THE WATER CYCLE – THE METER OF CIVILIZATION
Humans have always been connected with water through the hydrologic cycle. The time scales are varied: intense rainfall over the course of minutes can bring flash flooding; annual snow fall fills rivers, lakes and reservoirs; surface water and groundwater are hydraulically connected over seasons; water percolates down to aquifers over years; groundwater can remain untouched for millennia.
With the advent and construction of modern engineered solutions, massive reservoirs and water transportation systems allowed the settlement of lands that were previously barely habitable by humanity due to natural water scarcity. Within the design parameters of those systems, these systems are sustainable. It is when there are dramatic changes in the availability of water or when we accelerate our consumption of water beyond the time scales of the hydrologic cycle, that the systems become challenged.
THE REALITY OF A REDUCED SNOW PACK
Today we find ourselves in just that condition. Population growth in the United States, combined with the migration of more people to those naturally water-scarce areas and the substantial increase in the variability of water supply, places the livelihood of tens of millions of people at risk.2
In the Colorado River basin, peak spring runoff from the snow-shed now occurs an average of three weeks earlier than historic averages. This is due in part to the recent five-fold increase in dust events that cause more sunlight to be absorbed and ultimately warms the surface of the snow. This earlier snow melt not only perpetuates a cycle of water loss through an increase transpiration of water,3 but also strains the engineered collection systems which were not designed to the increased flow rates from the rapidly melting snow pack.
This year, the snow pack is at exceptionally low levels. NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, along with thousands of physical measurements on the ground demonstrate this clearly. The Tuolumne Basin, a water supply for the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts and the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System serving San Francisco and neighboring communities, was at less than 40 percent of normal in March 2015.4
And despite the increase in late season rain experienced across much of the US southwest, the volumes were insufficient to lessen the effects of the drought. The United States Drought Monitor reports:
By April 30, reservoir storage as a percent of average for the date was significantly below normal in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon. Storage in California’s 154 reservoirs stood at 18.0 million acrefeet (64 percent of average) on May 1, about 1.6 million acre-feet lower than a year ago. With little snow in the mountains above California’s lakes, further inflow will be negligible, meaning that the reservoir recharge season has ended early [emphasis added].5
The result is that the volume of water we have today, for all intents and purposes, is all that will be available for the remainder of the year. The water storage prospects are daunting for 20156:
TEMPERATURES ON THE RISE
These conditions are unlikely to get better. The water cycle is the medium through which the effects of climate variation will be felt. As global temperatures rise, water cycles will accelerate – creating more abundant and more violent storms and more severe and more extended droughts.7 This connection between increased temperature and decreased water availability was recently echoed by University of California, Santa Barbara Professor Emerita Catherine Gautier:
Higher temperatures combined with somewhat reduced precipitation—sometimes called “warm droughts”—play a critical role in reducing water availability. In the case of California, precipitation this winter fell in the form of rain instead of snow in the Sierra Mountains due to high temperatures. Snowpack is critical because it stores water and releases it slowly. Thinner snowpack means less water stored on the ground for use in the summer. So even a normal precipitation amount—but fallen in the form of rain—means less water is available.8
Combined with the fact that our reservoir systems are designed to catch slow melting snow, not fast moving rain, water availability throughout the year is impacted, even if precipitation increases:
With climate change, there are a range of predictions about whether [California] will face less precipitation or not, but all agree that the state’s precipitation will come increasing in the form of rain – not snow, for which all of our water infrastructure has been designed.9
Adapting our physical infrastructure to the new climate reality is an expensive and time consuming activity. While we should certainly look to augmenting physical supplies and review the operation of our extensive reservoir systems, rapid adaptation to the “new normal” demands that we begin to re-establish our connection with the water cycle.
To do this, each person must understand how their actions impact not only the continued availability of water, but also where they can make changes to achieve conservation goals. People need a real-time, personalized understanding of water much in the same way as need a personalized understanding of their finances. One could imagine the financial chaos that would ensue if the automated teller machines provided customers their balance from 60 days ago and expected no overdraft conditions. Our utilities in many cases ask that of customers: “Please make decisions based on the outdated information we are providing.”
Utilities must provide real-time, actionable information about water use. To expect our customers to help solve water scarcity without data is unrealistic. FATHOM solves this dilemma by allowing utilities of all sizes and financial condition the ability to modernize their entire meter-to-customer transaction. FATHOM Prime provides advanced meter data management (MDM) in a software-as-a-service delivery model for pennies per meter per month. FATHOM U2You actively engages customers with both their water and billing information providing a critical connection between use and cost. FATHOM CIS – a customer information system – modernizes the customer relationship between utility and customer. Each of these systems can be deployed quickly, reduces operating costs and finds revenue – while reducing water consumption.
The adoption of these data-driven tools will allow utilities to adapt to the changing water reality, and extend the conditions under which our water infrastructure can operate, through rain, snow or sun.
1C. Childs, House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization across the American Southwest, Little, Brown and Company, February 2007.
2This is a worldwide phenomenon. Australia, South America, Asia, Europe, and Africa are all seeing areas of extreme water shortages.
3National Science Foundation, “Windborne Desert Dust Falls on High Peaks, Dampens Colorado River Runoff,” ScienceDaily, September 21, 2010, http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/09/100920172746.htm
4NASA/JPL-Caltech, NASA: California Tuolumne Snowpack 40 Percent of Worst Year, 1 April 2015, http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/nasacalifornia-tuolumne-snowpack-40-percent-of-worst-year
5http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/ (accessed 29 May 2015).
6http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/products/rescond.pdf (accessed 24 May 2015).
7R. Kerr, “The Greenhouse Is Making the Water-Poor Even Poorer,” Science 336 (April 27, 2012)
8C. Gautier, “How climate change is making California’s epic drought worse”, http://qz.com/409071/how-climate-change-ismaking-californias-epic-drought-worse/, 23 May 2015.
9S. Pincetl & T. S. Hogue (2015): “California’s New Normal? Recurring Drought: Addressing Winners and Losers”, Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2015.1042778