Land of 9,999 Lakes

The final version of the Met Council’s “Feasibility Assessment of Approaches to Water Sustainability in the Northeast Metro” has been released.  I posted my thoughts about this study before, but here are more rantings mostly pulled from my twitter feed.

The study says conservation of water is probably cheaper, but that’s not in this study, and we’ll get to it later (date 2015 TBD). From the study:

The alternatives evaluated should be viewed as examples. The best option for moving forward may be a hybrid of the examples considered in this study, and could involve approaches that were not considered in this study. For example, communities in the northeast metro could utilize less expensive approaches. These might include conservation or stormwater reuse to reduce groundwater pumping before making large-scale investments in alternative infrastructure solutions. Such a plan could couple these less expensive options with aggressive monitoring of groundwater and surface water, and set triggers for further action in the event these less expensive approaches are not effective.

So, we didn’t analyze the best and cheapest options, but we went ahead and did some demand forecasting so we could size some pipes anyway.

Households in many of the communities in the study area pay less for potable water each year than a family might pay towards their smart phone bill each month.

Water rates, from page 6 of the study

Water rates, from page 6 of the study

My household only has two smartphones, and we pay about $140 per month.  Add a few teens to the mix, and you get the point.  Water this cheap is obviously a triumph of civil engineering (and socialized infrastructure costs), but will likely make meaningful attempts at conservation difficult.

The study expects water consumption to grow 56% by 2040 while population will grow 37%.  Historically, population growth in Minnesota has outstripped increases in (permitted) water use.  From 1988 to 2011, population in the state grew about 24% while water use increased only 12%. Like electric utilities, water utilities nationally are also struggling with declining sales. The Met Council study doesn’t present any data on water usage trends in the study area communities (that I found).  I’m not sure why they are projecting this large increase in water use per capita (perhaps they are planning for many more golf courses?).  If any enterprising reader wants to dig in to the DNR data, trends for the counties included in the study area could be produced.

Searching the study for the words “grass” or “lawn” yields zero results.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the study doesn’t really attempt to analyze what the end use of water is in the study area, although looking at the “peak usage ratio” hints that a lot of it is landscape-related.

For just the operating costs of each alternative infrastructure solution (not including capital costs), you could pay each household $30 to $422 each year to use less. Annual operating costs of the alternatives vary from $1.3 million to $20 million.  The study area will include 189,470 people in 2040.

In other parts of the country with water supply issues, homeowners are paid to turn turf grass into water-efficient landscaping.  In the California Bay Area, homeowners can get a rebate of $1 per square foot for lawn removal.

For the some capital cost as the medium-priced option in the study, homeowners could be paid to remove 6 square miles of grass at a rebate cost of $1 per square foot. Plus they could be paid to remove 129 football fields-worth (7.5 million square feet) in every future year for the equivalent operating costs of that option.

Photo: Sprinkler, Creative Commons licensed by flickr user Shaylor

Questions about the northeast water supply plan

Over at, I ask some questions about the Met Council’s new northeast metro water supply plan.  Here is a big one:

Where is the conservation alternative?  The cost and feasibility of  reducing water use are not analyzed as part of the report.  Building nothing and simply asking/incentivizing/requiring people to use less may be the cheapest option.  According to the report, water use in 2010 was 92 gallons per person, per day in these communities. The ratio of peak day demand to average day demand ranges from 1.7:1 in Forest Lake to 5.9:1 in Lexington.  The report hints that this is “mainly attributed to irrigation and outdoor water use needs”.  Sprinkling lawns in other words.  Many options exist for conserving (potable) water – from retrofitting toilets, sinks and showers, to using captured rainwater to irrigate, to simply paying people to remove lawns and replacing them with low-water alternatives.  For the cost of the alternatives to serve all northeast communities with new water supply (~$600 million), you could pay every household over $1,400 to remove lawn, and keep paying them $40 every year after that.  Without an analysis of conservation alternatives, this report seems inadequate.

Read on.

Water for our future

Over at I have a new post on the importance of water supply planning for the next regional plan.

What does all this have to do with Minnesota?  We have tons of water, right?  Well, on the surface yes, but we’re using our groundwater much faster than it’s being replaced, and that’s a problem.  That was one of the main topics at a Thrive MSP 2040 Roundtable discussion I attended a number of weeks ago, and have been meaning to post about since.  The 7-county region now gets70 percent of our water from groundwater sources, up from 15 percent in the 50′s.  In some places this means we’re reducing groundwater levels by over a foot a year.

Watch “Liquid Assets”, help raise awareness of Minnesota’s critical infrastructure needs

Along with BluePrint Minnesota, Minnesota APA is working to increase awareness about our State’s infrastructure needs.  They are raising funds to produce a local version of “Liquid Assets”, the trailer for which can be seen above.

The full documentary explores the history and challenges of our water infrastructure, and is a great reminder of the importance of systems we usually take for granted.  So watch the trailer, head over to BluePrint Minnesota and help out if you can.