Transcript: Talking Headways Podcast #85

February 17, 2020

So we’ve gotten a lot of requests in the past to create transcripts, but never did it because it was either too expensive or time consuming. But I think the cost and time have come down to a place where we can start posting them. So here’s the first one (Episode 85: You Can’t Swim After the Storm) which we posted as a bonus episode over Christmas and hopefully there will be more and I’ll try to post them soon after the episodes are posted.

JW: Jeff Wood

AV: Alisa Valderrama

RM: Rob Moore

JW: You’re listening to the Talking Headways podcast network. This is Talking Headways, a weekly podcast about sustainable transportation and urban design. I’m Jeff Wood. This week we’re flashing back to episode 85 to talk about water, flooding, rain events, wastewater and more. I’m really proud of this one, so I hope everyone enjoys it. Stay with us. Today’s podcast is brought to you by our generous patreon supporters. Thanks so much to all of you for keeping the show going and if you’re so inclined to want to join this merry band of amazing folks you can do so by going to Give 2 dollars a month or more and get stickers with our lovable streetcar logo and a handwritten note.


JW: Welcome to our discussion. I’m Jeff Wood. Today, we’re going to look at water. No, not just stare at it, but think about its impact on cities and infrastructure and people. Stay with us. We’ll be right back. Barry Ault loved to surf and he was good at it. In 1970, he was the US Masters Champion. Two days after a big rain storm, Barry was in the water catching waves at one of his favorite spots, Sunset Cliffs, just south of SeaWorld and at the outlet to the sea for the San Diego River. Five days later, local news reported his death. “Well the weekend before Christmas, friends say Barry went surfing at Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma and five days later on Christmas Day the County Health Department confirms, Ault died from a staph infection.” A friend he was surfing with also got a bacterial infection and friends believe this was because of the storm runoff. “There are several storm drains around Sunset Cliffs that empty into the ocean there, lifeguards of course always caution people to wait at least 72 hours after a rain before getting in the water.” I wasn’t aware of the 72-hour rule, but some know firsthand.


AV: My name is Alisa Valderrama, and I’m a senior project finance attorney with the NRDC. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to go in the water for 72 hours. That’s because the water coming out the end of the pipe in the San Diego storm sewer system is that polluted. Surfers sometimes take that risk, I mean, I grew up in San Diego surfing. I know what it’s like to look at. You know, is it really that unsafe… I didn’t know when I was growing up what was really at stake. It’s a public safety hazard. I mean, I think they’ll come on the evening news and sometimes say “Okay, you know now we’ve gotten this big rain event and remember kids stay out of the water for the next three days”, like, what a tragedy, how unnecessary. It doesn’t need to be that way.


JW: This tragedy highlights a lesser-known public infrastructure problem—sorting, controlling and processing one of our most precious resources: water. For most, it’s out of sight out of mind, but an estimated 10 trillion gallons of water a year flows uninhibited into local waterways.


AV: I don’t remember the last time the mayor ever rode to power on the promise of repairing stormwater systems, you know, it’s not something the public gets excited about.


JW: You mean people aren’t getting excited about old and outdated sewer systems? Perhaps it’s because people don’t know how they actually work.


AV: In the pipe and cement world, which has predominantly been the way that we build our stormwater infrastructure, there are two systems roughly speaking.


JW: The first is called a combined sewer system, which we can shorten to CSS. A hundred fifty to two hundred years ago, this was state of the art.


AV: The idea was that to save money and be more efficient, the pipes from the wastewater system and the pipes from the storm drain system would all flow to the same regulator. And in dry weather, the regulator just processes the wastewater and treats it now not only to some degree some cities better than others, but treats it and then dumps into the waterways, but when it rains the regulators, by design, overflow. So then you have a combined sewer overflow event, which is where you have the very polluted stormwater coming off our streets and roadways and sidewalks, public pesticides and fertilizer, and really yucky stuff. It’s in our streets, antifreeze from our cars mixing with whatever we flushed down the toilet and dumping untreated into our local waterways.


JW: The second system, the pipes and concrete alternative to the CSS, is MS4 or Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System. Sounds better right? Maybe?


AV: It’s two separate pipes systems. So the wastewater is generally getting treated whether or not it’s raining. Whereas the storm drain system just pipes all of the stormwater directly out into the waterways or the ocean, which is also actually quite bad. Even though you may not have wastewater per se mixed up in that, you still have pet waste, you still have antifreeze, you still have really toxic stuff coming out at the end of the pipe.


JW: San Diego has an MS4 system, but it still doesn’t obtain the desired result.


AV: Particularly soul-crushing in a place like San Diego where potable water is a precious resource is the fact that we take our potable water and basically flush it down the toilet. Whatever’s in the gutters, whatever’s in the streets is now in the ocean and so it takes our nice rain water, which should be a resource, basically destroys it and then uses it to destroy our other primary resource in San Diego, which is the Pacific Ocean, which is the reason people come to San Diego to visit for the most part. So it’s like, “Great, guys, we managed to destroy two assets at once.”


JW: Remember Barry Ault on the Sunset Cliffs? I mentioned they were near where the San Diego River lets out. The water drops on the street, collects together in the river and washes out to the sea. This issue can be especially acute in older industrial cities, many of them still with combined sewer systems, especially those that might be looking to create assets out of their waterways.


AV: A lot of cities, particularly older cities, have these large centrally managed so-called pipe and cement systems that are designed to overflow during rain events. And that’s obviously not acceptable not just to the EPA and regulators, but also people who live in the cities who want to recreate in their waterways, and they don’t like seeing the Schuylkill River or the Anacostia so polluted that it’s an eyesore or that it’s a public health risk. You know, we live in an age where people want to be able to swim and fish and canoe and those are amenities that the city is also realizing, “Hey, you know, this could actually be a net benefit.”


JW: But it’s not just our waterways as the final destination for runoff that we need to be worried about. The possibility of more intense rain events that could make the systems overflow more often than they already do should cause concern.


RM: I’m Rob Moore. I’m a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council and I also lead our water and climate team. We already have seen a measurable increase in large intense precipitation events. So where I’m sitting today in Chicago, Illinois, has seen something like an 80% increase over the last four decades in rainfall events over I believe 2 inches in magnitude.


JW: That means more localized flooding damaging lives and property, and that’s not a good thing for those storm drains or water infrastructure generally. But we’re talking about weather events. What does this have to do with longer term climate change?


RM: Usually when climate data is communicating, the numbers we’re talking about are annual average conditions. So the annual average temperature will increase x amount in x years, but that’s an average. It doesn’t say anything about well, what’s the temperature going to be like on July 27th? Climate data doesn’t get down into that level of detail. They can’t predict what the weather is going to be on any given day. What climate data does give you is the average number of events of a certain magnitude we might encounter over a period of time. So it can start making some projections about the number of rain events over two inches.


JW: Understanding this, infrastructure managers are becoming acutely aware of the issues pertaining to long-term climate change.


RM: I think climate change has just not been something that’s factored into these decisions in the past. I think if you’re a municipal official or a state official that deals with water infrastructure, it’s getting hard to not acknowledge that something is changing right now, and that’s presenting challenges for how we manage the risk of flooding, how we manage the risk of drought and what that means for our water infrastructure.


JW: Climate change isn’t uniform. In some places we’ll see desertification while in others we’ll see rising seas and extreme rain events. This year California has recorded a century low in snowpack levels, which supply one third of the state’s water. This year’s measurement at Philip station was zero, a number never recorded. But in Hays County, Texas, the rising elevations of the Hill Country cause what is called the orographic effect in Texas’ own flash flood alley. Weather systems hit hills or mountains and the air rises, precipitation drops fast. In 2015, Hays County was the epicenter for a massive flood event, which destroyed many homes and took lives. That same weather system pummeled Houston as well, inundating Buffalo Bayou by raising the water levels from 3 feet to 34 feet in just an eight-hour period. You might say this is what scientists call a hundred year flood. The problem is, Houston has had two of them in just two decades.


RM: In common parlance, a hundred year flood means the size of flood that we would expect to occur roughly once every hundred years. What it really means in a statistical sense is we think that there’s a 1% chance that a flood of that magnitude could occur in any given year. So on average that flood should occur about once every hundred years. However, when you look at some river gauges along the Mississippi River, you’ll find that in the last 20 years since 1993, Mississippi River has experienced at least one 500 year flood, a two hundred year flood, a couple of 100 year floods, and full of floods anywhere between 20 and 50 year, and then a number of other floods kind of in the 5 to 20 year range.


JW: So how would we fare gambling with these odds?


RM: Your odds of hitting double zero in Vegas on the roulette wheel probably more than once are better than having that many floods [Laughs]. That number of floods of that magnitude should be virtually impossible.


JW: So our math is off, which means we’re not actually very good at predicting flood events. Recent research from Robert E. Chris at Washington University in St. Louis states that estimates should be .5 to 2 feet higher than official measurements for hundred-year floods on Midwestern rivers. Robs says that when flood maps are published by FEMA, they are already out of date, telling us about yesterday’s flood risk instead of projecting into the future. An example of this was during Superstorm Sandy, where the last flood maps published were from 1983. We all know how that ended up. Congress passed some reforms in 2012 that require FEMA to communicate future flood risk in addition to predictable climate impacts, like sea level rise, but for now the hundred-year flood map still rules all.


RM: When you’re looking at the risk of flooding for instance, the standard that you find in building codes, even in the regulations of the National Flood Insurance Program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the standard of flood protection is essentially the hundred year flood. City building codes, state building codes, community zoning ordinances almost always rely on FEMA flood maps to determine where buildings can be constructed and what elevation they must rise above in order to be quote unquote, floodproof.


JW: But they aren’t supposed to be included in the codes. Well, at least not according to the mapmakers.


RM: The directorate at FEMA that is responsible for publishing these maps, they’ll tell you these maps are only to be used for calculating flood insurance rates and we don’t recommend their usage beyond that. However, there’s other directorates even within FEMA such as the Disaster Preparedness Directory and Mitigation Directory that actively encourage the use of those same flood maps for gauging flood risk.


JW: In addition to codifying living in dangerous areas where life and property damage are inevitable, we also incentivize staying in a bad location through the National Flood Insurance Program.


RM: The National Flood Insurance Program was set up back in the early 1970s to help provide people with a safety net after a flood. Private insurers had largely left the market for flood insurance because they were paying out more in damages than they were recouping in payments for their policies. So the federal government stepped in to be the insurer and the Flood Insurance Program, unfortunately, some of the policies that govern the National Flood Insurance Program actually make it very difficult for people to decide to relocate and it does very little to discourage people from locating in flood-prone areas. Unfortunately, that’s one of the reasons why the National Flood Insurance Program is roughly twenty eight billion dollars in deficit right now.


JW: In 2012, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act sought to keep the program solvent, which means tying premiums to actual risk. The unintended consequence was insurance premiums skyrocketed between 1,000 and 3,000 percent to unaffordable levels for most homeowners in areas with high flood risk. An amendment was made in 2014 to more gradually increase rates and halt the practice of assigning an immediate hike after the sale of a home, which was making it hard for owners to sell and scared buyers away. But it still doesn’t deal with the ultimate issue, which is the great possibility that the area might flood again and people will be more likely to stay in place due to insurance policies rather than move to a new place with lower risk.


RM: The National Flood Insurance Program is designed to help people rebuild right where they are. If you want to do something other than that, there’s additional bureaucratic hurdles you have to get over, which takes time. And with your home just recently been destroyed by a flood, your first priority is getting your life back in order. Your tolerance for waiting 12 to 18 months for a check that allows you to actually buy a new house and move somewhere else may be pretty low. To me that’s one of the fatal flaws of the flood insurance program as it now exists, especially in the face of sea level rise, where we know that large chunks of the East Coast are going to be increasingly difficult to keep people and their property protected from storms, hurricane,s and just the inexorable rise of the oceans. We need to be making relocation the most attractive option possible.


JW: This aspect of relocation was heavily debated after New Orleans was inundated with water during Hurricane Katrina. The idea of people having to leave their homes so that certain parts of the city act as future buffers for flooding due to their previous susceptibility was politically and socially divisive. Writing for New Geography, Richard Campanella stated, “Shrinking the urban footprint became heresy, green spacing took on sinister connotations, and rebuilding in flood areas came to be valorized as a heroic civic statement.” In the end, rebuilding would be aided and abetted by the flood insurance program. And while it’s horrible to have our homes flooded, it’s even worse when it happens to critical infrastructure, like wastewater treatment plants. A recent executive order by President Obama improves infrastructure flood risk standards by creating water level benchmarks significantly above a hundred year floodplains. Because it isn’t in our daily radar, we don’t pay much attention to these sorts of things but a cursory look at state hazard mitigation plans tells us why it’s important. In Illinois, 405 critical facilities are in floodplains. In California, 11.6 billion in infrastructure is located in a hundred year floodplain. But flooding is just about being inside the floodplain. Sprawling land uses can become a flood accelerator and funding mechanisms aren’t helping much. We often talk about roads being the harbingers of new development and promoters of sprawl, but perhaps we should also be looking at water infrastructure. We keep extending pipes even in regions that aren’t growing.


RM: Rochester, New York, is an example that immediately springs to mind. The city of Rochester, New York, is located in Monroe County. And if you look at the population of Monroe County, it stayed pretty steady over the last 10 to 20 years. However, there’s been a huge amount of water infrastructure developed in that county by the Monroe County Water Authority, that has essentially had the effect of taking people who used to reside in the city of Rochester and distributing them around the county. So now you’ve got essentially the same number of people that are now supporting a much bigger and more expensive water system.


JW: And while Rochester is a static city in terms of population, other fast-growing regions extend water infrastructure for growth, even though the usual funding sources like state revolving funds aren’t allowed to be used that way.


RM: Some communities are creative enough to think of other reasons that they might need to run water pipes out to an area and then they go ahead and build the system that would help support that growth anyway, even though they don’t identify that growth as the driving purpose for wanting to develop that water infrastructure.


JW: State revolving funds are set up to provide low-interest loans for water infrastructure investments. Many states have invested billions of dollars using available funding for two types of infrastructure projects: drinking water and stormwater wastewater. Perhaps this wouldn’t be an issue if we didn’t know another fact about sprawling development. Runoff from impervious cover such as pavement is a major driver of water channelization. So not only are we building new water infrastructure to those areas, we’re creating a greater need for that infrastructure than we had before. In Texa, during the previously mentioned floods in Hays County, waters rushed from roads and other impervious cover into the Ravines and river channels at a frightening pace. University of Southern Illinois flood expert Nicholas Pinter told the New York Times in May, “The main challenge to rational planning for flood risk in the county is that private property rights trump even modest limitations on floodplain development, and that sentiment runs deep in Texas. The result is unchecked construction on flood-prone land up to the present day and in some places even accelerating.” I don’t want to be a complete downer here, since there are solutions. However, they will require not treating such a precious resource with contempt. Again, Alisa Valderrama.


AV: I think the model that we’re trying to get away from is the notion that rainwater is a problem and that when it falls it needs to be shunted away from the place where it falls. I think the emerging view is that what we want is to try and capture rainwater or infiltrate it or allow it to evapotranspiration at or near the site where it falls.


JW: The biological process of transpiration is important to understand. In this process water is absorbed by plant roots and released as water vapor through small openings in their leaves. Research has shown that plants can transpire up to 10 times as much water as they hold in their stems and leaves. This is important when we think about the demands we put on our storm and wastewater infrastructure in a centralized system. But what if we collected water before it got into the larger man-made system and let natural processes do the work?


RM: This is infrastructure that will intercept stormwater before it ever gets into the stormwater system. So it can be things like grass swales, buffer strips, things that allow the stormwater to hit a vegetated,  permeable surface that allows stormwater to actually penetrate into the ground and soak in just like nature intended. When that happens, you can really dramatically decrease the amount of stormwater than ever enters into the pipes and you can decrease the risk of flooding that way.


JW: However, a green distributed system can be a hard sell over a gray centralized system. Cities and infrastructure finance experts know the existing centralized systems very well.


RM: A lot of it is just that the states and municipalities that access these funds have gotten used to the fact that these funds are available to them to do the things they’ve always done. So what you often find is municipalities access these loan funds to build a new sewage treatment plan, and then 20 or 30 years from now when that sewage treatment plant is nearing the end of its designed life, they are looking at building a new one and they go back to that same loan fund to build a very similar if not identical sewage treatment plan. What we need to do is get communities to one, think about how they self-finance those types of routine upgrades and infrastructure needs, and how these funds would be better deployed for meeting additional future challenges that all communities are going to have to deal with.


AV: The thing is about gray that makes it more attractive, I think in some ways for cities, aside from the fact they already know how to finance that stuff, right, capital expenditure, they issue, float a bond, whatever you’re doing this all very traditional plain vanilla. Once you’re talking distributed infrastructure maintenance cost that over time can be a serious factor, it’s like hey, well wait a minute, so how do we finance that? And so cities like San Diego and others try and understand, okay, if we’re going to go out on that limb, how sure can we be that the benefits are also going to accrue? I try often to put myself in the shoes of folks at a public utility in a city. I’m not pretending this is easy stuff.


JW: The benefits, though, could be huge depending on the city. Philadelphia has recently embarked on a program to support more green infrastructure through some fairly intensive analysis with NRDC and others.


AV: Underpinning for all that is a lot of this analysis that cities are beginning to undertake, triple bottom line analyses of gray versus green, cities are grappling with cost-benefit analyses of how much green should we do compared to gray? What are the benefits of gray versus green? And that’s how Philly came up with their big Green City, Clean Waters plan, which is sort of an impetus for all the stuff that they’re doing and that we were able to do there. They hired an economic consultant, Stratus Consulting, and they said, “Hey, what are the costs and benefits of gray versus the costs and benefits of green in Philadelphia and they actually found that the big underground tunnel they wanted to build is going to cost ten billion dollars and have no real public value whatsoever because it’d be underground, and have huge maintenance costs and possibly one day be obsolete, versus the Green Solution which takes a more distributed approach and greens the city. Specifically they’re looking to green 10,000 acres within the cities combined sewer shed, which is a huge amount of space, and it’s going to change the character of the city. The benefits of that change to the city are really innumerable, but I think for the purposes of their analysis, Stratus and Philly water department had to be pretty concrete. “Okay, are there quality benefits? Let’s quantify those. Are there going to be benefits to property values? Let’s quantify those.” They really tried to the best of their abilities to put locally accurate numbers to that analysis and at the end of the day they found at The Green Solution is actually far more cost effective and beneficial to the city than the grey solution.


JW: The Philly program is called Green City, Clean Waters and they have an incentive program for private property owners called the Greened Acre Retrofit Program or GARP. The availability of public dollars through GARP creates a competitive green infrastructure market that is able to produce benefits for all parties involved in local green infrastructure development. It’s not just about capital though. It’s about maintenance.


AV: It’s actually one of the very first things people think about—


JW: —people being municipal decision-makers.


AV: You know, what they’re really worried about is consent decrees and legal action, if they fail to meet their water quality goals.


JW: The city of Philadelphia is going to great efforts to catalyze green infrastructure retrofits on private property and provides grant funding for property owners to do this. The water department requires that property owners who qualify for grants to build green infrastructure on their property sign long-term maintenance contracts so that—


AV: —the city knows that it can rely on the performance of those assets over time.


JW: It’s difficult to get property owners on board with these maintenance contracts, but it can be even harder to sell them on using their developable land for stormwater.


AV: So for example, in one city we’re talking to, they have a huge amount of redevelopment going on along their waterfront and there are a lot of developers there who want to begin to build on that property, and the city has a requirement for on-site capture for new and redevelopment. And the developers would really much rather not capture stormwater on-site right, because they’re looking at taking up space on a parcel that they’d rather build an apartment on or a commercial building and instead having to store stormwater there above-ground and in an underground vault. It’s expensive. So we’re trying to talk to that city right now about how they can take advantage of this huge amount of development in an area that has very shoddy or non-existent infrastructure and find ways to build shared space that are green infrastructure practices potentially that could manage stormwater from the public right-of-way, as well as from the new private development and have the private developers actually pay into that system to both build the shared practices and also to help finance the maintenance of those practices. It’s something that makes cities I think a little uneasy, the idea that they would rely on the private sector to finance the building or the maintenance and in some respect that’s the opposite of the Philly model, right? I mean the Philly model is the city’s totally outsourcing in some cases, some of the green infrastructure they need to meet their goals. Mind you, the city of Philly’s not outsourcing all of it in that respect, the city of Philadelphia is still spending a very large fraction of their 1.6 billion dollars with their plan on green infrastructure over the next 20 years to do the public right-of-way projects. They’re just taking right now 10 million dollars a year, setting it aside and saying we’re going to create a pot of funds that we’re going to make available to subsidize or entirely pay for green projects on private property because they’re just that cost effective that we can spend ninety thousand dollars to get a green acre done on private land, whereas the most cost-effective green acre we can get in the public right-of-way is a quarter million dollars. So, you don’t have to be a math genius to figure out why they’re subsidizing the private parcel retrofits. And especially because in Philly, the private parcel owner then is committed to maintaining that over the long term, so the city actually gets even more long-term benefit.


JW: And it’s better to get ahead of the game than be behind it. For some cities that have been facing scrutiny from the EPA for not being in compliance with the Clean Water Act, making sure the city addresses the issues before regulators make you address the issue is key.


AV: One of the attorneys from City Hall was in the meeting yesterday, and she was just talking to her peers in the city who were in the same meeting. “Hey guys, unless we do something proactive on our green infrastructure stuff, the EPA is going to come and tell us what needs to be done and it’s not going to be so easy.” So we want to be proactive. It’s a lot like what we I think see out in the industry. It’s like they want to do things on a voluntary basis that they’re not regulated.


JW: Alisa says there’s another incentive to follow the rules outside of the fines and possible action by the EPA: get good PR instead of bad.


AV: I think it’s really just about bad PR for cities. Being out of compliance with the Clean Water Act obligations just shows a failure of governance. It’s not so much about the money. It’s just about again, front page of the paper: City X, you know, unable to meet its water quality goals at compliance with the Clean Water Act.


JW: In addition to focusing on infrastructure to promote green solutions. Rob says we also need to think about efficiency.


RM: All water efficiency doesn’t necessarily reside in people’s homes and using less water, you know, the very infrastructure we rely upon to deliver and distribute that water has its own inefficiencies that can be addressed. Often drinking water infrastructure in the pipes that deliver water to our homes and businesses, they might be 20, 30, 80, a hundred years old in some cities. And they have lost a lot of their integrity. Literally millions of gallons of water a year and representing millions of dollars in treatment costs that are passed along to consumers are lost in major cities around the country, because cities are realizing if we can identify those leaks and close them off, that’s that much less water we have to pay to treat, and it’s that much more water that’s available to our residents and our businesses. Illinois just initiated a major water loss accounting study which is going to start looking at how it can help identify these types of problems in municipal water systems in eight cities and tightening their systems up. It’s another great example of how water efficiency can be implemented cost-effectively.


JW: Better, smarter infrastructure, more efficiency, and residents’ safety all point towards the value of resilient processes and thinking. And while we all love that it can be good for the planet, it can also be good for the pocketbook.


AV: We released a report last year called the Green Edge which aggregates nearly all the available data on the economic benefits that green infrastructure can bring to private commercial property owners, like “Oh did you know, it can help you reduce your heating and cooling costs. If you like flat trees around the perimeter of your building it can improve your property values and can improve worker productivity, you know, retail sales if you’re a commercial building, because people like trees, people like green and it makes them feel good.” So, you know, we’re trying to sort of burn the candle at both ends working with cities to help them devise strategies that are going to get them where they want to be in terms of water quality and trying to leverage more private investment in meeting those goals, but also trying to work with folks out and stakeholders in the community trying to communicate more around the benefits green infrastructure can bring so that property owners don’t see this as just another regulation, rather something that’s going to encourage them to have higher quality assets that are going to be viewed as such over the longer term. Similar to the way that energy efficiency is now I think, for now any class A developer or whoever developer who’s sophisticated is looking to build efficient buildings is relatively mainstream at least in big cities, and green stormwater infrastructure is just not there yet. But I think we’re on the same trajectory. Folks who are building Class A real estate in Manhattan do know about green stormwater infrastructure, and they know that the kind of tenants they need to attract for the rents they’re trying to charge are going to look for rainwater capture systems. They want to see porous pavement. They want to see that stuff in their building because they expect it the same way that they also expect the building to be energy efficient.


JW: As developers are starting to get it, cities are following suit thinking differently about water.


RM: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is doing a lot in this regard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is doing a lot, Seattle, Washington, also really doing a lot of forward thinking strategies in this regard too. So this is an idea that is starting to catch on around the country. What we’d like to see now is how do we make more funding available to help cities make this type of transition. In all the examples that we just mentioned, I think most of those cities have had to kind of self finance those types of improvements in that approach. There are these low interest loan funds that all states have available to them for helping municipalities build and operate and construct water infrastructure, and very little of the hundred and ten billion dollars that’s available through those funds around the country is deployed for things like water efficiency and green infrastructure—strategies that can help make our communities much more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Water efficiency and green infrastructure are probably the two most effective tools available to us to enhance our resilience. If you’re worried about water shortages, well, you can spend a lot of money and try to find an enhancement to your water supply, but it’s a lot more cost-effective and you’ll get a much more certain result if you simply reduce the amount of water you need in the first place. In the city of Denver, they set a goal of reducing their residential and industrial water usage by 25 percent in 25 years, and I think they’re on target to meet that goal 5 to 10 years ahead of schedule. I believe the state of Utah had also set some goals on water efficiency and water use reductions, and they are finding that water efficiency is a much more cost-effective strategy to pursue than trying to make water that isn’t there. The state of Kentucky actually gives higher priority to projects that put an emphasis on water efficiency. The state of Illinois recently passed legislation that is going to make green infrastructure and water efficiency eligible for state financial support for the first time ever, and other states are starting to look at this as well. I think there is an increasing interest in prioritizing our water infrastructure spending in this way, but we need to start moving in this direction a lot faster in order to stay ahead of the climate curve.


JW: As climate change begins to affect places such as California, cities like Los Angeles are  starting to think more about how they can better collect this resource they had routinely let run into the sea. Recently the state water resources board created a framework for aquifer recharge systems and other forms of green infrastructure. While LA might be the first to implement water saving strategies, I’m sure San Diego won’t be far behind.


JW: Perhaps this means that in the future when it rains, you might not have to wait to catch a wave. Humans are made up of anywhere between 65 and 78 percent water based on their age. The youngest of us have more and the oldest have less. It’s our most precious resource. We must use it wisely.


JW: Thanks for joining us. Visit us on the web at


JW: Thanks for joining us. The Talking Headways podcast is a project of the Overhead Wire, on the web at Sign up for our free month trial, the Overhead Wire Daily, our twelve-year-old daily cities news list by texting the word “cities” to 42828. That’s “cities” to 42828, and please please please support the pod by going to Many thanks to our current patrons for their ongoing support. And as always you can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or stitchr or soundcloud or overcast or Spotify, or where ever you get your podcast. And you can always find its original home at See you next time at Talking Headways.

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