Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Water, No Water Around the World

I subscribe to and read a lot of newspapers and magazines. Water seems to be everywhere in the news lately. According to the Los Angeles Times:

“Downtown Los Angeles recorded 0.12 inch of rain on Monday, three times the previous daily record set in 2013 and enough to make it the area’s third-wettest July on record. The wettest July ever in the city was in 2015, when 0.38 inch of rain fell...”

The rain brought a bit of relief but did little to alleviate the drought’s impact on the state’s reservoirs and overall dryness feeding the wildfires in California.

The New York Times attributes the unusual rain in Los Angeles to  a distortion of the summer monsoon pattern. The Southwest monsoon has arrived and carried with it welcome moisture to the drought-plagued region; however, the monsoon also unleashed flash flooding in Arizona and blinding sandstorms that struck Utah.

From the Egypt Independent:

Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province are suffering from drought and water shortages and the poor population is growing desperate. Residents have taken to the street angry with the government and its poor management of water resources. “The Karun River, which flows through Khuzestan, is Iran’s largest and only navigable river — in theory, that is. It has now dried up... Thousands of years ago, the surrounding province was the source of the Persian culture due to its abundance of water. Now the whole province is parched.”

“Environmental experts have said the current water shortage is also the consequence of a mistaken understanding of agriculture development and progress. The government has been promoting agriculture and allowing the uncontrolled proliferation of groundwater wells, which have exhausted the available water resources. The traditional crops in Khuzestan are rice and sugar cane, both require large amounts of water. Around 90% of Iran’s total water consumption is used up by agriculture.”

From the New York Times:

“This spring, Oakley, about an hour’s drive east of Salt Lake City, imposed a construction moratorium on new homes that would connect to the town’s water system. It is one of the first towns in the United States to purposely stall growth for want of water in a new era of megadroughts.”

Also, from the New York Times:

The storm that flooded Zhengzhou and other cities in central China last week, ...reflects a global trend of extreme weather. The flooding in China engulfed subway lines, washed away roads and cut off villages. Zhengzhou was once “a mere crossroads south of a bend in the Yellow River, the city has expanded exponentially...Today, skyscrapers and apartments towers stretch into the distance. The city’s population has reached 12.6 million...”

According to the NY Times in their rapid development in the last 40 years China had turned to designs from the West that had evolved a century earlier and were ill suited to the climate extremes that China was already experiencing. Cities were covered in cement.

Earlier this month saw flooding in Europe in those older cities as they were inundated with rain. In part this is the cost of building beyond the historical margins of the city into areas never before covered with impervious surfaces, building beyond the margin of safety. In the west we have continued to develop and build into areas that are clearly unsafe if you bothered to think about it. This is the disease of prosperity.  

It is not just how many people, but putting buildings, road and people in places that were never occupied before. Much of the historic development in cities makes flooding from intense storms worse especially as the building continues into the margins of the city and wetlands. All cities are built near water sources susceptible to flooding. Local topography, the amount of impervious cover, stormwater infrastructure all can impact the amount of flooding which can disrupt transportation, water and sewer and other utilities. 

Though a portion of flooding can be attributed to climate change, weather variability is also a factor.  Scientists tell us the impacts of a changing climate are arriving. Heat waves, droughts, increased storm intensity and intense cold snaps are all predicted to increase. Yet, we have continued to expand our cities and communities beyond the margin of safety.

Building, population growth and expansion pushes us beyond the safe limits and encroaches on shared resources. The drought caused wildfires burning millions of acres in California and the Pacific Northwest are an emerging and worsening trend because we built too much for the local and regional water resources. The State Water Project (SWP), developed in the 1960s, is the largest state-built, multi-benefit water delivery system in the United States. The SWP is a system of, 36 damns and reservoirs, 21 pumping plants, five hydroelectric power plants, four pumping-generating plants, and approximately 700 miles of canals, tunnels, and pipelines engineered to store and deliver water. There is no longer enough water stored in wet years to supply all needs during droughts and yet, the state continues to build too far into the woodland/city interface where wildfires are a greater risk.

We watch from the sidelines as we continue to imprudently expand, even here in Prince William County, Virginia. Two proposals that potentially will eliminate the Rural Area are moving forward towards a Board of County Supervisors vote. The first proposal is the revival of the Bi-County parkway, this time called the Va. 234 Bypass. The second proposal is from Maryanne Gahaban and Page Snyder. The two Rural Area large landowners are pushing a proposal to convert almost 800 acres of agriculture zoned land (in which they each have significant ownership) to industrial data centers. They are calling their proposal the PWC Digital Gateway and would add up to an additional 20 million square feet of data center space and untold miles of impervious surface.

Any changes in land use has the potential to negatively impact groundwater, the watershed and the Occoquan Reservoir and significantly increase demand for water. If these proposals pass, this  will set a dangerous precedent and will eliminate the protections that the Rural Crescent provides to our regional water resources and the protection from flooding Rural Crescent provides to the Prince William County. We should know better and indeed, 3 years ago Virginia law was amended to require counties to plan for adequate, sustainable, good quality water. Prince William is not even giving lip service to that.  We are about to destroy our margin of safety with a proposal cloaked in fairness to landowners- in fact a windfall to the few- the project will move forward delivering hundreds of millions of dollars to the developers and landowners. Developing the rural area is like taking life boats off a ship to accommodate more passengers.

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