Water 4.0?

Water4coverDavid L. Sedlak, Engineering Professor at Berkeley, Deputy Director of the Berkeley Water Center, and 2014 winner of the Clarke Prize for excellence in water research, has written a book about water issues: Water 4.0. He rejects the usual structure of this kind of book:

About twenty years ago, when I started getting interested in these issues, I encountered a problem: the books on water intended for a general audience were too general, with large sections dedicated to disparate issues like wasteful agricultural water use, destruction of aquatic habitat, and the water and sanitation needs in the developing world.

Whether you like Water 4.0 may depend on whether you agree those topics should be minimized. The omissions do at least leave room for major sections on the history of water management: Roman aqueducts (Water 1.0), medieval “buckets” (2.0), and modern drinking water and sewage infrastructure (3.0). (You gotta give Sedlak credit for expecting a “general audience” to read technical sections on biofilms, alum precipitates, Imhoff tanks, combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, chlorination byproducts, activated carbon, EPA standards for trihalomethanes, ozonation, and the Streeter-Phelps dissolved oxygen sag curve.)

Water 4.0 argues that the current centralized system of water supply and wastewater treatment is breaking down. It is not meeting user needs, is becoming too costly, and may not be providing safe drinking water. Sedlak proposes specific solutions to these problems. His overall goal:

To wean cities from centralized water systems and all of their associated problems, we might simply have to find a way to make decentralized water supply and treatment practical at higher population densities. It’s quite likely that we’ll never break free of centralized water and sewer systems in the middle of our most densely populated cities, but a society equipped with the latest innovations in information technology, biotechnology, and materials science should be able to improve on the groundwater wells, septic tanks, and unlined ditches that served our rural communities so well during the twentieth century.

Cost is a problem, though:

Under these circumstances, decentralized water reuse can be achieved by building a network of tiny wastewater treatment plants in the basements of homes and apartment buildings. Running a network of distributed membrane bioreactors would cost around $3.40 per thousand liters ($13 per thousand gallons) of water produced. That’s about five times more than the current cost of water reuse or desalination.

That cost per thousand gallons might come down with better technology. Wastewater reuse, gray water utilization, drastically cutting lawn irrigation, and decentralized water alternatives “might reduce a city’s potable water consumption by as much as 50 to 75 percent.” Big reductions in water use too should reduce the total cost of water services. (Also true for central systems, though.)

Changing to Water 4.0 would mean many transitions, perhaps not all desirable. This is where the tight focus of the book prevents full understanding of other compelling issues. How does one persuade people to give up residential irrigation? Do mortgage interest and agricultural subsidies stand in the way of the transition? What are the implications for environmental justice? Would lakes, rivers, and springs have as much water flowing to them and would they be cleaner or dirtier in Water 4.0? Would the emission of greenhouse gases in a decentralized system be larger or smaller? Would the new group of decentralized water home gurus tend to be only those with extra money lying around? Would these homeowners lose their interest in centrally provided services for others less fortunate or less interested in advanced technology?

There may be particular relevance to Florida. Keeping more water onsite is usually good for water quality in this state. If you can catch some water and reuse it in the home or on the landscape, so much the better. However, the state Legislature will not even require septic tanks to be regularly inspected, so it is hard to have confidence in proper management of a multiplicity of more complex wastewater systems. I also wonder, in light of how many Floridians install home water filters and buy bottled water for supposed “health” reasons, whether many people are willing to drink water coming off their roof.

Nonetheless, Water 4.0 is a creative and thought-provoking example of approaches to water consistent with the ideas of another recent book, “A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy.” Some community in Florida should give water decentralization a big push and see how successful it turns out to be.

Florida water meanings

One reason that thinking about water is so difficult is that it attracts so many interpretations and meanings. Two examples:

We have to thank the Springs Eternal Project for a mesmerizing 12-minute video that is a “joyful, humorous and deeply affectionate underwater tour through some of the splendid flora and fauna of Florida’s marvelous springs”:

SWIMMING THROUGH AIR from Lesley Gamble on Vimeo.

Florida water cologne-2A different perspective, but somehow related, is the history and marketing of “Florida Water.” This inexpensive cologne dates back to 1808, was used by both men and women, and originally drew upon the myth of a Florida Fountain of Youth. Still sold today, it has been used in “rituals of home protection and spiritual cleaning” including religious practices in Santeria. Another use is in cold towels for cooling down after athletic events.

These two examples show how one person’s internal collection of mental symbols of Florida water can be strikingly different from that of another person. The language of Florida Water has many dialects.

South Dakota Ag. Department disses Florida?

Thanks to Kay McDonald for writing about a report from the South Dakota Department of Agriculture. They concluded that agricultural production is more important there than in any other state, amounting to 11.9% of their gross state product. For Florida, they say that agricultural production is only 0.6%(!) of the state’s domestic product (p. 41). (Throwing in “food manufacturing” would still bring it up to only 1.38% of the Florida economy.)

One of my themes is that Florida agricultural interests use water, create water pollution, and have an influence in water decisions far out of proportion to their economic importance. Florida farm jobs and farm output are very significant to those in the industry (and for water problems) but not so much in relation to the total Florida economy. That is why our South Dakota agricultural friends can whoop it up about their relative importance.

Views of water

Do we have to pretend that most of the critics of EPA’s proposed rule about “waters of the U.S.” are well informed? That they have carefully read the 84-page preface and text of the proposed rule in the Federal Register? That they fully understand the current rules and also the direction given by two relevant Supreme Court decisions? That they have read and absorbed the many thousands of comments? That they have carefully perused the agency’s 300-page report, “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence”?

Wetland connections

Naah. When the Florida Farm Bureau or Ag. Commissioner Adam Putnam or the Florida Chamber of Commerce say the rule is all wrong, one might believe they are shilling for their interest group. That seems too harsh. I believe they are sincere. This is probably just a case of affirming their identities to other members of the tribe. You can’t be a member of these affinity groups without reflexively opposing this kind of environmental action. No thinking is necessary.

The trouble, though, is that water resources are not admitted to that tribe and consequently receive a lot of unnecessarily hostile views.

The hardest climate science problem

Water is one of the biggest reasons to care about climate change in Florida. Today’s “Climate Science & Solutions Summit” in St. Petersburg features a wide range of speakers, including the climate scientists who met recently with Governor Scott. The purpose is to “clearly articulate the very real threats that Florida faces, and to shine a light on the dozens of powerful solutions within our reach.” That effort can build on the 2008 Florida Energy & Climate Change Action Plan (large PDF) and last week’s “Sixth Annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit.”

Scientific evidence of climate change threats is overwhelming. Why, then, are the physical facts often ignored? This may be the most pressing climate change question of all and the hardest climate science problem. As David Victor puts it, “Why Do Smart People Disagree About Facts? Some Perspectives on Climate Denialism.” He classifies climate denialists into three camps. There are “shillers” who are paid to fight against climate change action. In his view, these exist but are much less powerful than many think. There are also “climate skeptics,” who are temperamentally inclined to be doubters or who dispute the feasibility of countermeasures. The third and biggest group of denialists are “hobbyists” looking for a way to be relevant.

Denialists are not suffering from a lack of information. (Even correct information can sometimes produce a “backfire effect” that strengthens the original incorrect view.) More “science” won’t change the views of many denialists but they continue to be very influential in public policy. Victor believes that their primary power is derived from aligning themselves with pre-existing political dispositions. He observes that “lack of belief in climate change correlates highly with political party and with faith in government.” It is not about the evidence. “The denialists “won’t go away just because we speak more loudly, more often, or with bigger decks of slides.”

A new science of climate persuasion is needed but may never be adequate to overcome ingrained resistance. If the minds of denialists can’t be changed, there still are two other paths to changing climate policy: the ballot box and judicial chambers.