Our Region's Water

Sep 22, 2016 Environment

Photo Credit: Mike Tewkesbury (Flickr)

An interview with Jeanne M. VanBriesen, Ph.D., P.E., the Duquesne Light Company Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Director of the Center for Water Quality in Urban Environmental Systems (Water QUEST) at Carnegie Mellon University.

P32: What is the current status of the region’s water resources?

VanBriesen: There has been an initiative over the last few years focused on the headwaters of the Ohio River including the Allegheny and Monongahela basin, involving about 25 different stakeholders and stakeholder groups asking questions about water resources. What is the state of the current resources? What are we currently using water for? What does the future look like in terms of water resources?  The initiative is led by Deborah Lange, Executive Director, the Steinbrenner Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and Project Manager, Ohio River Headwaters Resource Committee, with funding from a number of local foundations.

It is very challenging to track how much water there is and where the water is, especially in our region where we have abundant water resources. We don’t tend to track things that we have plenty of, so you wouldn’t see the level of water resources analysis here that you would see in the Colorado River Basin or in California where drought is a current problem.

What you do see here is an understanding of the challenges around having this much water – challenges around flooding and storm events causing sewer overflows. So, in the region we tend to talk about problems with water excess – or what I like to call water wealth.

P32: Should stakeholders in the region be thinking about the fact that we have abundant water that other regions might want to use?

VanBriesen: Yes, we should be thinking about how we manage this abundant resource because other parts of the country and other entities might be interested in using our water. When shale gas development started in this region, people quickly identified that the shale industry uses a lot of water, and for a while the region really talked about that a lot without having the context that the size of the water use was a very small fraction of our water. If we better understood our water resources, then when a new water-intense industry comes in that wants to use water — like a bottling plant or semiconductor manufacturing — we could make better decisions about whether these economic development opportunities should be encouraged or limited.

If another region asks to have some of our water, we have to know what we are doing with our water now in order to determine whether the economic potential is something we should try to exploit.  That’s really where the Headwaters Resource Committee has focused their attention; understanding what water resources we have and what we are currently doing with the resources. 

P32: What future issues should we be considering?

VanBriesen: The bigger question is how much water are we going to have in the future? That’s really challenging to know because it requires us to understand how climate change is going to affect the region. Most climate change discussions at the national level are about the global impact not regional concerns such as, are we expecting to be wetter or drier or are we expecting the frequency and intensity of storms to be different? The differences that might occur with climate change could not only change how much water we have, but also stress the systems we have for managing water.

If we see a lot more storms like we had in late August, we need to rethink how we are capturing storm water and moving it out of our urban environments and back into our rivers. How we are ensuring that we have flood protection that is set up to meet those possible new sets of conditions?

What often surprises people is that we have not had to plan for that before. We have traditionally had a very stable climate where you could guess that next year’s rainfall was going to look something like the rainfall in the last 100 years. It might be a wet year or a dry year, but it wasn’t going to be outside the range of rainfall we saw in the last 100 years.

P32: But that predictability is changing now?

VanBriesen: As the climate shifts, we are starting to see —and are expecting to see more — local weather and water availability patterns that are outside of the design range that we build our infrastructure around.

P32: Are there any groups in the region or at the university that are studying regional climate change?

VanBriesen: Yes, there are a number of people here at the university who are looking specifically at downscaled regional climate models to understand what these changes mean for infrastructure. Our regional systems are heavily engineered – water doesn’t just fall in the mountains and wind its way down to the rivers. Our rivers are organized with locks and dams and the cities are all sewered to direct water away from streets and houses. It’s a heavily engineered system, so its stability depends on what we do and what necessary adjustments we make. There is a lot of research taking place around how we will ensure that the infrastructure systems are prepared for those changes.

P32: Your expertise is on the quality of drinking water. What is happening with water quality in the region?

VanBriesen: Most of the problems and challenges around drinking water in the region are infrastructure related. Our expertise to treat water is quite good, but a lot of the pipes and systems involved in moving water are quite old. We are also looking at challenges associated with changing decisions that we are making in the environment and climate change. Some of the decisions we are making deal with how to use energy. Are we going to keep using coal or are we going to shift to more natural gas? In our coal fired power plants how are we managing the pollution associated with those plants?  And, how does that affect our drinking water?

P32: Have recent problems with drinking water in Detroit sparked a lot of conversation?

VanBriesen: There have been a number of events with urban drinking water systems over the past decade that really highlight the fact that many of the challenges are associated with the failure to upkeep and maintain the systems.

Some of those challenges have to do with how we currently price water. People are charged on a volumetric basis. So if you use less water you get a smaller bill. You are not charged separately the way the gas company does – one charge for infrastructure and one charge for product. So if you conserve water – which is a good thing – then the water utility is starved for money to take care of the pipes.  It’s one of the reasons why water infrastructure is difficult to maintain.

P32: Do you think the region would benefit from having water management and policies in place to set guidelines about withdrawing water from the Ohio River Basin?

VanBriesen: I think the region would benefit from starting that discussion. Water withdrawals from the basin are regulated. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection manages requests for withdrawals from the rivers in the western part of the state. But the region doesn’t have a commission like other basins do, so within the headwaters of the Ohio, withdrawals that are made in West Virginia are controlled by that state and withdrawals in Pennsylvania are controlled by Pennsylvania. There is a potential for that lack of coordination to cause problems. Basin commissions exist when the state lines and the water lines don’t agree. I am a proponent of a basin commission, not to add another layer of regulation, because we are already managing the water, but to add a layer that thinks the way the water thinks. The water moves across the state lines. But our management of the water is hampered when we try to manage it politically instead of scientifically.

P32: How important is water as a resource in this region?

VanBriesen: You wouldn’t have food production in this region without water. Agriculture is still Pennsylvania’s number one industry, and yet there is no irrigation in Pennsylvania. It’s not like California where they provide water to irrigate their agriculture. Our region has rainfall. Part of the benefit of being water wealthy is that we can have an extensive agriculture industry without the extensive engineering of water supply that you see in dry regions. Similarly with natural gas, the region did spend time thinking about the impact of natural gas on water quantity, and we are able to provide water to that industry because of the abundant water resources. Our power plants are similar – we have large rivers available for cooling our power plants. So water has really driven our economic development in this region for most of our history. But because it’s so abundant, we take it for granted. We seldom ask if we should be watering our lawns, but in Arizona they are asking if they should even have lawns.

P32: What can be done in the region to improve the conservation and sustainability of water in the region?

VanBriesen: We would be stronger together as a region. Our systems and water management would work better if we thought regionally and if we did watershed-level planning and coordination. I don’t mean anyone has to give up their own water or sewage system, but we have to talk more about how they interact with each other. How sewer systems in one part of the city affect sewer systems in another part of the city – and how both of those affect the river.  How energy choices affect water choices, and how water choices affect energy choices. We are certainly capable of having those conversations, but there isn’t a strong driver that makes us have them. To coordinate activity around water, we need be aware of the significant reasons to plan together.