The Iowa Geological and Water Survey has just produced a report on the available groundwater in the West Nishnabotna Aquifer, which serves a number of western Iowa communities, including Manning, Oakland, Harlan, and Avoca. The report concludes that, although the water supply in the region appears adequate for now, contingency plans should be made in case of a future drought because some portions of the aquifer aren't recharging as quickly as they're being pumped down. Iowa has a comparatively abundant supply of groundwater, which is generally replenished (at least as best we can tell) rather well by natural rainfall. But Iowa's population is also becoming more concentrated in urban areas, and as a result, demands are growing in those places where the population is aggregating. The state really doesn't have comprehensive data nor a comprehensive plan on how the water supply is being managed statewide, and without a better grasp on that information, it will probably be quite hard to persuade the voting public and lawmakers to invest the resources necessary to ensure that we don't run out of an abundant supply of water in the future.
Group wants Iowa to spend $60 million a year on flood prevention
December 9, 2010
Much has been made of the unusually cold weather hitting Ireland and Great Britain over the last few days, and one of the side-effects of the weather has been an unusually large number of water line breaks and resulting water shortages in places like Dublin. The water line breaks are causing water-use restrictions to go into effect. The conditions there are usually far more temperate, so the water lines are not as well-protected against freezing as they are in places where very cold weather is expected. Frost depths in our part of the United States have been measured at more than 50 inches, so it's not uncommon to see water mains buried 6' underground. These required burial depths are a classic case of the need for engineering conservatism -- NOAA has a map of frost lines across the United States, and the Upper Midwest has some of the deepest. But it's wise to assume that the worst-case scenario could involve frost depths even greater than the "extreme" figures shown. Obviously, the designers in Dublin never thought things would get as cold as they have -- but they did, and now the residents of the city are dealing with shortages and usage restrictions.
To help with system performance at those depths, we can offer direct-buried air-release valves to simplify the design and reduce the overall cost of a water or wastewater system.
Our office is closed for the Christmas holiday today. However, we know that emergencies can and do happen in the public works sector, so if you require emergency assistance, please use our emergency paging system to reach us and we'll do our best to help. For non-emergency questions or comments, you're always welcome to reach us via our regular contact page. Our office will be open again on Monday.
The environmental lobbying organization called the Environmental Working Group has released a report saying that 74 million Americans drink water containing chromium-6, which EWG argues is a likely carcinogen. The EPA hasn't yet decided to tighten regulations on chromium, but it may choose to do so, particularly if public pressure is brought upon it to do so. The process for adopting new standards regarding previously-unregulated contaminants can take quite a lot of time, and though the EWG may be correct about the risks, the EPA may also find that the costs of treatment may exceed the potential benefits.
Water-quality treatment inevitably involves a range of trade-offs between the costs of treatment and the expected benefits, and in some cases it is found that some benefit may be gained from an expensive new approach -- but that benefit is less than what might result from spending the same amount of money doing something else. In public water systems, for instance, it's often easier to obtain funding for new methods of treatment at the source than for the replacement of aging distribution mains, piping, and valves. Yet the costs of unmetered water losses and the potential risks caused by transient pressure drops in water systems may very well exceed greatly the hazards being mitigated by new approaches to source-water treatment. In other words, people may be willing to spend a lot to have nearly-perfect water at the treatment plant, but they might be better served by spending the same money to ensure that the distribution system itself is sound.
A water tower (or, if you prefer, an "elevated water storage tank") in northeastern Germany has been converted from its original purpose into a six-story home and tourist lookout. It wasn't a cheap process -- the New York Times says that the conversion cost about a million dollars -- but it's undoubtedly an unusual way to find a new purpose for an abandoned structure. Most water towers built today in the Upper Midwest are mounted on metal columns rather than the masonry and concrete used in the converted home, so it's doubtful that we'll see many duplicate efforts anywhere in our home turf -- though some towers are built with large-column bases deliberately to offer office space on the inside.
Water professionals in the United States are acutely aware of the amount of work required to keep municipal water systems working reliably and safely, well below the radar of most public notice. It's mostly a silent service, and the result is sometimes that the public grows so accustomed to the situation that it's never given a second thought. But a water crisis is posing a serious danger to public health in Northern Ireland, as a result of a serious deep freeze that broke lots of water distribution mains and pipes. The weather was exceptional, but we know that extremes can and do occur from time to time -- which is why good engineers add a degree of design conservatism to every project they design (for instance, often placing water mains here in the Midwest a foot below the deepest measured frost).
But all the design conservatism in the world can't make up for inadequate maintenance and upkeep, which is often the secondary cause of failures brought on acutely by events like dramatic storms. We certainly aren't immune to overlooking the age and condition of our own water infrastructure -- it's not unheard-of to find water mains more than a century old.
That's why we should sit up and take notice of the situation in Northern Ireland. It's not a place where no water service has ever been offered -- charities like Water for People are working hard to remedy that crisis for the estimated 1.1 billion people around the world who have no safe drinking water. Instead, Northern Ireland is part the United Kingdom, which is the 6th-largest economy in the world, with average incomes quite similar to ours. It's a fully developed country, with no shortage of civil engineers, laws, or voters with democratic rights to demand better. In other words, it has none of the ordinary obstacles to which we might ordinarily consider ourselves immune that normally are the cause for people to go without water.
In Northern Ireland, the pipes simply broke because they were old and the weather turned cold. And they could break anywhere, especially if we don't invest adequately in our municipal water infrastructures and maintain those systems like the keys to civilization that they are.
Our office will be closed in honor of the New Year on Friday, December 31st. In an emergency, use our paging system to reach us. Otherwise, we'll be open for regular business on January 3rd. We wish you a happy and prosperous 2011.