Monday, July 20, 2009

Playing catch-up: Shameless self-promotion edition

This blogging business sometimes seems like you are having a conversation with 3 or 4 other people who share your interests. That makes it especially nice when, as a water-wonkish type, I have the chance to reach a wider audience with something I say or write. Two specific instances occurred for me recently. I had the privilege of writing a short piece for the current issue of Southwest Hydrology, on a topic that always sparks my interest - property rights in groundwater. My article was a brief discussion of a recent Arizona Supreme Court case that I discussed on the blog previously (here), involving an attempt to separate rights to pump groundwater from ownership of the land itself.

The second opportunity came as a result of various on-line discussions I have had with John Fleck, over at his Inkstain blog. John's day job is as a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, where he writes on science in general, and frequently water, specifically. He had an article (may require viewing an ad to get to article) last month on the connection between solar power plans and water use, for which he interviewed and quoted yours truly. The article discussed the often overlooked fact that most utility-scale solar projects currently proposed or under construction in the West are of the Concentrating Solar Thermal variety. What that means is that the plants collect the sun's heat and use it to produce a hot liquid (typically some type of oil or molten salt) that is used to boil water and generate electricity with a standard steam turbine - just like traditional coal or natural gas power plants. The big difference between this type of plant and a photovoltaic solar plant is that CST plants use a lot of water (as do most power plants, for cooling purposes) while PV solar requires no water for operation. Unfortunately, these plants have to be built in places where the sun shines a lot and those places are often where water supplies are limited. It doesn't mean you shouldn't build the plant, but you have take water supplies into consideration when deciding where to site the plant to make the most effective use of water for it's operation.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Playing catch-up; City/County Water Study; my new job

I have been a bit lax in posting lately for a number of reasons. Number one of which is the fact that I recently took a job working for the Tohono O'Odham Nation, a local Native American Tribe in Southern Arizona. My official title is "hydrologist" but I will likely be engaged in work that I like to refer to as "water resource specialist." The job involves a little bit of everything that might fall under the rubric of hydrology - surface water, groundwater, water rights, and water quality. With the commute out to the seat of tribal government in Sells I have pretty long days, which cuts into some of my extra-curricular activities.

Fortunately I plan to maintain some of my local activities related to water, including attending the monthly City of Tucson/Pima County Joint Water/Wastewater Study meetings. This is the program I have been reporting on intermittently since last summer, now just past the halfway point in Phase II of the study. I now have an obligation to attend the meetings because I have been asked to replace one of the members who had to relocate out of state. This is a very exciting appointment for me because the issues being discussed by the committee are in large measure the focus of my decision to move away from hydrology, attend law school, and refocus my career on water policy (my current employment situation notwithstanding). My membership on the committee is an outgrowth of my being a member of another committee here in Tucson, the Citizens Water Advisory Committee, which advises the mayor and council on budgets and other operational matters of the City water utility (Tucson Water).

The next meeting of the city/county study committee is taking place tomorrow night, July 16, at the Tucson Association of Realtors offices on Tucson Blvd. just north of Grant, beginning at 5:00 PM. Sorry for the late notice, but as I mentioned above I've been pretty busy. This meeting is really the focal point of this phase of the study. They will be discussing ways to link growth decisions (rezonings, development agreements, comprehensive plan updates) with some form of examination of available water resources (preferably renewable water). The website for the study has a report posted discussing this issue that I am currently working through. I will try to post another update within the coming week with my impressions of the meeting and the report.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Virtues of Conservation - Is Lawn Watering a Wast of Water or a Useful Recharge Tool?

There has been a rather spirited discussion occurring on John Fleck's blog that I was sucked into. I just can't stand by and watch people use bad science to try to influence policy-makers.

The whole thing was prompted by a comment at a Pasadena (California) city council meeting where they were discussing the implementation of new conservation measures to deal with expected cut-backs in water deliveries from the Metropolitan Water District of So. Cal. (MWD - the main water wholesaler in the LA-San Diego region). A retired engineer made the point that convincing people to stop watering their landscaping could have unintended consequences - a loss of recharge to the aquifer that results from infiltration of over-applied water. This concept was leapt on by a local blogger in Pasadena who made it his mission to stop water conservation measures aimed at outdoor water use because it was necessary to save their local groundwater resources.

The point I sought to make is that if water is being pumped from the aquifer (Pasadena typically gets about 40% of their water supplies from wells, the remainder from MWD), pumping more water so people could continue watering their lawns would not help the aquifer - it would further deplete it. Now if imported water is used for outdoor irrigation there is a benefit to the aquifer from over-watering to the extent that some of the irrigation water will in fact recharge the aquifer, but if the goal is to recharge the aquifer there are far more efficient ways to do it than by having residents over-water their grass. And because the city probably cannot determine whether a given resident is watering with imported water or groundwater, banning or limiting outdoor watering probably has more benefit to the aquifer than encouraging wasteful watering practices.

Fortunately Pasadena appears to be listening more to people who actually understand these issues than to rebel bloggers and will be imposing watering restrictions in order to compensate for cutbacks in MWD water deliveries.