A Life Necessity Often Taken for Granted
There is almost nothing we take for granted more in the United States than having clean, cheap, always available tap water. Turn the spigot and out it comes, as much as we want. Always. These systems are actually engineering marvels and the Baltimore City system, largely planned and designed by Abel Wolman in the early 1900s, is one of the best in the world. Wolman was a pioneer in sanitary engineering, taught for decades at Johns Hopkins University and was longtime head of the American Water Works Association. The system he envisioned has good, dependable, redundant supply, and good storage in multiple, large reservoirs that have largely protected watersheds. His concepts from 100 years ago remain valid today.
Unfortunately, many of the pipes installed 100 years ago are still in the ground and are prone to spectacular failures, which regularly make the news. Dundalk has been flooded, Downtown Baltimore’s streets collapse, and many others. Often these failures occur at this time of the year when freezing temperatures finally push a marginal pipe over the limit. Fixing these aging systems is not a sexy thing to do and maintenance is often deferred until there is no choice but to make repair.
Of course, there are situations around the world much more serious than having to fix a failed pipe. Lake Mead in Arizona, created by the Hoover Dam and the main water supply for Las Vegas, has a reservoir level 108 feet below design level. It is threatening to drop below the lowest intake pipe. In southern Australia they have been in a drought for 10 years and flow in their major water source, the Murray River, has dropped 90 percent, eliminating almost all agricultural allocations and financially ruining many area ranchers dependent on irrigation. In India, even if you have water pipes in your street, it is common for water to actually be in the pipe only a few hours a day or a few days a week, and even that water isn’t safe to drink. Thirty percent of the population in India carries their water from a remote source to their homes. Even at a subsistence ration of 50 gallons of water per person per day, that is over 400 pounds of water a day. This chore is often relegated to teenage girls, which short circuits their education. In the U.S., we use on average about 150 gallons of water per person per day – 1,200 pounds. Imagine if you had to carry that in a bucket on your head from the community well across town every day.
There are success stories, however, and we all need to learn from them. Las Vegas has an incredible water conservation program with water recycling, low flow operations, irrigation uses of sewage plant discharges, etc. In Perth, Australia, they recently completed a massive desalination plant project on time and under budget. They went from not knowing where their next drop of water was coming from to having a sustainable system in five years.
Now consider what we pay for water. I reported earlier that rates per 1,000 gallons range from $6 to $14 here in Harford County. At 150 gallons per day per person that ranges from $27 to $63 per month per person. Not a bad bargain for a life essential element, especially when compared to your cell phone, cable or BGE bill. Think about that the next time you turn on the tap; take a shower; wash your dishes, clothes, car, windows, or dog; water the plants; wash the floor; make coffee; boil an egg; make pasta or a cup of tea; flush the toilet …
This is a regularly recurring column by Craig A. Ward on the environment and land use in Maryland. Mr. Ward is a Registered Professional Engineer and Certified Planner and is the President of Frederick Ward Associates, a civil engineering and architectural design firm in Bel Air. Mr. Ward has been involved in State and local land use and environmental policy and design for over 25 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. I95