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Water is Cheap… For Now

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Water Pipe

Yesterday, I showed up to a water conference to supplement my knowledge of energy issues, mind you as the only non-engineer for whom the molecule drawings instead look more like adorable Mickey Mouse figurines. Clearly, I am addicted to the high of being somewhere where I don’t belong. I suppose it’s a history with me, my old’ 'œI’m the only lawyer in Ibiza' syndrome acting up, an extension of my  'œI would like to skip the second grade,' a request that was granted for me.

But, as usual, I digress. So here is the deal. Water is a cheap-ass resource. In fact most of us are charged just for the price of delivery of water to our homes, rather than the actual value of water. And with aging infrastructure all over the country (most of New York’s water system, at least, was built pre-1936), increased populations/use of water where water is scarce, higher water quality regulations, and high energy use to treat water, we are in for either a collapse, lower quality water (illegal), soaring rates, or water wars. In the water world, Mark Twain is often quoted for his line: 'œWhiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.' Forget just some far away region in Africa, we are already seeing that in the U.S. Presently, Georgia and Alabama are fighting over access to water due to an unusually high drought season.

To manage these problems, the whole sector has to change. Looking at the image above, you see that we aren’t dealing with tiny things here, these pipes are huge, plants for treating water are complex, and it all needs to be updated to meet our evolving needs. So far, water providers try to stay invisible as a utility rather than a service provider, and the only time you hear about them is if something goes wrong, so, in other words, when you don’t want to. But the water industry has increased life by 20 years, the medical profession by only 10. Do we understand how valuable our clean water is? No, and they admit that’s their fault. Now the profession has to get flashy and teach people (strong marketing = teaching) about the true value of water, so that the customer can change, not just in its efforts to conserve, but in accepting that water is not a given and to cough up money for capital improvements. Thus, there needs to be a paradigm shift on the consumer and provider side.

Other fun facts I learned:
'¢ Pharmaceuticals and other bioproducts that we ingest come out in our excretion and when it gets into the water stream, the left over compounds of the drugs have been known to change the sex of certain fish. Gotta love Advil.
'¢ Urine has a bunch of chemicals that need to be removed. By separating urine at the source through urine separation technologies we could save about 25% of energy used at wastewater treatment plants.
'¢ In some instances water conservation is bad. For e.g., low toilet water levels means transporting gases with less dilution, which means high level coercion in the collection systems.

Well, that’s it. If you want to know more, YOU sit through it a nine-hour conference about it, or check out some materials here.

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Rebecca E. - The Centimentalist

Rebecca E. - The Centimentalist

What does Rebecca bring to the table? Fanciful eye twinkles and a plastic tablecloth, that's what. Her parents are Russian, but she was born in Massachusetts and thus maintains her innocence, though she admittedly prefers blintzes and beet salad to hamburgers. When she spent a year in Japan as a kid she experienced the first of many dips on her normalcy development chart. She came back to the States like the little wheelbarrow on the NYC Edition of Monopoly. Next, she moved to Atlanta where she hung with Jermaine Dupree in elevators. She got a B.A. outside Chicago, and after a two-year stint as a consultant, warmed up in Miami, picking up a water-resistant J.D. Now she is back in Manhattan, trying to collect evidence and moneybags all over the board, henceforth as the cannon piece.


  1. Cristina
    April 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    i feel the need to clarify the fish comment:

    Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PCPP’s) are partially metabolized or un-metabolized compounds generally excreted in urine (or sometimes feces) that end up at your local friendly wastewater treatment plant when you flush the toilet. The group of compounds that most concern us (and fishies) are hormones and hormone mimics, like estrogen found in birth control.

    i’m actually torn about this issue. As a feminist, I think birth control was a big physical and psychological revolution in (human) women taking control over their reproductive health. As an (aspiring) environmental engineer/hydrologist, i am burdened by the knowledge that my birth control interacts not only with the reproductive capacities of female fish, but also can cause male fish to exhibit crazy mutations (like female secondary sex traits), and in general fucks with marine ecosystems. Unfortunately, there is currently no easy or remotely cost effective way to remove PPCPs from wastewater, but I still don’t plan on going off birth control any time soon.

    overall though, thanks for writing this rebecca, clean water is something we take for granted in the developed world. Access to potable water will be a more pressing concern for the developed AND developing world in the next 50 years, more than energy resources, but water conservation technologies (such as urine separation) don’t get the popular attention (read: funding) that alternative energy technologies do.

    read more about PPCPs here:

  2. Rebecca E. - The Centimentalist
    April 12, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Thank you for your reply! There is so much to learn in this area, energy issues are so deep, touch on every single facet of our lives, and arguably the most interesting part is that one hardly ever finds a right or easy answer or solution in this area. Birth control vs. ecosystems, agricultural strategies that damage the environment vs. hunger, today vs. tomorrow. Certainly, your work as an engineer/hydrologist will be critical in bridging the gap.