Pointing the Way
Supply and demand and municipal water
November 10, 1988
The City of Springfield built a drinking water reservoir in the 1930s and has been arguing ever since about whether it needs to be augmented. It is a problem common across Illinois. The discussions always focus on increasing supply rather than reducing demand, as this piece showed.
Three items from the local news: A preliminary plan is approved to extend a trunk sewer three miles to a proposed development on Springfield's southwest side. The local sewer district agrees to recycle wastewater from the city's power plant scrubber and return it to a drought-reduced Lake Springfield. And local environmentalists ask the city council to form a conservation committee to assist in its long-range water supply planning in anticipation of droughts triggered by global warming in the next century.
Three items, but only one story: water. The environmentalists (led by Linda Knibbs and Don Davis) argued in effect that it hardly makes sense to spend millions on a new lake to trap more water if people are only going to waste it. Exhortation and use restrictions such as those now in place are enforceable only during emergencies, and in any event do not fundamentally alter patterns of water use.
A surer incentive to more efficient water use is a rise in the real price of water. Substantially higher water rates would expand the local market for water-efficient appliances, stir large users to new economies, even impel more sensible landscaping. Unlike mandatory water use restrictions, higher rates build efficiency into the system. Water demand in California stayed low for years after that state's drought emergency in the 1970s because factories equipped themselves to recycle their process water, for instance, and because homeowners decorated their lots with drought-resistant plants.
Such a "conservation rate" would earn more money than needed for the day-to-day operation of the water department, at least at first; surplus funds might be used to pay rebates for homeowners who retrofit their bathrooms with water-efficient toilets, similar to the rebates already being offered by the electric department to purchasers of energy-efficient heat pumps. Not only would the city be better prepared to cope with the next drought, but it could defer the day when it has to build expensive new water storage capacity, and do both without sacrifice of population growth or economic expansion. New capacity could also be deferred by the Springfield Sanitary District—a special boon now that federal grants for new treatment plants have all but dried up.
Alas, there is a price for pay for efficiency in systems not designed for it. The local sewer system has already been overbuilt, in exaggerated anticipation of future business. (The crap does indeed flow in Springfield, but only a little of it goes through the SSD's pipes.) Reduced water use means lower sewer charges, and thus less cash to pay off debt and keep up maintenance. Doing the same jobs with less water also cuts into the sales of the water department, as city budget director Carl Foran has warned. It is conceivable that the system might find itself on the same-treadmill being walked by big-city mass transit systems: raise fares and you lose riders; revenue drops, so you raise fares again to make up the losses, which costs you more riders, etc.
The city as a whole gains of course, but it is one of the vagaries of government that actions which are manifestly in the public interest often—indeed usually—are deleterious to public agencies, and vice versa. How to price a commodity such as water vexes even economists capable of making two plus two equal five. This is because fairness (colloquially understood), and economic efficiency are so often at odds, and both are usually at odds with political realities. "If you want to take a marginal costs approach," says Craig Burns of the city's public utilities office, "water is probably underpriced." But low prices, however politically justified, encourage consumption which speeds the day (perhaps already here) when Lake Springfield will no longer be a dependable water supply and must be augmented. Every gallon used today, in short, makes it more expensive to supply a gallon tomorrow.
The city, like the sewer district, assesses developers for the costs of expanding its water supply system to new developments such as Parkway Pointe on the southwest side. But it is water customers who must pay for the storage and treatment facilities needed to keep those new pipes filled. Convention demands that a new lake which benefits water customers in the future be paid for in the future, via water rate increases sufficient to retire the bonds needed for its construction. Equity is thus roughly served. But shouldn't new customers, drinking as they do from the thinning reserves of an aging lake, be charged more?
The equation is tricky. "We could set rates based on the marginal costs," explains Burns. 'You end up collecting more than you need to cover present costs of operation and maintenance. That creates what looks like a surplus, and any time you got surplus money on the books it gets crosshairs drawn on it." The water department practically collapsed at the turn of the twentieth century because the city council skimmed the "profits" from the department to fund other city operations rather than investing them in water system improvements. In other places (France among them) water is supplied by privately held, regulated utilities performing under contract, companies which are free (within negotiated limits) to set rates high enough to provide for the long-term financing of expansion. Unfortunately, providing for the past, not the future, is what U.S. politics is about.
We don't consume water in the same way we consume gasoline, of course. It's still water when we're done with it, even if it's filthy. It might as well be consumed, however, since virtually all of it, once used, is lost to the Lake Springfield water supply system. We spend millions to catch rain in a big basin, clean it up, and pump it through pipes to our showers and toilets, only to use it once and throw it away through a second set of pipes to the treatment plants of the SSD where it is partially cleaned and dumped into Sugar or Spring Creek from where it flows away to the Sangamon and thence to the Illinois. It is a system of remarkable, even majestic profligacy.
Could this cycle be connected to itself somehow, so the water we use once can be captured and cleaned to be used again? Recycling waste water is old hat; as the recent agreement between the SSD and the city proves, it's even being done in Springfield. Recycling scrubber rinse water is one thing, however, and recycling sewage quite another. The objection to tapping the main channel of the Sangamon during droughts is that what water there is in it is mostly effluent from Decatur's none-too-dependable municipal treatment plant. The engineers at Crawford, Murphy & Tilly considered the use of sewage as an emergency public water supply in the firm's drought contingency plans but concluded that treating it to drinking water standards would be prohibitively expensive.
And so it would be, using clumsy conventional treatment systems. Engineers elsewhere however are perfecting centuries-old methods of land-treating sewage which clean and recycle water back to its local source. Partly treated effluent is applied to farm fields, golf courses, or landscaped grounds as irrigation water (or stored for such use in lagoons during cold weather). Problematic contaminants like nitrates are consumed by growing plants as fertilizer, along with trace minerals; viruses and heavy metals are either filtered by fine soil particles or neutered by soil microorganisms. The water—by now cleaner than is economically possible by conventional methods—percolates back to groundwater or is collected for discharge into nearby surface waters.
Such a system has worked well in suburban Chicago for years. The mixed-use development known as Hamilton Lakes in Itasca has a density equal to that of downtown Springfield. The thirty-three-acre complex makes no discharges of dirty water into streams (even runoff from parking lots is treated) and the aquifer from which it draws its drinking water is recharged by its own "wastewater."
Such recycling water systems can be scaled up to metropolitan size. (The Army Corps of Engineers, in a playful mood, once designed one for the whole city of Chicago). Think what such a system could do were Springfield to treat its sewage on farm fields in its own lake watershed the way, oh, Muskegon, Michigan, does; not only would water be returned to the lake to be used again but the city could also help control the erosion which is robbing the lake of storage capacity.
Alas, such a vision must await the next century at least, when the SSD builds again. But it is achievable at smaller scales, and sooner. Sangamon State and Roosevelt National-Humana are two complexes which would make perfect mini-Hamilton Lakes. So, possibly, might be Parkway Pointe. That new sewer could be used to carry clean water to Lake Springfield, instead of hauling dirty water away from it. That would really be a development. ●
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