Happy World Water Day!
Today is World Water Day -- a day each year when the world's water activist community holds events and discussions about the state of the world's water. This year's theme was Water for Cities. I had the opportunity to attend a symposium held at George Washington University on this topic. While the presenters ranged from everything from new innovations in water supply to the urban poor to managing stormwater in DC, the underlying theme was conservation. How can we supply people in the world without water while managing and conserving our own use of water?
What I found to be the most interesting part of this symposium was the presentation by George Hawkins, General Manager for DC Water (the DC water utility company). He began his talk by pointing out that 1) water is something that everyone needs, 2) we don't know what to do when the water is turned off, and 3) that most people have no concept of where their water comes from and where it goes once they use it.
The water in DC is bought from a federal agency that treats water from the Potomac River. ( A side note on the Potomac, one of the goals for the river is to make it swimmable in the near future). The water is then pumped through 1300 miles of pipes throughout the city to reach homes in the District. These pipes are on average 77 years old. That's how antiquated the water infrastructure is, and DC is not the only city like this (some of the pipes in Philadelphia are still made of wood).
The reason that this infrastructure is so old is that there is huge public outcry anytime that rates are raised, so that the utility can only raise the rates to cover the costs of maintainence. As Hawkins said, they can't just shut off the water, or threaten to shut off the water. Peole can live without electricity -- people can't live without water.
But what I think is great about Hawkins' command of the DC water system is the new technologic improvement he has implemented. The meters are read electonically, which has two major benefits. One is that you can track your water usage online. So you can see how much water you use when -- a big help with home conservation efforts. Second, you can sign up to receive alerts when your household uses more than the usual amount of water. So if you toilet is leaking, you will get an alert as soon as that information is logged and can fix the problem before you might have even known it existed.
The final great conservation technique that is in the process of being implemented is a new technology to deal with solid waste (biomatter). DC's treatment plant at Blue Plains trucks out 56 trucks a day of biomatter to be disposed of elsewhere. A new chemical added to the treatment of solid waste would mean cutting that amount in half. The chemical would convert part of the waste to methane gas, which would then be harnessed in the plant and used to provide electricity. I do not have the exact amount of homes it could power (he talked too fast!) but it was in the neighborhood of 2600 homes. The rest would be clean enough to be used as fertilizer just like any other manure or fertilizer sold in stores.
This is a great example of a public company trying to provide the best possible service to its customers in addition to being sustainable and green. I love how DC Water makes it easy to track your water usage. So many people I've talked to about water conservation say that they have no idea how much water they use per day. How can you reduce without knowing how much you really use in the first place? Or how do you know where you need to reduce your water usage? Water does not have a huge price incentive on it, so using more water does not come with increasingly steep fees -- the average DC homeowner pays about $60 a month on water. That's less than cable or a cell phone bill.
The only drawback to the system is apartment buildings. I live in an apartment building that pays the water bill -- the cost of water is included in my rent. When I tried to see if I could still find out how much the building uses, the information is only available to the person receiving the bill. Perhaps DC Water's next step could be to provide a map of daily water usage in a block to give an estimate of how much water apartment buildings use.
In sum, it was a great way to kick of World Water Day, and has me thinking conservation this week! Hawkins ended his presentation with a dream that there could be reusable water bottle stations along the National Mall, where instead of paying through the nose for bottled water, tourists could just swipe a metro card and fill up their water bottle. I like that dream, and I would love to see water conservation/education efforts be able to achieve that!