Archives For water

Salem MA Power Plant

As Americans we use a lot of water—per capita, more than any other country on the planet. A huge portion (49% as of 2005) of what we use goes to thermoelectric cooling, or removing heat from our fossil fuel burning power plants. That’s around 200 billion gallons a day, but we have a lot of power plants out there. How much does one of these plants actually use? The biggest culprits are the oldest plants that are the least efficient, built before the days of harnessing cogeneration. Taking the coal-fired power plant in Salem, Massachusetts (set to be decommissioned next year), the word is that the plant currently uses up to 359 million gallons a day when it is running at full capacity. How much is that? Continue Reading…

parched corn fieldAs unfortunate and costly as the rash of American droughts is proving to be, the small silver lining is that more Americans are pairing these adverse effects with the possibility of a warming climate. While greater acceptance of climate change is a progressive step, it is not necessarily indicative of the following, and arguably more important, step of decisive and constructive actions that amount to meaningful change in stemming actions that contribute to a hotter planet. As we pace through an increasingly warm decade, the question remains of how much do we have to turn up the heat before we try and take ourselves out of the oven. Continue Reading…

CSO OutfallDespite the advances that the United States has made in building technology, urban infrastructure systems and sewage treatment, waste water management still comprises one of the larger portions of our antiquated infrastructural network; namely in the form of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs).

While some communities and cities have separate systems to collect and divert stormwater and sewage, many older American cities were built on the model of a combined system, meaning that rainwater flows into the same pipes that carry waste from your home for treatment. Given that there is half as much pipe, CSOs are certainly easier and cheaper to install but their long term function brings an environmentally expensive drawback. When the rate of rainfall reaches a certain threshold (sometimes as low as 1/4″ per hour), the system of pipes becomes overwhelmed and treatment facilities can no longer handle the excess load. In these storm events, overflows are utilized that dump the combination of stormwater and untreated sewage directly into natural bodies of water. Pretty disgusting. Continue Reading…

As Americans, one of our biggest challenges in steps towards sustainability is surmounting routine and questioning social norms. Acts of repetition, some that have lasted for generations, provide a knee-jerk adversity to progressive change in daily activities even if the resulting changes would be minor. I spent my holiday season in London for ten days and my foreign surroundings seemed to be a testament to how little most would notice a number of positive changes.

When it comes to setting a benchmark for sustainability in daily routine, what I saw in England was what I would hope the American landscape will come to emulate (even if one could argue we should already be there.) Admittedly, my time in Europe is embarrassingly limited and that could explain the intensity with which I noticed some of the encouraging differences from the American culture that I am used to.

In London, efficiency seemed to be a given. Staying in two different flats (read: apartments) while I was abroad and visiting numerous establishments, nearly everywhere I went utilized technology proven to reduce consumption. Incandescent bulbs were rare, traded for either fluorescent varieties or dimmable halogens. In both residences, every toilet had dual-flush capabilities. Every sink was low-flow. Water-heaters were smaller with less capacity and had timers to shut off at night while nearly all appliances were more compact. I was not taking any meter readings, but I have to imagine these flats (not markedly smaller than New York equivalents in terms of square footage) used much less energy and water than their American counterparts.

Continue Reading…

farm skylineAlong with transportation and energy production/distribution, agriculture is one of our country’s largest opportunities to make progressive steps in achieving a more sustainable economy. Being extremely resource intensive, farming is intrinsically linked to our use of energy, oil and water. But as one of our oldest industries, food production takes a place at the core of American values and given that food is considered to be a non-negotiable necessity it is given a great deal of breathing room. Its place in politics and the kitchen of every American household could make any fundamental changes to its operation a long time coming.

What has to change:

There is a tendency to think of farmers as “one with the land.” Still having romantic roots in American heritage, farming can be thought of as a natural process with hands buried in rich, clean soil. Once upon a time, perhaps it was. However, American farming of today is a science that requires large inputs of resources.

As I touched on in a previous article, agriculture uses vast amounts of water. Second only to thermoelectric power generation, irrigation comprises 31% of our national water usage. Some of these methods still use surface water flood systems for distribution—markedly less efficient than advanced sprinkler technologies, though unsurprisingly cheaper. As a nation that is seeing longer and deeper droughts that lead to municipal water deficits, an opportunity to lower irrigation even 10% could provide four times the amount of water we use in all homes every year.

Though thought of as natural, farming is closely tied to the petroleum industry and oil prices. Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides all have their roots in oil and the more we over-farm land, the more chemicals we need to generate a constant volume of crops. According to biologist and writer Janine Benyus, “since 1945, pesticide use has risen 3,300 percent, but overall crop loss to pests has not gone down. In fact despite our pounding the United States with 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides every year, crop losses have increased 20 percent.”

A challenge to change the way we farm can quickly irk oil interests. In 2001, over $11 billion of pesticides were sold in the U.S.–accounting for 34% of the global volume–according to the E.P.A. Some experts say that we have placed ourselves in a cyclical process where oil products beget oil products. In her book Biomimicry, Benyus argues that our current industry requires $2.70 of oil products to produce $4.00 worth of crops. Additionally, all of those chemicals require energy to produce, package, transport and apply.

We also throw a great deal of money at farming. Next to the oil industry, agriculture is one of the most bountiful recipients of government subsidies used to help keep the prices of food cheap for the American consumer. Taxpayers spend tens of billion dollars a year helping to pay farmers so that our trips to the supermarket cost less.

Why it won’t change:

Despite the ways that farming could become a more streamlined industry, arguably better for U.S. citizens, few sectors of the economy can claim such an entrenched position in our society.

The U.S. has long since taken the stance of wanting to be a food-rich nation that can provide enough produce to leave a net-exporting. Wheat, for example, is one of our countries largest exports and goes all over the world. This can easily be spun as a national security precaution for the country. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2007 there were $70.9 billion of agricultural exports.

Efforts to revamp the agriculture industry can meet an uphill battle at Capitol Hill. Farming interests have a protected position in the government for a number of reasons. The middle of the country is responsible for bulk of our farming with produce coming from states with lowest population densities. Farther away from the coasts, economies become less varied in the heartland, leaving agriculture interests as a larger portion of total economic fuel than a given industry could achieve in a coastal state. The result is a larger percentage of voters being aligned on larger range of political issues, making their government representatives less likely to veer far from constituent opinion if they have goals for re-election.

When it comes to fashioning new laws on the federal level, while state population may be rewarded in the House of Representatives, the fact that Kansas has one sixth of the population of New York (3 million vs. 19.5 million) makes no difference in the Senate. Both states get the same two senators, making the political presence of the agricultural heartland a force to be reckoned with since it can take only 11% of the nation’s population to block a bill.

We have also become rather reliant on cheap food prices and our society is calibrated to its current price levels. It is easy to believe that any efforts to reshape the farming industry that raise costs would be passed onto the end-buyers. No politician wants to be responsible for making meat, potatoes and milk more expensive to low-income voters.

A recent article in the Economist also points out that the life in the rural Midwest is much more carbon-dependent than their coastal, urban brethren. Notions like mass transit and hybrid electrics are few and far between in the Great Plains where the long drives of trucks and hard hours of farm equipment are tied closely to gas prices. While not necessarily against sustainability, many farming families do not see how they can live their lives without the use of fossil fuels.

What are the options?

So what about organic? Organic farming does do away with the chemical base behind engineered crops and could drastically change the way that farming is practiced. As a resident of New York, I see organic food as a common occurrence in high demand, but it is easy for those of us living in the coastal United States to lose site of what is still a very small, expensive market. According to the Organic Consumer Association organic sales totaled $17 billion in 2006 leaving it as only 3% of the country’s retail food and beverage market. Furthermore, only 31% of sales came from mainstream grocery stores with the majority coming from natural chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s or small independent operations.

Permaculture is an evolving practice that suggests food can be planted not in single-crop, plowed, chemical soaked fields, but diverse combinations of plants combined on the same plot that use each other to control pests, weeds and nutrients. The Land Institute is one of the leading entities in permaculture study as it tests combinations of crops to see which are most successful. These fields reportedly use less water, no artificial additives and produce higher yields. Naturally (no pun intended), the catch comes in the lack of affordability in maintenance and harvesting—but they are working on it.

An example is the Native American tradition of Three Sisters Farming, or companion farming, that combines corn, squash and climbing beans in the same plot with each helping the others grow. The corn provides a climbing surface for the beans, which in turn add nitrogen to the soil. Meanwhile, the squash helps retain moisture in the soil as a ground cover that blocks out the sun. The synergy of the system strikes a familiar chord with a well balanced ecosystem. This type of exploration takes time. Native Americans likely had generations to master their practice. We have been working on it for one.

The size of the subsidies that farmers receive should also give the government a large bargaining chip for beginning to gradually implement change. Requirements for percentages of alternative energy or mandating certain efficiencies for irrigation equipment can be accomplished by linking goals to the prospect of tax-payer cash.

I am also not convinced that sustainability and renewables cannot play a larger role in changing the landscape of a common farmer’s lifestyle. The roofs of barns and homes are prime for solar power collection that can be used to power cars, farm vehicles or water pumps. We are already beginning to see fields being planted beneath wind turbines. Food and animal waste has a future in anaerobic power generation were oxygen deprived chambers can help bacteria compose food into methane gas. Hydroponics and vertical farming are also possibilities dotting the horizon. Unsurprisingly, one of the largest hurdles to overcome is a population’s resistance to change.

Photo Credit: Flickr Uncle Phooey

water dropsUsing over 1,300 gallons per day per capita, many Americans have been lulled into the misconception that we do not have to worry about our water supply. We are paying a great deal of attention to our resources for energy: coal, oil, natural gas. Debates in the Climate Bill and the upcoming Environmental Summit in Copenhagen have sharpened our focus on the sun and wind as natural resources. Of all of the resources that America focuses on, water is near the bottom and as a result we are unsurprisingly the least careful with its use and upkeep. The truth is known in other parts of the world much more poignantly than here: a clean supply of fresh water is essential and serves as the lynch pin for the interaction and function of countless other systems in the country.

America uses an average of 410 billion gallons of water everyday. I have not done the study, but I doubt many other nations (if any) can make such a boast. Whether we realize it or not, the water bill at the end of the month is only a fraction of how much we really spend on our water infrastructure. On average, U.S. cities spend $70 billion annually on water and wastewater needs according to the U.S. Census—second only to dollars allocated towards education. Part of the reason is due to our water system being a very energy-intensive process both conveying and distributing fresh water as well as removing and filtering wastewater. Together it takes our country 8 quadrillion BTUs of energy every year.

The Problems

Like our energy grid, much of our water system has gone too long without upgrades and repairs. In many parts of the country water and sewer pipes are well beyond their rated lifespans, raising the likelihood of breakages and leaks that interrupt service, waste precious water and allow for the infiltration of disease. Midrange, post-industrial cities of the country are the most prone to budgets that cannot accommodate necessary changes to their infrastructure. According to the Baltimore City Paper, there are parts of town in the coastal city that have sewers over 100 years old. Similarly, my time in Syracuse, New York revealed that as of 2005 most of the city’s water pipes are 60 to 70 years old that leave the water with a lead content 33% over the EPA limit. Their sewers are no better, with only 14% of the pipes less than 50 years old—the rated lifespan of the system.

Despite the improvement in water quality that the Clean Water Act has brought, pollution still remains a harrowing issue for much of the country. The New York Times released a disturbing report claiming that the Clean Water Act has been violated over 506,000 times since 2004 by over 23,000 companies and facilities. According to the report everything from gas stations and dry cleaners to chemical plants and power stations have dumped hazardous waste into the ground or directly into bodies of water. The report claims that one in 10 Americans has drinking water with dangerous chemicals or does not meet federal health benchmarks. I encourage the reading of the entire article as well as their great interactive map. I found the figures to be staggering, but what made it worse was that “the Time research found that less than 3 percent of violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments by state officials.”

For years now, a lack of strong federal oversight has allowed these transgressions to become business as usual. Never known as the shining star of George W. Bush’s presidency (if it had one at all) his E.P.A. was notoriously lax in its oversight of its duties for the two terms of the administration. Without federal power to invoke consequences from the highest level, local regulators often fall prey to pressure from politicians or large corporations.

“The E.P.A. and our states of have completely dropped the ball. Without oversight and enforcement, companies will use our lakes and rivers as dumping grounds—and that’s exactly what is apparently going on.”  – Rep James L. Oberstar, D-Maryland

The Obama administration’s new E.P.A. head, Lisa Jackson, has noted that national drinking water quality is below acceptable levels and has vowed to renew the E.P.A.’s stance of enforcement.

Where Does the Water Go?

Finding a solution to some of our problems can likely begin with understanding how we use 410 billion gallons a day. A recent report released by the United States Geological Survey focuses on how Americans use their water. I found this publication equally as surprising. To begin, between 1980 and 2005, our water use has decreased by 5 percent! Upon reading this I was immediately skeptical and had to find out how it was possible, but before long the reason became clear.

As an architect I am often the champion of water efficiency in buildings. After all, nearly 40% of our nation’s energy is used by buildings so believing that they consume large quantities of water seemed to be intuitive. As it turns out, all domestic water use (residential applications in homes) accounts for only 1% of all of the water that we use. If you add all public water use and thereby include nearly all buildings in existence, you only get another 11%. Perhaps the culprits are all that heavy manufacturing or the mining we do across the country? Even with aquaculture, livestock, industrial and mining operations the cumulative total is only 20%. So where does the other 328 billion gal/day get used?

National Water Use Graph

The second highest source is irrigation which is mostly comprised of farming. 31% of our water is used to irrigate 61.1 million acres in 2005. The number one source of water use is cooling for thermoelectric power plants. 49% of our water goes to creating power from such sources as coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas. All of a sudden, the nature of where to target efficiency for meaningful change has a very different appearance and that is why our water usage has dropped over the past 25 years. Due to more sprinkler-system irrigation and more efficient cooling systems in power plants, water consumption has ebbed despite a rise in population.


Though a complicated problem, moreso than can be addressed in one article, the information does not leave us without places to go or reasons to get there.

  • Our infrastructure needs to be raised to acceptable levels that allow for efficient systems that can bring water safely to end users. This could include a more distributed system of supply along with onsite water collection and filtration of waste water.
  • Our governing bodies need to accept the responsibility of their offices to enforce laws that keep our water safe.
  • Efforts targeting efficiency should focus on our largest sources of water use: farming and power generation. This could lead to more research devoted to vertical farming and hydroponics. It also provides a seldom mentioned strength to renewable energy sources like wind and solar given that, once installed, their use of water is negligible.

Failure to progress on these initiatives could lead to an increase in national water-related sicknesses, more natural waterways polluted beyond safety for human use or ecological function and a further increase in drought and drinking water shortages for communities.

Photo Credit: Flickr Wester