The Changing Roar of the Crowd

Nov. 7, 2014

When considering how we would lay out our front cover for this issue of Water Efficiency, I saw a similarity in the two possibilities we had on the table. In addition to panoramic shots from the new Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, and a showcase for water conservation, there were some neighborhood views from water utility Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Seats strung together in rows for collective viewing of football games and arrays of houses joined to common piping for civilized living are both emblematic of community.

However, the spectators at a football game might show more community spirit than the residents of a region or neighborhood. More to the point, being in community today is complex. We have to “think globally and act locally,” yet locations may be very transitory, while the enormous global market supplies many of the things we use in our individual familial cells, barely aware of the people next door.

When I attend conferences like the US Water Alliance’s One Water Leadership (OWL) Summit in September, I hear about a disconnect between workers in water and the public they serve. How can communities be educated as to what the stakes are in terms of managing this critical resource? I’ll give an example of a sewer challenge from my region that illustrates some things that can muddle the issue.

Many people in the small artistic town I live in cherish their studio apartments, often converted from garages and other outbuildings. Several years ago, the sanitary district was setting out to find –and fine–unpermitted sewer hookups that were straining the system but not adding revenue. A number of residents felt violated by the inspections that followed. Then there were people who wanted the situation cleaned up for reasons other than water and sewer. Even some who weren’t directly involved felt the policing was coming from greed on the part of the public agency.

One unpermitted sewer does not a problem make, but many unpermitted sewers do lead to community level infrastructure problems. Some landlords were likely trying to cheat the system. Others were just trying to get by during the recession. Shared pipes, pumps, and such seemed buried by collective ignorance; the same is true when the potable water system is up for discussion.

Yet, I hear from insiders, over and over, that water is not priced to cover its true costs. I don’t know if this is because any number of years ago water was free-er, meaning easier to obtain and not always treated before distributed. It wasn’t that long ago that water in some places was just being drawn from freshwater sources and distributed. As old pipes wear out and more treatment is needed, things must change. The thought at the OWL Summit was to subsidize those most in need, but not to consider those lowest costs as a starting point for rates, because this will not properly support the systems.

In “Eyes on the Big Picture, Addressing the Small Breakdowns“, Daniel P. Duffy details the mind-boggling complexity of a modern water system. When considering water pricing, as Mark Day does in his guest commentary “Nine Recommendations for Urban Water Conservation Rates“, it helps to keep in mind the hardware Duffy catalogs: it needs maintaining.

A GIS shot was considered for the cover because the ordered birds-eye views of our local worlds are aesthetically pleasing. While GIS has typically been employed to manage assets, William Atkinson shares additional possibilities in “Integrating GIS and Hydraulic Modeling“. And an interesting facet about the ways IT is changing the water industry is that utilities can offset the loss of knowledge that is coming as older, wiser workers move toward retirement age by carrying some of it forward in software programs. Human and computer integration is part of the new way of cooperation.

In our times, we function as both closely situated, and far-flung communities, and, while water utilities may struggle to get the message out there, it is showing up in a surprising place. In David C. Richardson’s article “Football Becomes America’s Biggest Watersport“, Alan Hershkowitz of the Green Sports Alliance points out the positive outward ripples from sports arenas adopting efficient fixtures and water reuse: “Only 13% of Americans say they follow science, 63% say they follow sports. In terms of the cultural visibility of water conservation at sporting venues there’s a lot of bang for the buck.”
About the Author

Nancy Gross

Nancy Gross is a former editor of Business Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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