Water Matters: Circles, cycles, but no conclusions

In the past few months I’ve realized that my fixation on cycles is authentic, at least: like a circle, it has no end.

In Part 1 of “Circles and cycles,” I asserted that the recycling industry should take a page from the water cycle’s playbook to become a more complete “circular economy” in light of our ever-expanding heaps of trash. The problem for industry is that it’s harder to make money in a circular economy.

Therein lies a wicked problem, but creative minds are finding ways to make the economics work. Walmart, not likely to make big changes for altruistic reasons, recently announced its packaging is expected to be 100 percent recyclable, reusable, or compostable and have at least 20 percent post-consumer recycled content by 2025.

This is fabulous, but why not 80 percent instead of 20?

In Part 2, I expanded on how the circular water economy involves both goods and services. The “goods” being renewable (such as when it rains) but also limited (we sometimes run out). People can’t just make new water like we can make new shoes or grow bananas. With technology and energy we can create potable water from desalination and other techniques, but the cost to obtain a useful volume is greater than the benefit … to date, at least.

Part 3 should be my final installment, and we’ll explore how the water cycle also continually performs environmental and economic services. Hopefully you’ll come away with new respect for every drop of water coming out of your kitchen tap.

Natural filters, economic drivers

Wetlands and mangroves filter impurities and protect coastlines from erosion, and trees clean the air by absorbing carbon. Living critters too small to see process our waste into something more palatable, or at least less polluting. Non-living soil filters out toxics from stormwater by absorption.

These are all functions “performed” by features of the natural environment, a.k.a., “ecosystem services.”

The water cycle has many examples of classic ecosystem services: Evaporation of water results in pure water vapor and clouds. Clouds and condensation rain pure water back to the earth. Contaminated runoff is filtered by wetlands or infiltration.

Runoff resulting from that precipitation physically breaks down mountains, creating soil, habitat and fertile ground. As the “universal solvent,” water is chemically breaking down and dissolving those mountains as well.

If something provides a true economic service, then a monetary value could be placed on it. Indeed, water markets have sprung up all over the globe as the value of water is quantified.

What do you suppose is the economic value of glaciers in the Rocky Mountains that melt slowly to feed the water supply of downstream states and nations on both sides of the continental divide? What about those in the Dungeness?

One approach to putting an economic value on a glacier is to estimate the cost of replacing the water that the glacier provides when it melts. The proposed Dungeness off-channel reservoir would function in this way, by storing water formerly stored in snow and ice — and it’s got a mighty large price tag.

The City of Sequim currently has a contractor analyzing whether the benefits of a stormwater capture project outweigh the costs. Benefits to and impacts on communities and the natural environment either directly or through avoidance are incorporated into a fiscal analysis using tools developed by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency).

In addition, new methodologies quantify the value of activities that improve resiliency to impacts from climate change. In the case of the City’s stormwater capture project, the captured water will recharge the aquifer system to help avert future water shortages in domestic and municipal wells.

In closing … there is no conclusion other than yes, the hydrologic cycle is indeed a wonderful model to employ when looking for new solutions to linear problems.

Fittingly, there is no end to my circular reasoning.

Plus, I can’t seem to resist writing about recycling.

Geek Moment

Snow: Enough already? Last time I wrote, the “lovely fluff” out my dining room window at 1,700 feet of elevation was just that. Then it became the view-eating monster and I couldn’t see anything but white. Now it’s condensed and we can see the trees again, but there’s a whole lot of melting needed before we see the ground. Still, I hesitate to stop doing my snow dance.

I understand our February storm Maya snowed especially heavily at the mid-elevations, so the Dungeness SNOTEL was in just the right spot to capture it (at 4,000 feet). Besides being extra deep, the snow water equivalent is now 117 percent and there have been 21 days that the temperature didn’t rise above freezing – a requirement for solidifying ice and ensuring a slower melt. All good!

For the 2019 Water Year (started Oct. 1):

• Rain in Sequim through March 4 at the Sequim 2E weather station (sea level): Total rainfall = 10.7 inches; Highest temp. = 65 degrees F on Oct. 13; the new Lowest temp = 15 degrees F on Feb. 4.

• Snow in the upper Dungeness watershed through March 3 at midnight, reported for the SNOTEL station (elev. 4,010 feet): Snow depth = 22 inches; Snow water equivalent = 6.9 inches (117 percent of normal). Cumulative precipitation is normal. Number of days below freezing = 21.

• River flow at the USGS gauge on the Dungeness (Mile 11.2): Max. flow = 1,870 cubic feet per second (cfs) on Nov. 27; Min. flow = 77 cfs on Oct. 25. Currently = 167 cfs – extra low since it’s too cold for melting. Range for the past month is 167-300 cfs.

• Flow at Bell Creek entering Carrie Blake Park: No flow; Bell Creek at Washington Harbor = flow generally between 2-5 cfs in winter unless it’s storming or unless it’s extra cold — like now!

Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent policies of her employer. Reach Ann at columnists@sequimgazette.com or via her blog at watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.