Dependable Erection

Monday, March 10, 2008

Thinking about the drought

I've had a couple of real-world conversations about the drought in the past few days, and i guess i'm not expressing myself as clearly as i'd like.

First off, read this little article by Matt in the N&O.
The city's Lake Michie reservoir is full, while the Little River reservoir us about five feet blow full.

Durham now has 361 days of water available at Michie, the Little River and Teer Quarry.

Meanwhile, city officials said demand dipped below 20 million gallons per day last week. City leaders have expressed concern that Durham residents will stop conserving water as vigilantly because of the recent rains.

City Manager Patrick Baker said staff members will talk this week about possibly dropping water restrictions from Stage IV to Stage III, which would allow some outdoor irrigation. But Baker said he didn't think the move was likely.

City Councilman Eugene Brown noted the city's water supply was at this level in May. By December, the city had only about a month of easily accessible drinking water left.

If the city has another dry, hot summer like last year's, Durham could find itself in the same boat should conservation efforts flag, Brown and other city leaders have said.

I quite understand that another summer like this past one could deplete that 361 days of water in less than 200 days. We do need to keep our conservation efforts up as individuals.

But, as individuals, we're only able to conserve on the margins, to use an old Econ 101 term. Based on population, there's a certain structural level of water use built into the system. Planners like to use 120 gallons per day per person as the overall level of use. We've actually been below that for most of the past 5 months or so. Our 200,000 plus population has been averaging around 20 million gallons per day, or 100 gallons per person. Please note, that figure includes industrial and commercial uses, as well as water lost in transfer and through evaporation. It does not mean that the average household is being billed for 100 gallons per person per day.

The point, though, is that Durham is currently storing all of the water it is capable of storing. We didn't design the system to store more water, because we've never needed to. But individual conservation efforts can only go so far, even if everybody is on board. So, given that we're using our system as best we can, and it is still inadequate to provide a quality of life* that we've come to expect, why are we adding to our water supply needs by continuing to approve new development all throughout the county and city? If the system is inadequate, how can we justify stressing it further? How can we justify adding more demands on the system if we're going to turn to our new residents and say, "Welcome to Durham. Oh, by the way, don't flush. And don't even think about watering that new landscaping you just paid your builder an extra $5,000 to put in."

I've done my part to lower my water consumption. Quite honestly, i'm using less water than i did when i lived in California's drought stricken Central Valley in the early 90s. Where i was still able to grow a vegetable garden, by the way.

If the problem is as serious as all that, and i believe that it is, then our leaders need to do more than just ask the residents to keep conserving. Other segments of the community need to be biting the bullet as well.

UPDATE: Todd has posted some good ideas in the comments. Go read them.


* I don't know about you, but keeping a bucket in the tub to catch all my warming up shower water to use to flush the toilet, and not being able to grow vegetables or brew beer are definitely negative factors in my quality of life. If they're going to be permanent restrictions, as a result of poor planning and poor decision making, this place just got a whole lot less attractive as a place to live.



  • But we might soon have a chicken in every yard. That might cancel out all these water annoyances as far as Durham's quality of life is concerned.

    (saw something about the chicken movement on TP list-serv)

    By Blogger toastie, at 9:46 PM  

  • Fortunately, no one brought up the movement to legalize chickens at Coffee with Council tonight.

    By Blogger Barry, at 9:49 PM  

  • I think Durham residents should be guaranteed pne year's worth of water, with a 95% level of certainty. That should include some ability to irrigate, at least one day a week. If we can't do that, we should look hard at restricting new development. Would Durham pols have the gumption to institute a 1-year guarantee? Well, that's another story entirely.

    I came around to this idea after reading Barry's early diaries. I don't think that Durham could make that guarantee using our existing water storage, but a larger Jordan Lake tap would ensure a year's supply easily. I believe that is the only short term fix in the works. Filling the Teer quarry from the Eno River is a year off, and raising the level of Lake Michie with a new dam is 10-20 years off, IIRC.

    By Anonymous steve bocckino, at 4:56 AM  

  • Yep. And yet, every time i open the papaer or check my email, i'm reading about another new development in the north, or south, or east, or west side of town that someone wants a rezoning for to add 350 or 600 or 1000 new residences.

    Sooner or later those 2000 new homes and townhouses add up to 4400 new residents. And guess what?

    That's almost half a million gallons a day in new demand on the water supply. If you're still asking us to save the shower water to flush the toilet, isn't it time that you started putting some systemic measures in place to reduce demand as well?

    By Blogger Barry, at 8:52 AM  

  • Well said, Barry!

    By Anonymous John Schelp, at 10:33 AM  

  • Good post.

    From my perspective, we've got absolutely no visible reason to be in Stage IV now. Weren't we well below these levels before anybody even started to talk about restrictions last year? And didn't our policy *work* and pull us through the drought? Why are we still panicking?

    It's time for this crap to end - it's insane that we can't even water our community garden. If things are really bad enough to require this (and I frankly doubt that they are) then we need to pony up the money to fix our infrastructure. We have options - finish the line from the Eno to Teer, build our own infrastructure on Jordan (as I understand it we could be drawing directly, we just haven't invested in it), maybe we could even dredge Michie to increase its capacity (now that it's, you know, overflowing).

    What's really going on here?

    By Blogger Jeremy T, at 11:08 AM  

  • Well, back in the 70s, what is now Eno River State Park was supposed to have become a reservoir much as Falls Lake is today. In fact, the Eno River Association was founded to oppose the reservoir. I'm not knocking them - I give them money every year and hike in the park all the time.

    I'm not suggesting that the reservoir be built now. But if it had been, Durham would not now find itself in a water crisis.

    You can't address the problem solely from the demand side. Unless Durham is to be strangled there will need to be a new supply found. However, with a NIMBY springing up every time critical infrastructure needs to be addressed, there is little hope.

    By Blogger Locomotive Breath, at 11:11 AM  

  • Given the AP story yesterday about trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in drinking water of major cities across the country, perhaps raising the dam at Lake Michie should be a higher priority.

    I would suspect that the watershed for Michie is cleaner - due to far less development - than the Jordan Lake watershed, which includes the southern half of Durham, Chapel Hill, Burlington, etc.

    I agree with Steve that a year's supply of water - and the ability to water plants once a week - would be a good baseline for the city.

    There are several things Durham needs to do for the long term:

    -Durham needs to aggressively pursue fixes for leaks in the current water distribution system.

    -Durham should require separate meters for outdoor irrigation systems and should charge a prohibitive rate for drinking water that is used for irrigation.

    -Durham should fight for changes to the state building code to require water saving devices in all new buildings statewide, and incentives or tax credits for retrofitting existing buildings.

    -Durham should expand the use/availabilty of treated wastewater for irrigation and other purposes.

    No one thing is going to solve this problem. It is going to take a combination of a bunch of small changes to reduce per capita water usage.

    By Blogger Todd, at 11:22 AM  

  • There are basically 3 options on the supply side, all of which are on the City's Capital Improvement Plan.

    1. Teer Quarry. Funding is in place for '08-'09, will add 7 MGD capacity to the system. If DENHR goes along with it.

    2. Jordan Lake. Durham is allowed 10 MGD, is pulling 2 MGD through Cary's system, is adding additional pipe to increase capacity to 5 MGD later this year -I think. In the long term, Durham could build it's own intake on Jordan Lake along with OWASA to take the full 10 MGD from Jordan lake, or even more if Durham can get a bigger allocation from the Corps of Engineers.

    3. Lake Michie - Raise or replace the dam to raise the level of the lake by 20 feet, greatly increasing storage capacity.

    Both the Teer Quarry and Lake Michie projects face potential environmental roadblocks with the State. Since Michie was built in the 1920's before environmental regs were in place, there is no requirement for a minimum outflow from the dam to support wildlife downstream. DENHR wants to require a minimum flow downstream before it will sign off on either project.

    Obviously, this could significantly impact Michie as a water supply. After all, no water flowed from the dam from May of last year until last week.

    By Blogger Todd, at 11:49 AM  

  • The biggest issue on the supply side, in my mind, is changing our mode of thinking from municipal supply to regional or even statewide supply.

    Historically, the Piedmont has gotten 3"-4" of rain per month every month. With that pattern, you don't need to store water for more than a couple of months, because supply almost always outstrips demand.

    Change that to the seasonal variations we've experienced for 4 out of the last 7 years, and the inadequacy of the storage system is highlighted. If this pattern becomes a permanent fixture in the east coast climate, none of the municipalities in the Piedmont are going to be able to manage their water needs on their own.

    We've already seen the first hints of where the fault lines are going to develop between communities when it comes to sharing water. Although a number of people have told me privately that Carrboro Mayor Chilton's comments, about opposing Durham's increased use of Jordan Lake water unless we change our development policies, are not taken seriously, they do indicate where stress is going to develop unless a true regional compact for sharing water resources is created. The agreements currently in place were not designed to deal with chronic regional shortages. Should we find ourselves in that situation, i expect they'll, pardon the pun, evaporate.

    By Blogger Barry, at 12:06 PM  

  • ...changing our mode of thinking from municipal supply to regional or even statewide supply.

    If you really want to start a political fight, propose an inter-basin transfer of water. Remember this one?

    North Carolina–Virginia Conflict: The Lake Gaston Water Transfer

    By Blogger Locomotive Breath, at 10:07 AM  

  • Increase the water and sewer impact fees. We obviously need more infrastructure if we're going to grow more, and we're already headed to tiered water rates to pay for some of it. Increase the impact fees and growth can only continue if it pays for its own infrastructure.

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 4:52 PM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:03 AM  

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