Water Matters: Capetown and closer to home

Capetown, South Africa, has the world’s attention lately, counting down the days until the drinking water supply for four million people runs out on April 12.

It’s international news right now, because Capetown is a cosmopolitan tourist center – and because of the drama of “Day Zero,” when kitchen taps will cease to run.

City leaders are quoted by the media, wondering aloud what will happen when the day arrives and reservoirs are dry. Other than providing armed guards to keep the peace at public water stations, there is an apparent lack of preparation.

I’m sure this is not encouraging to those living there; however, I did learn there are new wells being drilled and four desalination facilities in the works.

Commentary: Neither is it encouraging that competing political parties, in control of different reservoirs, have been playing chicken for months with regard to actual preparations.

In Bolivia …

Capetown’s crisis is but one of many recent examples of large populations at risk of running out of water, and lack of preparation is the common denominator.

For example, in 2016 a major water shortage struck the capital of Bolivia, La Paz, when most residents were out of water for weeks until the rainy season started. Poorer residents hauled water on foot from wealthier neighborhoods to their own. Higher up on the notoriously dry Altiplano, one major lake went completely dry, resulting in the loss of a fishery critical to local residents, and loss of a year’s crops for farmers.

The saddest part is that everyone literally saw it coming as they have watched the glaciers surrounding the region shrink for many years. It’s a precarious situation for about two million people, as those glaciers are the life line for farms, villages and cities alike – not to mention fish and the natural world.

Commentary: Vulnerabilities can be easy to exploit, which adds to precariousness but makes for a successful James Bond movie … In 2012, Hollywood delivered “Quantum of Solace,” with Daniel Craig rescuing control of water in Bolivia from a terrorist corporation.

Since the 2016 crisis in Bolivia, the World Bank has proposed decentralizing the country’s water collection and distribution systems, and is forging agreements between rural and urban interests.

In Mexico …

Closer to home, Mexico City is regularly in dire straits meeting water demand. The land beneath the city is sinking due to over-pumping of groundwater, and when the rains arrive, floodwater ends up in the sewer system, making it toxic and unusable – unless they build a reclaimed water plant.

Given its depleted aquifers and lack of basic infrastructure to capture rainwater or treat wastewater, Mexico City is reaching farther and farther into surrounding towns and farms to serve its exploding population.

Commentary: Sounds to me like Mexico could take a page from Bolivia’s new playbook: diversify.

Across the globe …

Last week the BBC reported 10 major metropolitan areas, in addition to Capetown and Mexico City, very likely to experience serious water shortage in the near future. The list includes cities from every continent and includes Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, and Miami.

Even London is on the list, as famous for its wet drizzle and fog as Seattle is. How can this be?

Simply put, unless your seasonal water demand happens to coincide with the natural supply from the sky, you must store water somehow.

Commentary: Born in the Western U.S., it amazes me how this plays out in the Midwest: the rain naturally comes with reasonable regularity during the growing season and rivers supply the needs of nearby towns and cities.

Storing water was pivotal to the development of the U.S. West, where rivers were dammed to bring “life” (irrigation) to the desert. Growing municipalities followed suit. Seattle-area cities, like Capetown, rely on reservoirs in the surrounding foothills to store their water supplies.

Sequim’s best reservoirs are of the frozen type, high in the Olympic Mountains – and as vulnerable to warming temperatures as those in Bolivia. We are fortunate to also have natural storage underground in sand and gravel aquifers, but if they aren’t recharged it’s possible the land could subside as it has in Mexico City.

Like in Capetown, it’s up to water utilities to provide for future demand and anticipate and prepare for drought. In our 2015 drought, many utilities around Seattle imposed water rationing – but if it had lasted a few more months we assume officials would know what to do, and that armed guards would not need to be called.

Being prepared

Periodic drought, population growth and global warming strain supplies and stress the environment around the world. Modern water management requires diversification and use of all tools in the toolbox when needed.

This includes conservation, rainwater capture, demand restrictions, recycling wastewater, treating sea water and storage, underground in aquifers and above-ground in reservoirs.

And there’s another tool, management agreements among utilities and other jurisdictions – since we’re all in this watershed together.

Why wait?

Geek Moment

For details about the local “Off-Channel Reservoir” proposal to restore streamflow, provide for irrigation, and recharge local aquifers, go to the City’s website and browse to www.sequimwa.gov/index.aspx?nid=759.

For the 2018 water year (started Oct. 1, 2017):

• Cumulative rainfall at Sequim 2E weather station (elev. 25 feet) = 13.3”

• Most rainfall in 24 hours = 1.14” on Dec. 18

• At the Dungeness SNOTEL station (elev. 4,010 feet), snowpack = 25”; Snow Water Equivalent = n/a (total precip. approx. 110 percent); Days/nights below freezing=14.

• Highest flow in the Dungeness River = 2,970 cfs on Nov. 23, at the USGS gage, River Mile 11.2. Lowest flow = 101 cfs on Oct. 16. (1 cubic foot per second (cfs) is just less than 650,000 gallons per day)

On Feb. 19, 2018:

• New snow!

• Dungeness River = 325 cfs.

• Bell Creek at Carrie Blake Park = about 1 cfs; at the mouth of the creek at Washington Harbor = 4-5 cfs.

Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. Reach Ann at or via her blog at watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.

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