streams and has already been claimed.
Most states also don’t recognize the connection between groundwater and surface water. This means two sets of regulations for two intricately linked systems. Regulations on drinking water and reclaimed water are focused on pathogens and contaminants, with no rewards for conservation or reuse. And as drinking water agencies and wastewater treatment agencies are typically separate entities, it might take an online dating site for them to realize that they have common interests and goals.
There are two potential ways to get over our water impasses. For urban areas, we can either make use of our treated wastewater or generate less water that requires treatment. The first option requires a great deal of investment in infrastructure to pipe water from the treatment plants to end use sites. This infrastructure would be similar in magnitude to the infrastructure that we have to transport wastewater to centralized plants but in the opposite direction, like two one-way streets. Another option is to decentralize these systems. Home use of storm water and grey water would reduce the volume of water that requires treatment as well as reduce demand for potable water. This too would require infrastructure, but it would be on the homeowner level rather than the municipal level. Either option would require a major overhaul of our current regulatory structure to consider all waters as part of a whole and to put water conservation on the same level of importance as water quality.

Water For Ag

Then there is the question of water for agriculture. In the U.S., a majority of our water is used for agriculture. (Remember “California Almonds,” June 2015?). However our farms are typically distant from our used water supplies. Another story, this one on NPR (“Drought-Stricken California Farmers Look To Tap Urban Wastewater,” 7/20/15), discussed the realization for some farmers in California that their fields were going dry while nearby water was “going to waste.” In this case, a 6-mile long, $100 million pipe is being constructed to carry water from a wastewater treatment facility to nearby farms in the Central Valley. That may sound like a lot of money but remember that Los Angeles currently gets most of its water from areas much further than the Central Valley.
There are many options for a more efficient regulatory and allocation strategy for water in this country. Before we start those discussions, we have a broad range of legal, regulatory and institutional barriers to overcome. For both energy and water, our traditional models are no longer appropriate for our age of limited resources. We have to figure out how to replace our top down or splintered approaches with strategies that take into account the importance of resilience and sufficiency. That may mean decentralized sources for power and a centralized understanding of water resources. Both are a ways off in our future.
In other words, it seems like my long hot shower fantasy is not something that will turn into reality in the near future. I may need to start planning a trip to Israel. I looked online — 90 percent of the homes there have solar hot water heaters. Move over ecotourism. I may start a trend of long, hot shower tourism.
Sally Brown is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.

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