Rivers Under Stress

Rivers, one of the greatest sources of freshwater on the planet may be in peril according to a new study recently published in the journal Nature. The study found, among other things, that rivers worldwide are experiencing similar stresses and are being degraded. Rivers most removed from human populations – in the arctic and the tropics – appear to be in the best state.

The symptoms of this degradation are almost as complex as the causes. Agricultural intensification, industrial development and river habitat modification were noted in the majority of the world’s watersheds. No longer limited to the developed world, the damage appears far-flung and crosses many economic and cultural boundaries. These stresses can reduce or eventually eliminate the flow of the rivers. In the case of agricultural use, this may benefit a few upstream dwellers but may spell disaster for those living downstream. A classic example is the Colorado River in the United States; because of extensive agricultural diversions of water from the river, the Colorado no longer consistently flows into the Gulf of California. In fact, the course of the river below Yuma, Arizona, is often dry.

Another concern is the growing amount of pharmaceutical and chemical discharge that is making it into the rivers of the world. Water treatment systems which are well-suited for removing solid waste and other waste products of humans are increasingly ill-equipped to remove the waste chemicals that have become prevalent in the modern world. Household cleansers, out-of-date medications and even birth control medications are routinely sent down the drain and subsequently discharged into the rivers. In the case of birth control medications, the synthetic hormones are showing up in fish on a routine basis.

Couple those forces with industrial pollution and a toxic stew is brewing in the rivers of the world. Mercury from coal fired power plants is sent into the air and gradually settles back to the earth. When it rains, that mercury is transported directly into rivers and streams. Mercury levels are rising in fish caught in the world’s rivers.

All of this sounds very dire, indeed. In fact the authors of the study, Charles Vorosmarty and Peter McIntyre, found that governments where spending increasing amounts on remediation and cleanup after a watershed has already been compromised. Instead, the authors suggest, strategies such as protecting watersheds can reduce the costs of drinking water treatment, preserve floodplains for flood protection and enhance rural livelihoods. The message seems to be the right one; let’s hope that the right people are listening.

Introducing “Water Hour”

A movement may have started on June 11th, this year. The first ever “Water Hour” was celebrated that day around the globe. As part of its promotion of the event, the Water Environment Federation notified the staff at H2Bid about the event. Water Hour is a different approach to the problem of water resource management and conservation; instead of a “doom and gloom” approach, the founders of Water Hour encourage people to take one hour to reconnect with water in their lives. By sharing positive stories of how water has shaped us or made us happy, the movement hopes to develop a sense of value in people that is associated with water in their lives.

Promoted by over 60 diverse environmental and conservation groups, the Water Hour founders reached out across the globe. So far they have solicited over 400,000 stories and affirmations from individuals. Technology paved the way for the call for the stories as well as the affirmations themselves; Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube all served as platforms for sharing these positive stories about water. A quick scan of the sites reveals the various ways that we view water: as sustenance, as recreation, as a means of travel, as a means to connect and as a livelihood. These stories are called “Water Moments,” they represent the moment that water became a tangible part of our lives.

Water Hour is a positive event; it does not ask participants to dwell on the negatives. Also, it is different by its very nature – a dispersed, almost individual event. The founders of the event address these differences by noting that Water Hour is like an engine, “your Water Moment is like an emotional spark that ignites the fuel, and the Water Hour celebration is the explosion of creativity and outreach that follows. Now the engine is running – so declaring your commitment to take action carries the inspiration of Water Hour forward to make a difference year-round.”

Though Water Hour has officially passed for 2010, the founders of the movement encourage people to contribute and interact as an online community year-round. They fully expect that these Water Moments will lead to collaboration and action by readers and observers of the sites. In fact, there are examples that indicate this is happening already. Some of the collaborative focus is aimed at making a larger impact during Water Hour 2011 while other discussion groups appear to be focusing on the health of the Great Lakes and even how to reduce the water-needs impact of biodiesel production.

Water Hour’s focus is certainly different from the usual conservation message and only time will tell if this new focus will be effective in the long run. From the editor’s perspective, however, the first Water Hour appears to have been a great success and certainly seems to have raised the awareness of many. If you would like to share your story with the broader community, browse to http://waterhour.org// and contribute. Who knows, perhaps your anecdote will be the inspiration that drives a future conservationist or inventor!

How Water Utilites Can Save Money with Demand Response

Demand Response is often discussed in the electrical power generation community; recently, though, it is being discussed in the water and wastewater industries, as well. Early indications are that demand response can allow water utilities to save significant operating costs – mainly via energy cost reductions. With the cost of pumping and supplying water expected to rise by 50% over the next 40 years, water utilities are eager to reduce operating costs where possible.

Demand Response, or DR, is a method of incentivizing customers to reduce or curtail power usage during peak times. It is widely used with industrial customers in the developed world and is being pushed out to the general public in many key markets. If one examines a typical power demand curve, there are peaks where usage is high and troughs where demand is low. The electrical power companies and the electric grid, itself, must cope with both conditions. If the overall usage was a flat line through the course of the day, these issues would be simplified. The power company would simply build enough plants for the average demand and operate them 100% of the time. The actual usage of electricity, however, throws this simple model out the window and requires power companies to “balance” their production of electricity with the usage patterns of their customers. The power companies must anticipate what the peak loads will be and plan accordingly, shutting down or diverting power from those plants when the demand is not there.

Rather than build more power plants simply to keep pace with peak demand, DR encourages customers to shift that demand to a different time of the day when overall demand is lower. The energy used is exactly the same, but by pushing the power usage to a different time, the power companies move closer to the flat-line demand curve discussed above. This change in behavior results in lower capital costs for the utilities and lower electricity costs for the consumer.

DR actually encourages this shift in usage by increasing the cost of electricity during peak times and reducing it during off-peak times. Businesses and consumers with smart meters can view these rates in real time and make decisions accordingly. Typically, the higher peak rates occur during the midday hours and follow a fairly predictable pattern. Electricity consumers can take advantage of this pattern and adjust their habits accordingly; saving themselves money and reducing peak load for the utilities.

Enter the water utilities. From pumping the water to disinfecting and purifying it, water supply requires significant amounts of electrical power. Many water utilities have a luxury, though; they can pump water into reservoirs when needed. By using the reservoir as part of a DR system, water utilities can take great advantage of low-rate times of the day. In the extreme implementation of DR, the water utilities can incentivize customers to water lawns later in the day when electrical rates are lower. This final vision of “integrated demand response” has been discussed, but has not been implemented to date.

Many utilities are taking advantage of the cost reduction opportunities associated with the current implementations of DR. Large utilities such as the Florida Keys Aqueduct System and the City of Glendale (CA) as well as smaller utilities like the Berrenda Mesa Water District. Berrenda Mesa partnered with CPower and Pacific Gas and Electric in 2007 to take part in their demand response program. Though Berrenda Mesa is a relatively small water utility, its monthly electric bills exceeded $500,000. Through the Pacific Gas and Electric DR program, Berrenda Mesa has been able to reduce costs while still meeting their water district demand.

Demand Response is likely here to stay. With rising electric costs and no shortage of needs, it is likely that more and more of the world will be converted to “smart grid” technologies that allow both businesses and consumers to make informed decisions relative to their use of electrical power. It seems logical that water utilities should investigate and take advantage of DR programs as they become available in their areas.

Do you manage a water utility and want more information about Demand Response? Send an email to us at contact@h2bid.com. Demand Response can be ideally suited for your utility to save money. Ask us about how your water utility can save even more money by forcing electricity companies to compete for your Demand Response business.