It’s the infrastructure, stupid!

Some of you may remember the unofficial slogan of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” We could paraphrase that as the banner for what we are dealing with here about water, “It’s the infrastructure, stupid.” Or even rearrange that to, “It’s the stupid infrastructure.” Raising the question, of course, just what is stupid about our water infrastructure?

Last year I attended the Texas Water Forum, held at the Capitol Building and moderated by Senator Kirk Watson. A panel of academics, politicians, water agency employees and interest group representatives carried on a discussion of the water future of Texas, centered a good bit on if and how we can implement the State Water Plan. There was much hand-wringing among the panelists about our ability to fund that plan. Afterward, I pointed out to one of the panelists that the State Water Plan has simply presumed that we are constrained to work within the prevailing infrastructure model, that all “solutions” must derive from, at most, tweaking it, that the controlling institutions seem to find “inconvenient” discussion of other infrastructure models. And that is no doubt a good part of the reason for the estimated $53 billion price tag of that plan.

During his introductory remarks, Senator Watson, referring to the volume of communications to his office about water issues, mentioned jokingly that his female aide “drew the line” at dealing with pitches about water-saving men’s urinals. After the Forum ended, by way of saying “hi” to the senator, I asked wryly, why do the urinals in the Capitol use SO much water? I was of course riffing on his comment, but indeed the urinal I used consumes much more water per flush than any urinal I’ve seen in a long time. Senator Watson responded as if the question were “serious” and immediately observed that it really doesn’t make much difference because this flush water could be “purified” and reused. I responded, yeah, but at what cost?

Indeed it would be costly, under present conditions, to reuse the flush water from that urinal as flush water supply in the Capitol. That’s because, under the prevailing water infrastructure model, that water is first sent “away”, in a very expensive system of pipes and lift stations, to a far-off treatment plant before it is treated to a quality that would allow it to be used for flush water supply. So another whole set of expensive, far-flung pipes would need to be installed, and a lot of energy expended (consuming more water to generate it), to get that reclaimed water back to the Capitol.

Sure, we can “tweak” the prevailing infrastructure model to add the reuse pipes. But we could INSTEAD not only install more efficient fixtures, that wouldn’t flush “away” so much of this resource to begin with, we can ALSO retool to an infrastructure model that recognizes the resource value of the water from the very point of “waste” water generation. A model that focuses the majority of our fiscal resources on utilizing this resource near that point, rather than on infrastructure that does nothing but move the stuff around, to make it go “away”. And then spends more to get it back.

Replacing fixtures with more efficient models is the stock in trade of most conservation programs, of course, but changing the infrastructure model appears nowhere on the radar screens of the institutions that plan, design, fund and implement water resources infrastructure. That seems to violate their mental model of how a modern society manages water resources. And because of that, we are gobbling up a lot of fiscal resources doing things the “old” way, resources that could be dedicated to doing a whole lot more to relieve our looming water supply crisis for the same money.

Again, the prevailing model is that water is piped in and the “nuisances” are piped “away”, a model essentially driven by the conditions considered to be paramount in the 19th century. By failing to recognize that the “nuisances” are resources which, if utilized in place, would defray – if not eliminate – the investments required for the piping in and “away”, that infrastructure model features long water loops, entailing many inefficiencies. By employing an infrastructure model that integrates water management functions and so tightens the water loops, we can eliminate much of the inefficiency and so – while not actually creating any water – we do more with less water, AND do it at less cost.

We need to design water sustainability into the very fabric of development, not attempt to append it on, as if an afterthought rather than a prime goal.

Let’s look at an example, the sort of “waste” water infrastructure model to which the institutional infrastructure defaults. A small but growing Central Texas city (that shall remain nameless to protect the guilty), currently generating about 0.7 million gallons per day (MGD) of wastewater flow, is going to install a new centralized wastewater treatment plant sized for the 1.7 MGD flow projected to be generated at the end of 20 years of forecast growth of that city. Right off the bat, this is economically inefficient, because a significant portion of that additional 1 MGD of capacity would not be utilized for many years. Indeed, if the water supply issues of this region – issues which this make-it-go-“away” strategy will exacerbate – limit the water available to serve that projected growth, some of that capacity may NEVER be used. It would be far more economically efficient to add treatment capacity in small increments on a “just in time” basis, as needed to serve only the development that is actually imminent. And by using distributed systems that integrate reuse of the reclaimed water right into the very fabric of the development, they would defray use of the “original” water supply to serve non-potable demands, and so enhance the prospects that water would be available for that growth.

Exactly because all the wastewater would be gathered at one point, that city insists it “needs” the ability to discharge to surface waters, even as it purports its intention is to route the treated wastewater to irrigation reuse. But reuse opportunities near the treatment plant would be quite limited, and additional fiscal resources would be required to pipe that reclaimed water to points of use in other areas of the community. Where that money would come from is an open question, so the city knows that choosing this infrastructure model has “condemned” it to discharge as its prime “disposal” option, with reuse PERHAPS coming on line at some undetermined time to utilize this water resource.

The decision to discharge in turn imparts the “need” to add something like $10 million to the treatment plant cost in order to remove nutrients, due to the sensitive nature of the receiving waters. In societal terms, this is an utter waste of that added expense. Those nutrients would also be resources if the reclaimed water were routed to irrigation reuse, so this is really a doubling up of the waste of resources.

Then add on that it is not known where in and around this city the additional 1 MGD of flow would be generated relative to the treatment plant location. The facilities needed to make it go “away” from those locations to this plant would be another additional cost, currently unaccounted for. The presumption no doubt is that “growth will pay for it”. So installing and upgrading conveyance facilities would add those costs, along with the cost of treatment plant capacity, to the price of creating that development. This is cost that could be pretty much avoided by expanding the treatment capacity a small increment at a time in distributed facilities, within or very near the development. This is another manner in which the prevailing infrastructure model is economically inefficient.

The upshot is that some, perhaps much, maybe even most, of this “waste” water will truly be wasted, at great cost, while this city attempts to find replacement water and to pipe it to the new development to provide irrigation and other non-potable uses. In this community, where that water would be found is an open question.

All these inefficiencies will be built into the city’s infrastructure because it appears that the city leaders cannot step outside their mental model, that they believe they “must” institute the form of infrastructure prescribed by the controlling institutions. Thus they will fail to actually maximize the reuse opportunities, so saving much of that water to help serve the growth they have forecast as the reason for making the infrastructure investments to begin with.

Tragically, and predictably, none of the institutional infrastructure that is supposed to be looking out for society’s best interests ever even suggested to this city the “density” of such an attitude. Certainly, neither TCEQ nor TWDB ever questioned this waste of water and money, rather – also prisoner to their mental models – they act as if what this city proposes is exactly how society “should” be addressing its water resources infrastructure. Indeed, TCEQ – dedicated to a rule system that makes wastewater management all about “disposal” rather than resource management – would resist permitting a distributed management concept. Sadly, it seems that “institutional convenience” is a far more highly rated value than is the actual point of making these investments, to attain a safe and sustainable water supply.

This same pattern is being repeated in and around every city in the state, as water resources infrastructure is being planned, designed, funded and installed to serve growth. An abiding tragedy of continuing to prop up this prevailing infrastructure model, despite the many ways it is inefficient, is that because we are dealing here with infrastructure that has a long service life, we are literally cementing in place this inefficient management model for decades to come.  We’re doing this simply because it seems to be “institutionally inconvenient” to question that infrastructure model.

So clearly there is ample reason to question if a State Water Plan that is predicated on extending and perpetuating the prevailing 19th century infrastructure model would cost more than it needs to, if we were to instead pursue a smarter infrastructure model, a model that recognizes and responds to the water realities here in the 21st century. An infrastructure model that yields deep conservation. But of course, unless/until the institutional infrastructure that plans, designs, funds and implements water resources infrastructure can transcend its mental model and become willing to so much as put on the table for discussion the infrastructure model it pursues, it will be very problematic to generate a plan which gets us on a path to sustainable water, at any cost.

There are opportunities just about everywhere we look for designing sustainable water into the very fabric of development, opportunities that are being blunted by existing institutional arrangements. It’s like the controlling institutions are FAR more concerned about perturbing the status quo than they are about the sustainability of this society.

And that is why, “It’s the infrastructure, stupid.”


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