Projects for the parched
a severe drought in the U.S. is pushing organizations to launch creative water-saving projects
Workers release black shade balls into a reservoir in Los Angeles, California, USA.
PHOTO BY GENE BLEVINS/ZUMA PRESS/CORBIS
|US$6.5 billion Projected cost for two new reservoirs in California||14% |
The portion of the United States in severe to extreme drought as of July 2015
|US$265 million |
Amount saved by using shade balls instead of a solid cover for the reservoir
In August, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in the U.S. state of California dumped 96 million black plastic balls into its primary drinking water reservoir. It wasn't an accident. The ball dump was the culmination of a project to protect the city's water supply.
Los Angeles, along with other communities throughout the western U.S., is scrambling to mitigate the impacts of an ongoing severe drought. About 14 percent of the contiguous United States was in severe to extreme drought as of July 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Five years earlier, that figure was 3 percent.
“By reducing evaporation, these shade balls will conserve 300 million gallons of water each year,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a press conference in August. The balls cost less than US$35 million—a bargain compared to the US$300 million price tag of a solid cover over the reservoir.
Other creative water-saving projects launched by public and private organizations in the western U.S. include using vibration monitoring to find and fix leaks in aging infrastructure and building water treatment systems that return wastewater to drinkable standards. These projects promise to save millions of gallons of water while cutting costs and reducing waste—but only if project teams secure the resources and community support necessary to deliver them.
“People are trying to address water issues related to the drought in a lot of different ways,” says Neil Grigg, PhD, professor of engineering at Colorado State University and a member of the Colorado Water Innovation Cluster, which supports water conservation research projects.
Those ways include more traditional large-scale infrastructure projects, too. The state of California is considering funding two projects to build new reservoirs, Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley and Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River, at a cost of US$6.5 billion. They would create about 2.6 million acre-feet of new storage capacity for Californians if approved by the legislature.
“By reducing evaporation, these shade balls will conserve 300 million gallons of water each year.”
—Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
But not all drought-related projects are about people. The Nature Conservancy of California works to create “pop-up habitats” for migrating birds affected by drought and other factors. Volunteers provide information on bird sightings, which the organization uses to determine exactly where habitats are needed so migrating birds can rest and eat during their journey. The organization then pays farmers in those areas to flood fields. In 2013, the project's first year, 40 farmers participated, and 30 percent more of the targeted species were seen in participating fields than in other ones, Fast Company reported.
One of the biggest challenges communities face in implementing water projects is that cities, districts, municipalities, businesses and special interest groups all have a vested interest in how water is used, and their demands are heightened in water-scarce environments, Dr. Grigg says. “People are very emotional about water, so expect the stakeholder management process to take longer and to cost more money than you ever thought it could,” he says. “There are a lot of examples of failed projects due to lack of coordination between stakeholders.”
Lake Mead intake project in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
INDIA PHOTO BY MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN/THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR VIA GETTY IMAGES
“People are very emotional about water, so expect the stakeholder management process to take longer and to cost more money than you ever thought it could.”
—Neil Grigg, PhD, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA
Planning for a Dry Future
There are also examples of how the drought has brought stakeholders together to focus on common goals. Consider the success of the Lake Mead intake project in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Back in 2002, the city recognized that water levels were dropping at Lake Mead, the primary source of drinking water for the community. The drop was troubling both from a quantity and quality standpoint, as lower water levels can generate higher particulate rates, which means the water needs more treatment, says Erika Moonin, engineering project manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.
In response, SNWA launched a project in 2005 to shore up the community's water supply. Its scope included digging a new 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) gravity-fed intake tunnel well below the reservoir depth levels of existing tunnels and building a new pumping station.
SNWA invited local community groups, government agencies, representatives from various Las Vegas districts and city advisory panels to weigh in on the project and guide planning, which ultimately helped win support. “We needed to be sure that every jurisdiction was on board so that we had a unified voice and a unified approach,” says Bronson Mack, spokesman for SNWA, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.
“Being proactive gave us the flexibility to make changes to the project plan and still be ready to adapt as the lake levels decline.”
—Erika Moonin, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
Active construction on the US$817 million tunnel project began in 2008, and it was completed this year. There were some modifications: When the 2008 recession hit, SNWA revised the plan to defer construction on the pumping station until it “absolutely had to be done,” Ms. Moonin says.
The organization's proactive attention to water security has made the region more resilient during the current drought. “We started in 2005, which was well ahead of the official drought,” Ms. Moonin says. But because the SNWA team had been monitoring climate change issues and ongoing water level trends in Lake Mead, they knew it was a smart investment. “We made the right decisions back then, and being proactive gave us the flexibility to make changes to the project plan and still be ready to adapt as the lake levels decline,” she says. —Sarah Fister Gale
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