State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Trouble in America’s Water Paradise

Desalination plant, St. Thomas USVI
A desalination plant in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo: Melissa von Mayrhauser

Case Studies by students Melissa von Mayrhauser, Nelson E. Dove, and Sammy Roth

America’s strong water infrastructure has been key to its success as a nation. The country’s ability to control water flow and to purify and manage its water, in agriculture and in industry, has made it a global leader in water technology.

Yet while the United States has high-quality technology, its continual waste of water and lack of commitment to long-term water investments has halted its progress. The U.S. loses 1.7 trillion gallons of water per year due to leaky pipes, and a U.S. water main stops working every two minutes. The average U.S. citizen consumes hundreds of times more water than residents of many other countries. This water loss and usage—combined with energy-intensive water practices—exacerbates our water challenges. When a natural disaster strikes, for instance, we are less capable of responding properly. Population growth, which increases water demand, also puts pressure on our water infrastructure.

To promote improvements in our water use and management, we need to change the way we perceive individual water use and call our policymakers to action. A $20 billion infrastructure bill is currently moving toward a vote in the Senate. This bill would give the Army Corps of Engineers permission to conduct many water infrastructure projects, including flood-control and water supply initiatives. This type of political interest in restoring and improving our water infrastructure is essential, as seen in the following case studies.

St. Thomas’ new, more energy-efficient desalination plant promises to provide clean water to residents and tourists, but the island’s lack of other long-term water management strategies has limited the plant’s impact. Superstorm Sandy highlighted the fragility of New York’s wastewater infrastructure. The Los Angeles River, once the city’s lifeline, is now little more than a trickle, and it represents a key environmental justice infrastructure challenge. By studying these cases, we can observe specific examples of problems of modern American water infrastructure, and perhaps also catch a glimpse of solutions.

Water Infrastructure in St. Thomas: Desalination Woes

By Melissa von Mayrhauser

St. Thomas, USVI
St, Thomas, USVI. Photo: Melissa von Mayrhauser

The Caribbean Sea’s waters are world-renowned for their clear, turquoise gleam, their diverse marine life, and their place in literature and film. Yet within this water paradise are deeper challenges of water management and infrastructure, as is the case in the U.S. Virgin Islands. While the U.S. territory of St. Thomas is building a more efficient desalination plant, new questions are arising about how the plant can deliver pure water to the island’s residents in the long-term when short-term solutions are preventing its success.

St. Thomas’ Water and Power Authority (WAPA) has contracted a water company to build a more efficient desalination facility to replace its former thermal plant. As I learned from water engineers at the project, workers are currently setting up a reverse osmosis system that will pass seawater through a membrane under high pressure. They are also taking steps to minimize the plant’s energy and environmental footprint. For instance, they are protecting biodiversity by monitoring coral reef populations and testing the water for sediment levels, in accordance with EPA regulations. The work promises to provide St. Thomas and its growing population with clean water for generations.

Yet it is unclear how much of an impact the plant will have among other water management challenges. Many residents use cisterns to collect water rather than drawing on the municipal supply, and they often live in impoverished, rural communities on the outskirts of town. Since these residents catch their own water and live in primarily rural areas, there is no municipal system of water quality monitoring to guarantee the water’s safety.

Among those who do receive city water, many people lack confidence in its quality. Their concern is justified: The water leaves the treatment plant as potable, but many of the island’s pipes are antiquated, thus delivering water that potentially has been exposed to rust and other chemicals. Other signs of the pipes’ age are their high leakage rates and how often they burst.

This reluctance to drink tap water has led to widespread use of plastic water bottles, even though there are energy intensive desalination plants currently working. Moreover, there is no municipal recycling system on the island, and the majority of residents simply throw away plastic. Most water bottles enter a landfill or the sea, potentially aggravating biodiversity loss  and pollution problems.

Bottled water is also a hot commodity because of the huge numbers of tourists who visit the island each day. Tourism is the main industry in St. Thomas, comprising approximately 80 percent of employment and GDP. Many restaurants cater to this crowd by offering expensive bottled water. As thousands of visitors arrive and leave within a few days, they lack awareness of the long-term environmental implications of their actions.

While St. Thomas has unique economic and climatic concerns, it shares water challenges with the rest of the United States and the world. It is attempting to provide water to its growing population and tourist trade in the context of increasingly dry seasons, while also facing problems of distribution. Its desalination plant is a promising sign of long-term water commitment, but its otherwise short-term strategies concerning pipes, cisterns and recycling need to be revisited.

As U.S. states such as California and Texas tackle desalination strategies, perhaps it is time to consider the impact that energy-efficient desalination could have in advancing America’s aging water infrastructure, while always keeping in mind the local context.

Post-Sandy Water & Wastewater Infrastructure

By Nelson E. Dove

Hudson River
The Hudson River

The importance of investing in America’s water infrastructure is well known in the water community, with the American Water Works Association estimating that we need to spend $1 trillion to maintain the same level of water services being delivered now. While a congressional committee evaluated the Water Resources Development Act last fall, the importance of fast action became clearer than ever when Superstorm Sandy pounded the eastern seaboard. The storm exposed just how vulnerable America’s water infrastructure can be, and just how diverse the solutions to fix it will need to be.

Sandy’s effects on the New York City metro area varied greatly, based on the location and disposition of utilities. The city’s water supply—which flows down aqueducts from the Catskill/Delaware Watershed over a hundred miles to the north—was safe from contamination, but other New York and New Jersey residents were not as lucky. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office was tweeting, “We’ve tested NYC drinking water and it’s completely safe,” counties such as Nassau, Rockland, Suffolk, Middlesex, and Ocean were telling their residents to boil their water. All water utilities, no matter their region or the population they serve, should be able to have confidence in their protection levels in the face of a disaster, especially as climate change may exacerbate such disasters.

The storm did even more damage to the region’s wastewater infrastructure. Multiple wastewater treatment plants were shut down or overwhelmed by storm surges, resulting in a massive release of sewage into local waterways. The Bay Park Wastewater treatment plant, serving approximately 550,000 residents of Nassau County on Long Island, was one of the hardest hit. Flood levels quickly submerged its pumping system, causing it to shut down for over 50 hours and resulting in the discharge of approximately 200 million gallons of raw sewage into the Hewlett Bay. The wastewater situation was so dire that government officials urged water conservation to reduce the inflow to the wastewater treatment plants and relieve the stress on the system. Treatment plants were not fully prepared for the hurricane and according to The New York Times, the state of New York alone would have to spend over a billion dollars in repairs to mend the damaged wastewater treatment plants.

The New York City metro area is just one example of the country’s water and wastewater infrastructure challenges. Throughout the United States, utilities vary greatly in terms of levels of debt, private vs. public ownership, treatment methods, water source location and climate. Last week, the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously approved the Water Resources Development Act, which could be brought to the Senate floor in the next few months. Even though the Water Resources Development Act is only one piece of the water infrastructure puzzle, every project proposed as a result of the bill needs to be scrutinized. In this way, we can ensure that every dollar is utilized effectively to bring our infrastructure to an acceptable level, allowing it to continue treating our water and wastewater both on calm days and during storms of the century.

Los Angeles River Revitalization

By Sammy Roth

Los Angeles River
The Los Angeles River. Photo:

Among many LA residents, the Los Angeles River is something of a joke. In truth, the so-called river is a 51-mile concrete channel that contains little water and is best known as the scene of a car chase in the film “Grease.” But Los Angeles’ longstanding apathy toward its rivers masks the reality that for decades, the city has been letting a critical natural resource go to waste. Ever since the 1930s, when the Army Corps of Engineers encased most of the river in concrete to control its violent, seasonal flooding, the river has served as an environmental and economic blight on the city, representing environmental injustice, biodiversity loss and water mismanagement.

The river was once a life-giving force, providing water, food, and greenery for indigenous peoples. Today, though, it is a shadow of what it once was, with just a trickle of water flowing through much of its length. It is no longer a significant municipal water source, its seven native fish species are gone, and it supports little natural wildlife. Meanwhile, the communities surrounding the river have largely seen industrial plants develop along the concrete riverfront, many of which have been abandoned and left to deteriorate into hazardous brownfields. As city officials wrote in a report on the river, it has “been treated as an unwelcome guest in many neighborhoods,” and with good reason.

These problems, though, are not without solutions, and over the last 20 years, Angelenos and city officials have come together to repurpose the land surrounding the river, with a focus on making it friendlier, more useful and more natural. Those efforts are encapsulated by the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, an ambitious plan that centers on building a series of public parks, bikeways and scenic pedestrian paths along the river. Under the plan, some sections of the river would also be redeveloped as residential building and office spaces, providing a further method to eliminate the brownfields and train yards that are especially prevalent in low-income communities. And in both the park spaces and the developments, the city’s goal is to create habitats, natural vegetation and wildlife in and along the river. It’s an ambitious plan, and one that city officials envision as being carried out over the next 25 to 50 years.

Los Angeles’ approach to revitalizing its river—part beautification, part redevelopment, and part environmental justice—has some similarities to other river infrastructure initiatives around the country. In Chicago, the River Corridor Development Plan is focused on greening the space along the Chicago River, both through a series of public parks and the restoration of fish habitats. New York City’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program is similarly concerned with waterfront parks and redevelopment of underutilized spaces. As Los Angeles resumes its revitalization projects, it would do well to learn from what has and hasn’t worked in other major cities.

Still, LA faces a series of unique challenges, particularly the fact that most of its river is encased in concrete. City officials hope to remove some of the concrete, but the Army Corps of Engineering has yet to complete a $10 million study to determine whether doing so is feasible while maintaining the river’s flood control capacity. Meanwhile, adding new vegetation to the river would likely decrease flood capacity, meaning stretches of the river might need to be widened or deepened. While there’s been no shortage of support for the revitalization plan among local groups, funding is still uncertain, and very few projects have gotten off the ground so far.

Revitalizing the Los Angeles River has the potential to solve a host of enormous environmental, social and economic problems in Los Angeles. It is perhaps the most ambitious river infrastructure project ever undertaken in the United States, and we will have to wait and see whether it is as workable in practice as it is in theory.

Melissa Von Mayrhauser is a senior studying sustainable development and French studies and currently serves as president of the Aquanauts, Columbia’s student water group. Nelson E. Dove is a masters candidate studying environmental engineering and is the club’s vice president. Sammy Roth is a junior studying sustainable development and is a member of the group.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments