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Friday, September 9, 2011

Water Security Now.

Sitting in a candlelit room talking about the effects and concerns of the recent power outage with friends, our immediate thoughts were for basic needs. With threats of the outage lasting 2-3 days, and several hungry kids to feed, our concerns were real. Do we have enough food? Besides the fact that refrigerated food will go bad, we can't even BUY food from the store because the cash registers don't work! How can we cook, unless we have gas or solar ovens? Being a water geek, of course my thoughts turned to water... Is the water okay to drink? How is that water going to get to us if there is no power to pump it over the mountains, treat it and distribute it? What about the water that is going down the drain? How are the sewage treatment plants going to run if there is no power? What's going to happen to all that sewage?

Sure enough, they were valid concerns. The power outage was the cause of beach closures due to 3.2 million gallons of sewage seeping into the Los Penasquitos Lagoon. Additionally 120, 000 gallons leaked into the Sweetwater River which flows into San Diego Bay.

Not to mention several neighborhoods had a boil order placed on them because backup generators weren't sufficient to guarantee that the water coming out of the tap was indeed potable.

According to The California Energy Commission 19% of California's energy use is dedicated to moving water around the state. 2%-3% of our state's energy is specifically directed at pumping water coming from Northern California over the Tehachapi Mountain Range to Southern California. According to a report by the NRDC, another half of the energy it takes to pump that water up and over the mountains is required to treat our sewage, before it is released into the waterways. We have seen in a microcosm (only a few hours without power) what our life without energy will be like. We can imagine how quickly our quality of life will degenerate without the electricity that feeds us our water.

The failure here seems that we, as individuals, don't have control over our basic resources. We are at the mercy of large, complex systems. However, we all have the ability to regain some measure of control over ensuring not only individual health, safety, and welfare, but also community health, safety, and welfare by educating ourselves and creating change in our own backyards, so to speak.

In this emergency, more than ever, it is apparent that greywater harvesting on the home-scale is imperative to help create water security for our communities. If each residence around San Diego, and beyond, had laundry and shower greywater systems in place, we could reduced the amount of water being sent from each home to the sewage treatment plant by half. This is a small investment in infrastructure compared to the grand scale of municipal water treatment. These systems are simple and cost effective when implemented at the homescale level. The result is that when the sewage treatment facilities aren't functioning, the yard IS. The landscape is designed to capture and treat this slightly used water in the soil, with mulch basins and plants providing high levels of microbial activity which bioremediate any solids or pathogens in the water. This compared to high volumes of water with added solids and pathogens from toilets spilling out directly into our waterways?

Additionally, residential rainwater storage
demonstrates a very specific value in this situation. It can be argued that storing rainwater is expensive considering how cheaply our water comes from the tap. Many will argue that there is simply not enough rainfall to make storage feasible. However, did you know that a 1000 square foot roof will shed 600 gallons in a 1" rainfall, and we get 10" here in San Diego. So the question becomes: Where do I put it all? If water supply gets cutoff or if water supply becomes unpotable because of energy failures at the treatment facilities, where will we get our water from? The rivers and lagoons that the sewage was just released into?

Even if a small percentage of our 1.3 million people, let's say about 2.5% or 25,000 people put 1000 gallon rainwater tanks in at their homes, we would have 25,000,000 gallons of water storage available within San Diego. We can assume that by this time of the year most people will have used up a large portion of their water on landscape needs, so maybe we have 1/10th of that supply: 2,500,000 gallons. Wow! When you look at that number and realize that's only 2 gallons of water per person, 2 days worth of emergency water rations, it almost seems like it's not worth it. But when you consider 3.2 million gallons of drinking water, pumped over mountains using huge amounts of power, was flushed down toilets, sinks, and showers and directly out into waterways polluting huge swaths of coastline in just a few hours of life with out power, you have to ask yourself, at what cost? 1000 gallon rainwater tank, $1000 investment in individual and community water security. What does 1000 gallons of municipal water cost if there is no power, on the front end, on the back end, to us, to our community, to our environment, to environments upstream and downstream?

Even if you are a renter, don't have a yard, want to do something but don't have the money, please start this conversation with people you know who may be able to invest in these strategies, discuss these technologies and issues with your local representatives: city council, state legislature, water agencies. Let's move this conversation up a notch and demand a paradigm change where we all have a part in creating local water resources.

If you want to learn more about greywater, there is greywater workshop at Wild Willows Farm this Saturday from 10-4. Also, keep an eye out for an October Mid-City Water Harvesting walk/bike ride demonstrating several different water harvesting sites throughout College, Talmadge, Kensington, North Park, Normal Heights, and University Heights. If you have a site you would like to see included, please contact me at brook@h2o-me.com