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Zero Chance 


By Matt Chapuran

As this article goes to press, the South African city of Cape Town may have already hit “Day Zero,” the cessation of fresh water for lack of supply, the world’s first major city to have essentially run out of water. On March 13, the government of Cape Town announced new measures to conserve water. Since 2014, the city has installed 115 automated pressure zones, designed to reduce consumption, in part by keeping pressure at a level that protects pipes from bursting and leaks.

Overall, the city has seen progress, citing a drop of 400 million liters each day in the past year. The increased rollout of pressure management interventions alone has resulted in savings of 50 MLD over the past two months. However, the crisis is far from solved, with usage in March at 516 MLD. The city is warning its residents that if it can’t reach its target of 450 MLD, there is a chance that the National Department of Water and Sanitation may impose even more stringent restrictions on Cape Town in November.

The city of Cape Town’s website is alive with information about how the impending water crisis affects everything from attending sporting events to washing pets. Cape Town’s stated ambition is to restrict personal water use to 50 liters a day, including three liters for drinking, nine for flushing the toilet and ten for a daily shower. (A poster distributed through the Cape Town website provides ways to save additional water. A sponge bath cuts six liters from the daily allotment.) 

This crisis did not develop overnight. According to NASA, “Population growth and a lack of new infrastructure has exacerbated the current water shortage. Between 1995 and 2018, Cape Town’s population swelled by roughly 80 percent. During the same period, dam storage increased by just 15 percent.” NASA’s website shares imagery showing the decrease in capacity in Cape Town’s six major reservoirs from January 2014, when Theewaterskloof Dam, the largest of the six reservoirs, was at full capacity, to January 2018. During that period, the dam fell from full to just 27 percent of total capacity.

Some scientists suggest that this shortage is the direct result of three consecutive years of drought, circumstances that are unlikely to return to Cape Town in 1,000 years, and others suggest that a resurgent rainy season can restore the reservoirs and avert disaster. “We have always had a level of water restrictions in place as we are situated in a water-scarce region and we will continue to have restrictions in place,” says Councillor Xanthea Limberg, the city’s Mayoral Committee Member for Informal Settlements, Water and Waste Services; and Energy.

“Our tough conditions remain,” Limberg says. “It is difficult to predict how much winter rain for 2018 (our main rain season) we will receive and also what will happen in 2019. We are therefore focusing on stretching our limited supplies and finding ways to augment water supply through groundwater usage, recycling and temporary reverse osmosis modular desalination plants.”

Certainly, the tone in Cape Town remains upbeat. Its webpage’s “Vision for Homes and Families” promises, “Cape Town has been one of the fastest growing cities in South Africa in terms of urbanization and we think it is quite clear why everyone wants to live, work, and explore in Cape Town. ... We want all our citizens to have roofs over the heads and food in the bellies.”

Limberg says, “We have reduced our consumption as a city (metro) from 1.2 million liters of collective usage per day to the current levels of just above 500 million liters per day. This, arguably, is a feat that few metros across the world has managed to achieve.”

While it may be tempting to dismiss events in Cape Town as a product of overdevelopment in a developing nation, the potential of a domestic Day Zero is high. According to Limberg, coverage of the crisis has ranged from “informed and fair to sensational.”

“The attention, however, is starting to shift from a narrative of potentially the ‘first city in the world to run out of water’ to the first city in the world who came close to running out of water but did not due to the measures that have been taken by its government and residents,” she says.

Pete DeMarco, executive vice president of Advocacy and Research for the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), says that the problems facing South Africa have threatened Sao Paulo in Brazil and dire drought conditions hang perennially over Southern California.

“What strikes me,” DeMarco says “is that when you look at South Africa or Brazil, these aren’t third world countries. They have a strong industrial base, and knowledgeable governments.” He praises the work that these governments have done to implement multi-pronged approaches that have been effective in “getting the population to be more efficient in their water consumption.”

DeMarco says that IAPMO has been playing a critical role in developing codified requirements to help jurisdictions of all sizes control their water usage responsibly. The 2010 Green Plumbing and Mechanical Code Supplement and the Water Efficiency and Sanitation Standard (WE Stand) helps municipalities put controls in place that combine safety with efficiency.

“Since the 1980s, we've seen dramatic reductions in water demand in buildings resulting from modern plumbing fixtures and water consuming appliances such as clothes washers and dishwashers, which use only a fraction of the water they used to consume,” he says. “We're now reaching the point where we need to be extremely vigilant regarding the unintended consequences of water efficiency.

“The safe use of water is always our primary consideration,” he continues.

“On the water supply side, reduced supply water flows can result in a decrease in water quality and can foster the growth of dangerous pathogens, such as Legionella. On the waste water side, reduced flows from toilets and appliances can also create problems if there isn't enough water to transport waste from the building to wastewater treatment systems. Some municipalities are already experiencing sewer system problems that necessitate the opening of hydrants to flush out the system to avoid blockages and corrosion problems resulting from higher concentrations of waste in the wastewater effluent.”

From a societal standpoint, DeMarco is also concerned about the impacts of drought and water scarcity on disadvantaged communities.

"While all levels of the economic spectrum are affected by drought, poorer populations disproportionately suffer,” he says.

Montana is a state with a population one third of Cape Town. According to its website, the Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee exists in part because, “With increasing demands on already limited water resources, wise and efficient water use is critical. Through proactive, locally-initiated drought planning, federal and state resources can be harnessed to build long-term drought resilience as well as short-term emergency preparedness.”

Water Planning Section Supervisor Michael Downey of Montana’s Water Management Bureau says that while planning mitigation and response for drought is nothing new in western states, his agency is noticing changes in the environmental conditions.

“A year ago, we had ‘normal’ snowpack in most basins,” Downey says. “At the end of April, concern for drought was minimal. Sixty days later, we were in the midst of deep drought.”

He says that a wet fall caused officials to overestimate the effect on soil moisture, and so when spring brought lighter than usual rain, coupled with higher than normal temperatures, drought quickly followed.

Unlike a dense urban environment, drought conditions in a state such as Montana can have an outsized effect on the local economy, particularly on key businesses like agriculture and tourism, with impacts ranging from the failure of spring crops to truncating access to parks and other recreational amenities because of wildfires.

Temperatures in Montana have risen earlier in the summer and at times sharply, causing difficulties in monitoring soil moisture. In 2017, the town of West Glacier received 11 inches of rain above its average of 40 inches, and still saw wildfire related evacuations in the summer, due in part to Montana’s second worst fire season on record. “When people hear about a global average increase of two degrees, it doesn’t sound like much,” Downey says, “but in some areas, that global average conceals much greater local changes.”

• • •

When learning about BBC stories citing Miami as one of the world’s cities likely to run out of water, local officials were surprised, but not because there wasn’t already acute awareness about the need for water conservation in Southern Florida. According to the Miami-Dade County website, “It may seem odd that South Florida would have to worry about ‘not enough’ water,” its website reads. “After all, we get about five feet of rain during any given year! Some places in the country would take a decade to see that much water.”

The city’s drinking water is provided entirely by wells, which feed five treatment plants. The groundwater that flows in the Biscayne Aquifer benefits from natural filtration, however, in 2015, the state legislature voted to authorize funds for alternative water projects. According to Doug Yoder, deputy director of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, where other cities were facing water shortages because poor planning and overdevelopment were surpassing the ability of municipalities to deliver water, Miami faces issues related to the potential of salt water intrusion. “It’s an apple to oranges comparison,” Yoder says.

In 2007, per capita water usage in Miami was 155 gallons per person per day, or 587 liters, substantially higher than the current goal in Cape Town. The city set a 20-year goal to reduce overall consumption by 20 million gallons a day.

“Our objective is to reduce per capita water consumption as much as we can,” Yoder says, citing the fact that two-thirds of Miami’s water comes in the “wet” season from May to October. Yoder says that the trends have been encouraging so far, with current consumption down to 140 gallons per person per day.

Miami-Dade has been strongly advocating for the use of reclaimed water to reduce discharge and ease pressures on the drinking water supply. The domestic wastewater can be put to a variety of uses, including irrigating golf courses, flushing toilets, and augmenting wetlands. Yoder says that the regional agencies that regulate water use permits have been imposing restrictions, including limiting the frequency of irrigation to two days a week, and requiring building codes to incorporate ultra-low flow fixtures. Technological advances have improved the ability of the city to detect and repair leaks.

“Due to conservation, low-flow fixtures, more dense development patterns, and immigration and development slowdowns during the recession, we are currently about 40 mgd below where we thought we would be in 2007,” Yoder says. “We currently produce about 320 mgd on average. We have deferred some planned water supply capital projects as a result of the decline in water demand.”

On a more national level, the Environmental Protection Agency “actively monitors the U.S. Drought Monitor (http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/) and provides resources to help water utilities become more resilient to drought,” according to an EPA spokesperson. On its website, the EPA offers a map of drought conditions, organized into seven regions and accompanied by a week’s look forward.

Also available from the EPA is the Drought Response and Recovery Project for Water Utilities. In addition to offering strategies for identifying alternative sources of water and managing customers’ water demands downward, this website includes six case studies “describing the experiences of small and medium-sized drinking water utilities that successfully responded to drought.”

For its part, IAPMO has also published its own Drought Toolkit: A Community Guide to Achieving Water Efficiency Today, available on its website for use by city councils, state construction boards, and local planning and development departments at http://www.iapmo.org/Drought_Toolkit/Pages/default.aspx.

In Cape Town, the word Limberg uses to describe the city’s response is resilience. Cape Town “has adopted a stance where reduced rainfall and increased climatic uncertainty is our new normal,” she says, making resilience “a cornerstone of future operations. The resilience approach is one based on the diversification of our water mix and one where we increasingly rely to a lesser degree on surface water from dams. This unprecedented drought has shown us that we need to become tougher to absorb climatic shocks and to thrive despite extreme events.”