Processing Magazine

Geography is truth when it comes to water issues

October 21, 2013

The mayor of Chicago was running late. Therefore, those attending WEFTEC’s plenary session, and not the previous keynote session, ended up getting to listen to his Honor Rahm Emmanual brag on his city repeatedly being recognized for having the “best tasting” water in the United States.

The 86th annual Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference took place at McCormick Place South along Chicago’s lakefront, October 7-9.

It was really, though, the most appropriate session for the mayor’s appearance because it allowed compare-and-contrast with what was top of mind for those on the regularly scheduled panel, folks coming out of Singapore, San Francisco and Western Australia.

Most striking were the diverse challenges faced by the different geographies involved, and also the panel members’ conviction that critical water issues and climate change were real.

An additional piquant note graced the proceedings in that an EPA representative who’d planned to be part of the panel cancelled due to the recent federal government shutdown. When the panel moderator asked for applause in support of the EPA professionals, the audience response was only moderate.

Lake Michigan is the only one of the Great Lakes totally within the borders of the United States. From being in a dire state, the Great Lakes were brought back to health based on a 1909 international treaty.   

Chicago is blessed to have 20 miles of publicly accessible lakefront and, given the Chicago River, 20 miles of riverfront as well, the mayor pointed out. But as with other large cities in the northern United States, Chicago is looking at huge costs for renewing infrastructure. In the second year of its current investment program, the city is looking to replace or rebuild 900 water lines, 160,000 catch basins and 12 pumping stations. By program’s end, “we will gain two years of water supply currently lost through breakage,” the mayor said. “By means of this investment we put 18,000 people to work.”

The panel members included Harlan Kelly, general manager of the San Francisco public utilities commission; Chew Men Leong, chief executive, PUB Singapore; Sue Murphty, CEO, Water Corp. of Western Australia; and Heiner Markoff, president & CEO, GE Water + Process Technologies.

The challenge facing Singapore is very different from that of Chicago and the other entities represented on the panel. As is well known, this city-state – about the same size as Chicago, but with twice as many people – is intent on maintaining its independence from Malaysia. Yet it is dependent on Malaysia for about one-half of its water supply.  “For security reasons,” says Men Long, “We need to change that.” For that reason, he adds, Singapore looks to innovative technology, including desalination and recycling as the best opportunity for increasing independence.  

In Western Australia the situation is something else again, says Murphy. Western Australia is a lot like Texas, she says, “but big.” Only 2-1/2 million people inhabit the huge area, which includes desert in the south and jungle in the north. Even then, a full two million of those live in the city of Perth, which itself is built on sand. A change in prevailing weather patterns, assuming to be caused by rising average annual temperatures, has reduce rainfall by about 20% annually.

For all these reasons, use of water needs to change drastically in Western Australia, including use of desalination plants as a source for drinking water; wastewater renewal for reinjection into water reservoirs; and a further 8% reduction in water use.

San Francisco gets its water by piping it in under force of gravity from a source about 200 miles away. That movement can be a source of energy. The city has a single combined water system, with three treatment centers. Like Chicago, its biggest current challenge is aging infrastructure. About 60% of its water pipes are more than 70 years old.

What all the localities had in common was that population growth, aging infrastructure and changing climate were pushing them to find more sustainable solutions on a global scale, whether by means of technology, good management practices or innovative financing.