Oct 242011

It’s hard to be too concerned about water when we gaze out at it all the time. But water is potentially a big issue for the island and until the ferry crisis pushed it aside it was a major topic of discussion. Of course, growth and development were what pushed water to the top of the topic list and now that the economy is in the crapper for the foreseeable future people are less concerned about water. However, water is a world-wide problem as the author of The Big Thirst points out in his recent book.

He provides interesting case studies from around the world: Las Vegas, an artificial city in the dessert which has actually decreased its use of water but totally depends on it for survival. Las Vegas is blessed with a water manager who is somewhat of a visionary and who has aggressively sought out new sources of water for Las Vegas while forcing reductions in consumption.

Conversely, Atlanta, which has been suffering a drought is literally clueless in its planning. Millions of people are at risk because of poor water planning.

In Australia, a multi-year drought has dried up rivers. One city went to war with each other over a plan to purify sewer water which is technically possible. But the plan failed due to the poor marketing of the idea. People didn’t wish to drink what was urine and feces. Interestingly, the amount of water on the planet never changes. It just becomes less available in certain places. And, it is possible to clean any water to the extent that it is simply and purely H20.

They do this at the IBM plant in Burlington, Vermont. They need perfectly pure water to use to clean the computer chips manufactured there. The water they produce is so pure that it would be toxic for humans to drink because water acts like a solvent and totally pure H2O will borrow essential minerals from the body as it makes its progress through the system.

In India, only a handful of cities have 24/7 water service. In a city such as New Delhi with twenty million people, at least eight million are carrying water every day either delivered through standpipes or by water truck. In more affluent neighborhoods water comes on for a couple hours a couple times a week. The wealthier people have pumps and storage tanks and the pumps go on and the storage tanks fill so they can have water on demand.

Around the world, water is essentially free. What people get charged for is delivery and prices, generally, are very cheap. In the USA we have bought into the fact that bottled water is better than tap water even though the two largest water bottlers simply run tap water through a reverse osmosis system. As a country we end up paying more per gallon for bottled water than we do for gasoline. But if a municipality tries to up the price of water to improve the infrastructure people complain loudly.

In most parts of the US the water infrastructure has been sadly neglected. Many residences don’t have meters. Much water is wasted. Americans spend $21 billion on bottled water and only $29 billion on our entire water infrastructure.

It’s possible that most islanders are more conservative with their water though I am aware of situations where there are people who water their lawns to the distress of their fellow water company members. A good number of us have wells and even though there is no monthly water bill there is a cost to having ones own private water system. This year, we had to have our cistern cleaned, floats replaced, well pump and pipes replaced. Not cheap but amortized over twenty years, not excessive.

A number of us have added rainwater catchment which is a growing trend around the world. It’s a shame to let all of that water run directly back into the Salish Sea.

We use much more water than we think we do. For example, the electricity we use at home on a daily basis requires 250 gallons of water to produce and the food for “a single day’s meals for a typical American require 450 gallons of water.”

At our house we are a constant argument over when it’s necessary to flush. I contend it’s a good place to start the discussion.

Pollution of the world’s water is a big problem as is the attempt to profit from water. Blue Gold a documentary that is very pertinent to this discussion. You can find the entire film on Youtube in six parts. Here’s part 1:



  4 Responses to “The Big Thirst”

  1. Lummi Island is blessed with abundant rainfall each year to support our thirst for water. Several recent studies have documented water runoff (Nielsen & Armfield, 2005) showing millions of gallons of runoff from drainage basins around the island. The recent Comp Plan update had a professional analysis of wells on the island, looking for salt water intrusion and ground water levels, along with other contaminants such as iron and manganese that may require expensive treatment. A third study some years back by grad student Bill Sullivan documented geologic formations, well locations, and pumping capacities.
    And finally, the WA Dept of Health and Dept of Ecology keep records on wells and test results for water chemistry and testing – all available online.
    The news is mostly good, indicating the island could support about triple its current population with the water that falls and is absorbed into the aquifers to recharge our ground waters. Extracting that water and distributing it through our local water systems is proving to be a costly endevour. Rates for water have risen sharply in the two largest water systems recently, due to piping improvement programs supported by low interest loans from the state. Low cost yes, but it needs to be repaid over 25 years.
    A quick look at at our island water resources (public information) is that we have about 1/2 million gallons of water storage capacity from a dozen public storage tanks, a large lake, and many private wells to augment the 450 public water system users on the island, which comprise about half of all users.
    Treating our public water for arsenic levels above EPA maximum limits is very costly and common from this naturally occurring mineral. Iron and Manganese are also a problem on Lummi, though more of a nuisance rather that a large health risk. Finally, testing for bacteria contamination is on-going with the public systems, which adds to the cost of water delivery.
    All in all, I’m encouraged by the efforts of our water systems to keep lines and machinery in good working order, by our constant monitoring of our aquifers showing little degradation, and ample supplies of runoff to be captured for agricultural purposes as some of us strive to produce more of our own food.
    I still worry some systems are asleep at the controls of their wells, pumps and pipes. These things don’t last forever, and require constant replacement. The time to build up financial reserves is now, not when the well runs dry, or turns salty from over-pumping due to wasteful usage habits.

  2. Mike

    Thanks for your report on Lummi island’s Big Thirst. Was more interesting than the blog post!

  3. Doesn’t Lummi have issues with arsenic getting into the wells as a result of overdrawing on the aquifers because there are more and more folks living on the island?

  4. Krista: Arsenic is ‘leached’ from rock and soil deposits as the water migrates from being absorbed on the surface, traveling down to a ground water level (the top of the aquifer), then following it’s journey down to mix with seawater. This interaction of hydraulic pressure is what keeps the seawater at bay.
    Pumping can accelerate the effects of this, but I would worry more about drawing in more brackish seawater to my wellhead by aggressive pumping for long periods, than I would about gathering up more arsenic molecules contained in the water I was pumping.
    The standard for arsenic in the water is arbitralily set at 10 parts per billion by the EPA for public water systems serving 15 or more connections. If you are between 3 and 14 connections, then 50 parts per billion is acceptable (the old standard), and if a new well, it’s back down to 10.
    Arsenic comes in two flavors. Arsenic 3 and Arsenic 5 – basically the same thing except one has been oxygenated, converting the 3 to a 5 (trying to keep this simple). The 5 can be removed from the water through a variety of methods, but the 3 cannot, so by injecting chlorine into the water, it turns the 3 to a 5.
    Here’s the thing. Arsenic 3 is about 50 times more toxic to humans than arsenic 5 (SenGupta, Queens Univ, 2008). Most all of the arsenic occurring in the water is arsenic 5, so it’s much safer than the 3. When water systems inject chlorine to convert their 3 to a 5, it’s rendered much safer to humans, even before treatment removes the arsenic 5, so that’s good news to Islanders on both counts.
    Before you run out and drink a bunch of well water, check for which type you have (a lab test for speciation will do it), and in what concentration.
    Hope this helps a little.
    Mike Skehan, Lummi Water Works.

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