29 July 2012

AlertNet coverage of the "Battle for Water"

During the last week, the AlertNet news service of the Thompson-Reuters Foundation provided special coverage of global water issues under the "Battle for Water" banner. While conflict and "battles" may sell stories to those who don't pay frequent attention to water issues, some of us perceive that the battle often lies in the sheer scope of the problem and getting the evidence of these issues into the public attention. With such an approach, it was the detail and diversity in AlertNet coverage that held my interest. The special coverage provided a snapshot view on the state of water cooperation and emerging regional and transboundary issues today. For many who insist that water has never sparked international conflict, and thus never will, the collected issue coverage could be a sobering primer that hints at future possibilities if nothing is done to alleviate tensions. However, readers would be mistaken to conclude from any such coverage that these tensions remain solely in the political and international arena.

Nevertheless, AlertNet's four days of special coverage began with an overview of several points of conflict and sarcity around the globe. Most of the usual regional conflicts were described: the Nile River basin, the Jordan River, the Tigris and Euphrates River basins, the Mekong River, and the Brahmaputra and Indus River basins (including the bellwether conflict in Kashmir). Some areas of historical and growing stress and scarcity were covered as well: the Middle East and East Africa, South Asia, and parts of China. It was interesting to see some attention given to the often-neglected legacy of resource abuse in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya basins in Central Asia. There remain, of course, hundreds more transboundary river systems that were not singled out for coverage, either because of largely cooperative neighbors in those basins or because the population, supplies and usage are not trending toward levels of crisis. There remain numerous additional river basins and groundwater resource areas around the world where boundaries do not raise issues of politics, but where the paths of development and resource use are causing plenty of problems. As AlertNet's coverage indicated, many of these issues have arisen because of, and are exacerbated by, numerous factors: burgeoning populations and the inadequacy of existing political institutions, allocations of land use leading to food insecurity and environmental degradation, infrastructure problems arising from dam building and deficient resource access (especially in poor and rural areas), and the problems brought about by global and regional climate change. As a consequence of the quest for continued economic development, water security is coming to the forefront of attention as water itself becomes a "strategic resource" to which even national intelligence communities, especially in the US, are giving increasing attention. Even the "water rich" can accrue risk for acute water stress and scarcity in regions of resource pressure.

The privatization of water management, and the commodification and commercialization of water supply, is a growing issue in many nations. This "liquid gold" is increasingly a target of profit-generating ventures not just for industrial and commercial growth, but also in the process of resource supply and quality management. While political support for the public-private partnership model is growing in some areas, increasing disparities in the level of water availability with close correlation to personal wealth and political influence have arisen in numerous developing nations. The appropriation of water for hydropower generation, still a growing use in Africa and parts of Asia, is yet another way in which river resources have been diverted for "development" to the detriment of those for whom the land and water resources formerly provided sustenance and livelihood. Proposals aimed at reform in water allocation and regulation of water demand are abundant, but such responsibility falls too often on the shoulders of incapable political actors with other, seemingly greater priorities. Conflict between citizens and their "representatives" over the the greater good is leading to a growing dissatisfaction in political leadership over environmental issues, particularly short-sighted political decisions that have long-term impacts on the quality of life at the scales of the family and the village or neighborhood community.

Water is not merely a sufficient condition for life and a fundamental need for society. Water is a foundational requirement and necessary condition for the existence of humans and their social systems. Despite this, we humans do so many things to defeat our own existential support: chemical and biophysical and thermal pollution, commercial misallocation, supply overallocation, legal support for non-beneficial uses, and other activities. Water scarcity can arise not just because of climatological conditions and regional drought, but also because an otherwise adequate resource is rendered unavailable through contamination and less-beneficial consumptive uses. Too often we look to solve our problems with increased acquisition of new resources, instead of correcting our use of existing resources at home. The tensions are not just political, across international boundaries, but also societal, inside individual nations with their own (and sometimes regional) business practices and regulatory systems.

I have mixed feelings about the "human right to water," not as a concept, but as the idea is currently presented and debated at international levels. That is a large-scale political effort at something far more fundamental to the subsistence and sustainability of people at a more local level, and the effort remains endlessly complicated by commercial interests that seemingly transcend those scales. Fixing the problem means getting a handle on all of the problems and actors and interests at all scales of concern, an effort at which our existing political and diplomatic institutions have demonstrated incapability. My deep-seated fear is that this situation is just a hint at the real truth, that such capability in fact does exist, but that the political will is absent, and that the actual root of the problem is disinterest.

The special coverage included brief mentions of cooperative political efforts and greater emphasis on technological progress in rural regions and for agricultural communities, the growing need for coordination in urban areas, and increased awareness of the issues among people, politicians and organizations. Cooperation at local levels in the Jordan River basin is a great example of the ways that progress is being taken from the still hands of national politics. AlertNet should justifiably be commended for this aspect of their coverage, which so many authors and news organizations ignore in favor of a salacious and visceral focus on the conflict to be witnessed. To be certain, some attention to the conflict is essential for progress: it is one of the ways that people will become aware of the problems, to a point that forces change in the system. At a still-to-be-identified "tipping point" in local/regional/global efforts at water sustainability, political leaders will again derive their mandate from the people that they represent, and will bring regulatory and budgetary decisions into alignment with the needs of their constituents. Overcoming that absence of will to action, with proper information and foresight and an honest evaluation of opportunity cost, is the principal battle to be fought over water.

24 July 2012

Water Resources Research Amendments Act of 2012

There is presently a bill under consideration in the US Senate known as "S. 2104: Water Resources Research Amendments Act of 2012." It might be better titled the "Water Resources Research Reduction Act of 2012" given the provisions of the bill. The bill designated S. 2104 was introduced on 14 February 2012, and was last month (21 June 2012) reported favorably, without amendments, by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works for debate on the Senate floor. The bill is sponsored by Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), James Inhofe (R-OK), John Boozman (R-AR), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and Tom Udall (D-NM, also a co-sponsor of the previous version). The latter three Senators joined sponsorship of the bill after its introduction.

This is actually a second round for the legislation itself, having been introduced as identical bills in both houses of Congress in 2010 (S. 3363 and H.R. 5487) but not making it to debate on the floor of either before adjournment of the 111th Congress. The previous version of the Senate bill (S. 3363, 111th) was reported favorably by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works within just one week of its introduction and assignment, while its companion (H.R. 5487, 111th) never made it out of the House Committee on Natural Resources. The present Senate bill (S. 2104, 112th) spent just over four months in Committee before its favorable report to the Senate floor. In the case of both the current (S. 2104, 112th) and previous (S. 3363, 111th) versions of the bill, Senator Cardin of Maryland was the principal sponsor, and Senator Udall of Arizona joined co-sponsorship after the bill was reported favorably by Committee.

Map of WRRIs from the National Institutes for Water Resources.
The original Water Resources Research Act (WRRA) of 1984 established a network of academic research and public extension institutes in every state of the US. (A pdf version of the 1984 WRRA is also available.) These research institutes, also variously called a state's "Center for Water Resources" or "Water Resources Research Center," are closely aligned and affiliated with the agricultural extension program that was developed at the nation's land-grant colleges and universities by the Morrill Act of 1862. Whereas the agricultural extension programs at the land grant universities are administered by the US Department of Agriculture, with cabinet-level visibility in the Executive Branch of the government, the country has no "Department of Water" yet. Instead, our handling of water is spread out among some 40 or more federal departments and agencies, not to mention the individual rights of nearly 60 states and territories with their own government departments and agencies. The federal system seemingly ensures that efforts to address water issues at a national scale remain uncoordinated at best, and more often incoherent or just plain absent. What we have in the US is far from being considered a "policy" on water; individuals and organizations across the country have put forth "visions," "strategies," and other concepts for management of water issues at the federal level. However, the political will to organization and leadership remains elusive. I believe that it can be done, as complex as the issue may be, but I also see that we just don't yet have the progressive leadership in the US Congress and various departments of the Executive Branch to get it there.

The network of Water Resources Research Institutes (WRRIs) is also affiliated closely with the US Geological Survey (USGS), which maintains state and regional offices for water-related studies throughout the country. An agency of the US Department of the Interior, the USGS is one of the leading science-oriented organizations working constantly to improve our understanding of water availability, quality and use (as well as other issues). While the WRRIs generally work in their own states to improve such understanding, and often coordinate across state boundaries to improve their studies, the USGS works on water on a national basis and coordinates across international boundaries with neighboring countries (Canada and Mexico) to perform complete studies of water resource issues. Studies performed by the USGS are generally oriented on whole watersheds and aquifers, regardless of the political boundaries drawn across those areas. The USGS maintains the National Streamflow Information Program (NSIP), coordinating the historical and real-time data from thousands of federal and state-owned stream gauges to give us a better understanding of the country's surface water and groundwater resources.

The work of the WRRI in each state is funded in two ways. Institutional research grants are determined by the budget of the host college or university, which is in turn tied to the state budget and can thus fluctuate over short times, typically on 1- to 2-year cycles. Priorities for the direction of institutional research funds are determined by the state's academic advisory committee, which administers the public university budget overall. Federal research grants are determined in amount on a uniform state basis by Congressional appropriation and (until the present bill under consideration in the Senate) are administered on a 5-year cycle. The direction of these federal grant funds is decided by a joint committee of the USGS and the National Institutes for Water Resources. As legislated, each dollar of federal funding to a state's WRRI must be matched with at least one dollar of state funding to the WRRI. Federal grant funds are also made available for multi-state cooperation and collaboration on trans-boundary work.

The trouble is, the basic summary of the new legislation under consideration in the Senate leaves out the issue of funding. That summary is often written by the bill's sponsor, in this case Sens. Cardin, Boxer and Inhofe. The site linked above (GovTrack.us) indicates that the summary of the present bill was provided by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and lists several generalizations of the bill's text, but again leaves out the issue of funding. Unfortunately, that summary is often the only information that the mainstream media uses to report to public consumers on the issues. We can't let it slide that, in fact, funding to the WRRI network will be cut dramatically by S. 2104. Specifically, the WRRIs have been funded from 2007 through the end of FY2011 at a level of just $12M annually for grants to individual states and by an additional $6M annually for grants to multi-state activities. That is a meager total of just $18M annually for the whole country, not for each WRRI in the network. In addition, those appropriations ended on 30 September 2011; it is unclear to me whether the WRRI network has technically operated unfunded since that date, or if funding has remained available under continuing resolution since then. The present bill S. 2104 proposes to diminish that funding pool through FY2017, from $12M to $7.5M annually for individual state grants, and from $6M to just $1.5M annually for multi-state activities.

At a time when the importance of water to so many sectors and aspects of society and the economy is becoming increasingly visible, Congressional recognition of that fact continues to wane. Can we really afford these cuts to an already meager budget for research and outreach? Can we really afford the loss of knowledge and understanding in our nation's water resources that such budget cuts will engender over the next several years?

23 July 2012

Winning Landsat Images from the "Earth as Art" Contest

NASA and the USGS are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Landsat Earth-observation satellite program (NASA page; USGS page) with several events today. These included announcement of the winners for their "Earth as Art" contest, in which the public was asked to judge their favorite Landsat images from the online archives. Two of the winners are among my favorites:

"Meandering Mississippi" was acquired by Landsat 7 on 28 May 2003 in the area along the river downstream (south-southwest) of Memphis, Tennessee:
From the NASA GSFC Landsat program page; see the image at higher resolution here.
You can also check out this location in Google Maps.

This surreal image of the Yukon River delta on the coast of Alaska was acquired by Landsat 7 on 22 September 2002:
From the NASA GSFC Landsat program page; see the image at higher resolution here.
You can also check out this location in Google Maps.

21 July 2012

Urban Stormwater and the US EPA

Urban stormwater was one of the focus subjects of my MS program in Civil Engineering - Hydrology at Colorado State University. Part of that focus was because of my own advisor, who came to academia from a long career in private practice as a civil engineer with his own focus on stormwater pollution abatement. His experience, including growing up in Colorado and his time in professional engineering, was highly informative to my own interests in the combination of atmospheric science and meteorology with hydrologic science and engineering. In much of the US West, cities are relatively young enough that scientists, engineers and civic leaders came to an adequate understanding of stormwater problems at an early stage of development and could help shape the course of construction from that time forward.

The result was the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4 in the engineering and policy parlance), "separate" because it was constructed on its own and apart from the sanitary sewer system. Streets and storm drains in developed communities are the largest sources of stormwater in cities and cover very large areas of the urban environment. With that coverage comes numerous impacts on the receiving waters (streams and rivers, lakes, a bay or estuary, and sometime the oceans) to which the urban runoff is discharged during storm events. Since that stormwater comes from such a large and distributed area, the pollution is considered "non-point source." This is in contrast to sanitary sewer systems that collect pollutants and contaminants from "point sources" (homes, offices, businesses) for treatment before discharge, urban practices that can be traced back more than 150 years. Now that I think of it again, that would be a good topic for another post on the history of water quality and human health... remind me of that if I haven't posted it in the next couple weeks, would you?

From City of Philadelphia, Combined Sewer Overflow Program
Anyway, in the United States our principal policy and regulatory body for urban stormwater runoff standards is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA was established in 1970 in a flurry of laws including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, as well as the omnibus National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that codified the process of Environmental Assessment. The 1972 Clean Water Act legislation established the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), a program administered by the EPA originally to address the treatment of point-source wastewater before discharge to receiving waters throughout the country and later expanded to include non-point-source municipal stormwater discharges. The federal EPA enacts minimum standards for the quality of discharges and the health of the receiving waters, and various state-level environmental protection agencies throughout the country each have their own authority to enable more exacting and strict standards, according to their own development and environmental situations. For example, cities and counties in the interior western US are much more likely to have criteria for urban stormwater management that are separate from their standards for sanitary sewers, because they have addressed the disparate problems of these two issues early in their developmental history. Some urban communities with exemplary stormwater standards in the US West include Denver CO, Maricopa County AZ (including the Phoenix metro area), and Clark County NV (including the Las Vegas metro area). Much of this work is now known as "green infrastructure."

From City of Philadelphia, Combined Sewer Overflow Program
In much of the eastern US and in older cities on the west coast, however, there has persisted a different approach to stormwater as a legacy of long-term, historical development and the now-outdated idea that urban runoff is a nuisance, to be disposed of as quickly as possible. Just as home wastewater is carried away in the interest of personal and public health, urban planners saw those same sewer systems as the ideal conveyance for nuisance stormwater in order to protect people and property. The result was a proliferation of "combined sewers" that handled both sanitary and stormwater discharges. Many cities in the eastern US still have these, even as some (like Philadelphia, as shown in these figures) are beginning to build MS4s. In the portions of the cities with older systems, both sanitary and storm sewers are routed through the municipal wastewater treatment process before discharge to receiving waters. At least that is the idea in relatively dry periods, with only small storm events contributing to the system.

In large events, however, these systems become overwhelmed with stormwater and, mixed with raw sewage, the excess that cannot be handled by the treatment works is discharged (untreated) to the receiving waters. This is known as a "combined sewer overflow" (CSO) event and was simply accepted as a consequence of system design. A certain level of pollution from CSO events was considered "acceptable" and built into these systems, despite its impacts on the health of the receiving waters. It was often rationalized that the drinking water treatment facilities in downstream communities would keep them safe, especially as almost all of out water in the US is treated to minimum drinking water standards no matter the intended use. Otherwise, the pollution remained out of sight and was eventually discharged to the ocean, where it was considered an infinitesimal source of contamination in such a large ecosystem.

Storm drain stencil, from Squidoo.com
We know now that things are different. The impacts of development on these natural systems, for a long time perceived as negligible, are now coming to be recognized by a slow-growing minority as unsustainable and ultimately limiting to the collective health of humans and our environment. In the US, the EPA maintains an extensive (though underfunded) grant program to help urban communities throughout the country to maintain and upgrade their stormwater systems as part of municipal efforts at meeting NPDES standards. Earlier this week, the EPA announced nearly US$1 million in grants to 17 communities in 16 states for such stormwater improvements.

Some of these grants are going to communities that maintain MS4s and are looking to improve the management of that stormwater with efforts at pre-treatment, sometimes called "best management practices" (BMPs), as well as education and other non-structural approaches. Some non-structural efforts include school and public education programs, establishment and review or improvement of development standards, hazardous waste reclamation programs, and the storm-drain stencils as shown above that improve public awareness of connections between their built and natural environments. The EPA also assists in the dissemination among communities of knowledge on both structural and non-structural measures with a BMP Database that includes design and performance information on a wide variety of constructed stormwater management measures. When you see trees and rain gardens and runoff-fed plantings in densely developed cities, grass and gravel islands and permeable pavement in suburban parking lots, or a small grass swale or pond in a city park, there is a good chance that their design and maintenance were informed by a growing legacy of use elsewhere and experiences passed along through such collections as the BMP Database, and a near-certainty that such measures conform to the NPDES program.

17 July 2012

The Water Rich vs. The Water Poor

Author's Note: Hey, everyone! Yes, I've been away from the blog for a while. My spring 2012 semester was pretty busy with school and such, and my summer has been full of work as I'm getting into modeling studies for my Ph.D. program at UWisc. However, I remain eager to continue my blog work and reconnect with my loyal readers, so I am coming back to it with a renewed sense of purpose. I'm back on Twitter as well, on a much more consistent basis, and have been gathering things from many sources to bring to you all here. First up, an infographic that I received just today from an interested reader...

Infographic by Seametrics, a manufacturer of water flow meter technology.