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In the great arid southwest, it has been more arid than normal the last decade.  Shorter ski seasons; longer, drier summers; windier springs and higher water bills have all become the norm.

One of the things we love about living in Northern New Mexico, besides green chili and brilliant blue skies, is our ability to walk in our pine forests just a few short miles outside of town. 

But that may be changing according to a recent article published in the Nature Climate Change.  Drought may have a very profound impact on our forests.  It has happened before and it seems to be happening again.


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The costs of energy and water are both rising, but the cost of water is rising faster, and at some point our monthly water bill will exceed our monthly electricity bill. This is not just a local phenomenon; it is happening around the country. In fact, the rapid rise of water rates is one reason I got interested in water conservation and rainwater harvesting.

In Santa Fe area our local electricity service provider, PNM, has raised rates 45% since 2008. Starting in 2009, the local water rates have gone up 8.2% a year and will continue to do so through 2014, for a total increase of 48%. 

Although locally it appears that the two are increasing at the same rate, the national picture shows a different long-term trend. Nationally, electricity rates have gone up a little over 2% percent annually since 2008, while water rates have gone up about 8% a year.

Different forces are driving these increases. Electricity rates are rising due to increasing operating costs (i.e. the increasing costs of the raw materials needed to make energy, such as coal, gas and water are all going up). While the price of water is going up to pay for improvements in infrastructure (replacing aging pipes and improving water treatment facilities); but it is also rising due to the increased costs of acquiring new water.  The Santa Fe Buckman Direct Diversion (BDD) costs nearly $200M to complete and is by far our most expensive water source.

The major difference between electricity and water is that there are available alternatives to traditional electricity generation systems, but no one yet has invented an alternative to water. As reported in the news recently, the price of solar panels has dropped significantly over the past few years due to the ramping up of manufacturing in China. Consequently, the cost of solar panels is now typically less than the labor in installing a new system.  As more solar panels are manufactured and installed and more installers enter the market, prices will continue to decrease over the foreseeable future. This "new power generation system" provides a direct alternative to power supplied by the electrical grid. In fact, solar power is likely to become a cost-effective alternative to the traditional energy grid within this decade. 

By comparison, water has no alternative and dehydrated water hasn't been invented as of yet. The only major way for a municipality to increase its water supply is to make improvements in the efficiency (e.g. fixing leaks, conservation programs, and wastewater reuse) or successfully bidding against other municipalities for new supplies. There is no more easy water.  New sources of water are going to be much more expensive because they will have to be transported further and processed more.

Consequently, water prices here and nationally will continue to rise while at the same time solar power and other "green" alternatives will keep a downward pressure on overall electricity rates.  Conserving water is the cheapest way to help keep water prices down, but "up, up, up" is the trend and is likely to be that way for the foreseeable future. 

Interesting Links:

Comparison of Water Costs

National Energy Prices

Top 2010 Water Stories

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Much is being written about 'Tap to Toilet' these days as a new water source for municipal water providers.  This type of tap water is your old toilet water cleaned and sent back to the tap.  As you can imagine these are big, costly water infrastructure projects. 

In an effort to seek viable alternatives California announced a couple of years ago a project, whereby used water would be cleaned into drinking water.  The project was shelved due to public outcry. It is back.

In August of 2010, the San Diego City Council launched a pilot program to do just that - 'Tap to Toilet'.  The public remains skeptical about the cleanliness and drinkability of the water and there are many that have raised concerns in the treatment and purification of the water from waste to potable.

The term 'Toilet-to-Tap' angers and scares the public very easily. Originating from Gerald Silver, an angry Encino homeowner's association president who used the phrase in 1995 during a debate over it in Los Angeles; consequently the industry prefers to use the term IPR (i.e. Indirect Potable Reuse ) instead. 

Typically the IPR process for treatment of water involves a multi-phase filtration system broken down into many, many steps.  During the first few processes, the water passes through various screens and sedimentation, including beds of anthracite coal, which removes most suspended solids from the water. According to many experts familiar with the process, the water at this point is safe for irrigation and other non-drinking uses.

In fact, many cities across the United States and around the world use this processed water already for irrigation of parks and golf courses as well as other industrial uses.  Of course, to be ready for drinking it must be further filtered and cleaned and meet EPA Drinking Water Standards.

With over 90% of its drinking water imported, the growing city of San Diego is facing a water crisis - it is only a question of when.  A recent federal judge's ruling that may limit the amount of fresh water that can be pumped from the San Joaquin River Delta in an effort to protect the delta smelt, an endangered fish is just one thing that could throw the whole water supply equation totally out of balance so the city is at the forefront where IPR may become a reality.

It is an emotional issue and consequently some arguments are not entirely based on reality.  Many, many communities today are using water that was used before.  Unless you are fortunate to be near a fresh the source of water or rely totally on well water the chances are very high that the water you are drinking partially came from a waste water treatment plant upstream.

To make this water drinkable it is mixed with raw water and then large plants are built to process it before it gets to the tap (i.e. new treatment plants are usually hundreds of millions to billions of dollars depending the on size of the plant).  There is a gigantic industry supporting water treatment due to the monies and potential profits involved, so you can be sure it is going to happen - it is just a matter of time.   

The other 'Tap to Toilet' that is not getting as much coverage in the press these days is piping your used bathroom faucet water into your toilet and reusing it a second time.  Not very exciting nor very expensive.  Given toilets are the biggest water users in a house the potential water savings are enormous.  But this is of little interest to water providers as they make money selling 'new' water; not promoting reuse of water in the house two or three times.   

These inexpensive devices direct the water from your faucet that would normally go down the drain to go instead to a basin hooked to your toilet.  To avoid the 'tap to toilet' controversy these are sometimes referred to greywater toilets; although the toilets have nothing to do with the installation - it is the water source that is changed.  So instead of flushing clean drinking water down the flush you are flushing slightly used water - saving literally tons of water over the life of a flush and billions of gallons if implemented across the United States.

There were an estimated over 350 million public and private toilets in the United States and growing.  That is a lot of gallons flushed no matter how you look at it. In fact, residential toilets account for about 30 percent of all indoor residential water use in the United States and faucets account for more than 15 percent of indoor household water use. 

So marrying the tap to the toilet just makes sense.  So why is no one picking it up and pushing it as a great inexpensive solution.  Especially, since the US government is projecting that over the next 5 years water shortages will occur in nearly every state.

My bet is on the money.  Inexpensive, highly distributed, cost-effective approach to saving water versus highly-costly, centralized approach - my bet is on the latter just due to the dollars involved.  But my heart is on the former as a much better solution for us all. 

What do you think?

As reported recently by Water Online, water customers in many parts of the U.S. are facing rate hikes due to the sagging economy and decreased demand, according to an Associated Press story published by the Water Environment Federation. Manufacturing closures and cut-backs, a poor real estate market, and a downturn in tourism were cited as causes for the drop in water usage, exemplified in southern Maine by an 11 percent drop in sales last year for the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport & Wells Water District.