The Fickle Way of Water

Author: Jason Kelly ’95

Sometimes, when the rain falls like an Irish blessing, we sit on the front porch and listen to the drops rustle leaves and settle in whispering swishes on the ground — on grass and pavement and swelling puddles just springing up. Little streams form on the sidewalk and spill into the street, flowing toward the sewers and gurgling down into whatever subterranean labyrinth leads the water wherever it goes.

During those relaxing interludes, no thoughts arise about the processes at work, either natural or engineered. Not about the gift of life falling from the sky, nor about the infrastructure and ingenuity that controls how and where the water flows, and that spares us illness and death when we drink from our taps.

This is rain as a home water feature. An amenity.

When the water starts to seep into the basement, still rising even a day or two after the storm passes, the serene pleasure of a rain shower takes on a different character, something more like menace. Sloshing around in dirty water inside the house — a groundwater river feeding a new basement lake — reorients the mind around water’s relentless power. The threat never recedes from memory after a flood, especially the third or fourth in just a few years. Water’s capacity to overwhelm our preventative measures becomes a recurring stress dream, raising an ominous specter of worse things to come. And I say that as someone who has never experienced more than inconvenience from these inundations.

Some believe the Midwest will be insulated from the worst of what climate change inflicts. Not so, the models show, and a decade of recurring extremes has previewed what could, in fact, become a region of tumultuous ebbs and flows in temperature and precipitation.

“We’ve had a natural disaster every year but two years since I moved here,” says Alan Hamlet, a Notre Dame civil and environmental engineer. “And the year before I moved was 2012, which was another disaster.”

Triggering the most destructive of those local disasters, five inches of rain fell over 72 hours in February 2018. That, in itself, is not so unusual around South Bend, about a once-a-decade event. The record flooding that followed, with the St. Joseph River surging to historic highs, happened because the rain melted more than a foot of snow that had fallen in the previous week, during a month with nearly double the normal accumulation.

Hamlet incorporates into his presentations snapshots of 8,000 gallons of standing water in his basement and people canoeing around his neighborhood park, giving personal witness to his data that tracks climate trends and models the future. “Climate scientists are not immune to the impacts,” he says, his humor dry at least.

Nobody’s immune, a realization made manifest for many in the local area after the damage of the 2018 floods and again during the soaking spring of 2019 that delayed and, in some cases, prevented corn and soybean planting around Indiana. We’ve entered what Hamlet calls “the era of impacts,” and as hard as it feels like South Bend has been hit lately, that’s nothing.

Since March, along the Missouri River in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, deluges killed three people, evacuated entire communities and caused billions of dollars in damage. Throughout the United States, the year from July 2018 to June 2019 was the wettest on record.

Floods linger in the memory, but there have been droughts, too. According to Hamlet’s models, recurring extremes at both ends of the spectrum could be commonplace in Indiana by the end of the century, bringing agricultural disruption and all the associated human costs.

Increased winter and spring precipitation could create more frequent problems for farmers as it did this past year, when saturated fields impeded planting and threatened yields. Drier summers, though, accompanied with heat projected by the 2080s to be above 90 degrees on as many as 60 days a year, could leave northern Indiana parched and the southern part of the state — expected to be hotter still — altogether inhospitable to corn, the state’s great staple. Heat compounds water problems in a dry season, increasing evaporation that depletes reservoirs. “So,” Hamlet says, “you sort of get a double whammy.”

While there always have been cyclical highs and lows, the extremes don’t seem quite so extreme anymore, their frequency far exceeding the labels of 500- or 1,000-year events. And that’s just in the Midwest, to say nothing of encroached coastlines, where rising seas from melting glaciers put so much life and property in harm’s way. Or of parts of the world where floods have swamped cities or drought has increased water scarcity, sometimes in the same place over short time spans. The world’s largest urban areas, home to half a billion people globally, are expected to experience some form of serious water stress by 2030, according to an August report from the World Resources Institute.

Chennai, an Indian city of 7 million people that endured deadly floods four years ago, reached what’s known as “day zero” in June, when its four reservoirs, drained after two consecutive inadequate monsoons, ran dry. Tankers deliver water to Chennai, but the process is both inefficient and insufficient, leaving residents without enough water and forcing service-industry businesses like hotels and restaurants to close.

Cape Town, South Africa, faced a similar dire milestone last year as the six dams that serve the city reached dangerously low levels. Rain replenished the reservoirs just in time to stave off a shutdown of the city’s water, but as of May, levels reportedly remained at less than half the dams’ capacity.

Recent droughts in California have sparked wildfires, depleted rivers and streams that supply agricultural irrigation and so drained groundwater reserves “that land sank right under our feet,” farmer Alan Sano wrote in The New York Times.

Even without weather extremes, much of the world already experiences a contingent relationship to water on a regular basis — a daily ordeal to acquire it, a seasonal adjustment in usage, a wary uncertainty about its safety. Waterborne diseases cause 3.5 million deaths a year, according to the World Health Organization, most among children under age 5. And estimates indicate that, around the globe, as many as 1 billion people rely on water that someone has to walk to retrieve — typically women and girls, compromising their educational and employment opportunities and creating the rippling economic costs of talent untapped.

Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst, tagged along on a daily water-walk in the Indian village of Jargali. To complete the hourlong roundtrip with a bucketful of clean water requires delicacy and strength. Delicacy to lower a bucket by rope 20 feet down to the water and “drown” it — submerging it to assure that it fills completely — and strength to bring it up, hand over hand, with steadiness to avoid spilling it or scraping debris from the sides of the well. Delicacy to balance as much as eight gallons of water on one’s head for the walk home and strength to bear a burden of nearly 70 pounds.

In Jargali, the water walkers do that twice a day to supply the village’s needs, still failing to acquire the minimum amount per person that global-health experts deem necessary, but they’re lucky by Indian standards. Others have to devote almost all their time to gathering water for their communities, a daily imposition that magnifies the impact of water poverty.

“Water poverty doesn’t just mean your hands are dirty, or you can’t wash your clothes, or you are often thirsty,” Fishman writes in The Big Thirst. “Water poverty may mean you never learn to read, it means you get sick more often than you should, it means you and your children are hungry. Water poverty traps you in a primitive day-to-day struggle. Water poverty is, quite literally, de-civilizing.”

Those of us born to hydrological riches have become so conditioned to the reliable availability of clean water that we treat our home faucets like binging college students, blissfully oblivious to tomorrow. Chug! Chug! Chug! Satisfying the average American’s daily use of 80 to 100 gallons of water in the manner of Jargali villagers would require about a dozen trips.

In Fishman’s formulation, we have come to expect water that is “abundant, cheap and safe,” but that’s a recent development in history that he predicts will not hold for much longer. Over the next 100 years, Fishman contends, maybe two of those conditions could be sustained at any given time, but not all three at once, as the confluence of climate change, pollution, aging infrastructure and profligate use conspire against us.

Our assertion of control over the planet’s most precious natural resource has improved human health, quality of life and economic well-being, while also setting in motion cascades of unintended consequences that threaten all that progress. Water nurtures and destroys, a source of life, a cause of death.

As Fred Pearce notes in his book When the Rivers Run Dry, the Yellow River — which the Chinese call their “joy and sorrow” — has watered crops that have “sustained more people for longer than anywhere in history,” yet because of its disastrous flooding, “the river has probably killed more people than any other natural feature on the earth’s surface.” Chinese government efforts to control the floods, historians have argued, help explain the rise and endurance of its authoritarian state. The Chinese word zhi means both “to regulate water” and “to rule.”

Much of the climate-related strife feared in the near future figures to revolve around who rules precious water sources. Notre Dame hydrologist Marc Müller says that conflict tends not to arise between nations that share surface-water resources. Agreements are plentiful over rights to transborder rivers, streams and lakes. Groundwater, an essential global resource being drained away faster than it’s being replenished, is another matter.

Aquifers and other subterranean reserves provide about 30 percent of the planet’s freshwater supply. More of those underground sources span national borders than rivers and lakes do, but “the number of agreements on sharing groundwater is about 10,” the assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering says. “It’s really on two hands.”

He’s working with his wife, Notre Dame economist Michèle Müller-Itten, as well as Diogo Bolster, the Freimann Collegiate Chair in Hydrology, and environmental law expert Bruce Huber, to understand why. Their theory is that information asymmetry — essentially the belief that the other party to an agreement knows something you don’t — makes countries hesitant to sign away their rights.

Part of Müller’s work involves using satellite imagery to provide data about water levels, accessibility and patterns of use. The technology’s capabilities are still limited in quantifying groundwater, but Müller is optimistic about the potential to gather and present impartial information that could promote equitable use of an essential resource.

“If you were to find a way to provide both parties with information that’s vetted and unbiased that they could actually believe,” Müller says, “my hypothesis is that would make the negotiation easier because everybody would know what the other guy has.”

Population growth and declining precipitation forces more reliance on aquifers. As water levels fall farther below ground, it becomes more expensive to pump and — as those farmers in California’s Central Valley have experienced — the land literally sinks, which presents a danger to infrastructure like roadways, railways and building foundations.

The Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground reservoir that helps irrigate fields across eight states from South Dakota to Texas, has been steadily drained for the past seven decades to the point that a figurative straw will soon be sucking up its last drops. “The dire predictions are real,” Huber says. “This will run out of water as we know it in 50 years, or inside of 50 years.”

Once we developed the capability to pump the water in immense quantities, we did, ignoring distant consequences that experts have warned about since the 1960s. Scientific American described the transformation in the decades after World War II: “The High Plains turned from brown to green. . . . By 1977 one of the poorest farming regions in the country had been transformed into one of the wealthiest.”

A triumph of human ingenuity. A tragedy in the offing. Left underground, the Ogallala water benefited nobody; the resource needed to be tapped. Once we had a taste, though, we developed an unquenchable thirst. The complicated human relationship to water in a nutshell — genuine need and economic ambition trumping remote threats, a tension that plays out in many contexts.

Each year the agricultural runoff and urban pollution that infiltrate the Mississippi River and spill out of its mouth downstream create a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Water irrigates the fields that grow the food that feeds the world. Then rain delivers excess fertilizer from those fields into rivers and streams, polluting sources of drinking water and aquatic habitats.

Water cools power plants, an essential ingredient in energy production. Much of that water evaporates in the process, and what does flow back to its source is a few degrees warmer, altering the ecosystem in ways large and small, known and unknown.

Water collected in dams, those awe-inspiring feats of human engineering, irrigates fields and supplies clean energy around the world. But the loss of the land submerged for the projects, the evaporation of water from reservoirs, the failures of promised power generation and flood prevention, and the disruption of river ecology have far exceeded the economic and environmental gains, prompting global calls for dam removal.

Water, treated in municipal plants and delivered as if by magic to our homes, does nothing less than maintain health and extend life. Then we introduce all sorts of unpleasantness, from the universal byproduct we flush away under the decorous label “waste” to the chemicals that swirl down our drains and, for all we know, disappear forever.

Except that the apparent disappearance of the bad stuff — the waste, intestinal and industrial — is a mirage of modern water systems. We can pretend it’s not there because, for the most part, the processes meant to separate it from our daily consciousness work so well. But only so well. Our casual relationship with water has consequences that technology can’t just sweep away.

Each year, for instance, the agricultural runoff and urban pollution that infiltrate the Mississippi River and spill out of its mouth downstream create a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from farm fertilizer, as well as from wastewater, urban storm runoff and industrial pollution, spawn toxic algae blooms, a smothering green muck. This summer, all the rain that flooded the Midwest contributed to one of the Gulf’s biggest dead zones on record — 7,829 square miles, about the size of Massachusetts. In the Arabian Sea, the world’s largest dead zone grew to more than eight times that size last year. Oxygen-depleted stretches of ocean can be found from Oregon to the Chesapeake Bay, the Baltic Sea to the Korean Peninsula.

Dead zones take their name from the fact that aquatic life can’t survive in them because of oxygen depletion, which means commercial and recreational fishing, and all the food they provide and economic activity they create, die out too. Oceans soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide, but they have absorbed so much that the waters are acidifying, which adds to global warming and causes breaks in the ecological chain from dying coral reefs to the marine life they support to the half a billion people worldwide who depend on that seafood as a staple.

In lakes and rivers, dead zones also can compromise the drinking water supply. The residents of Toledo, Ohio, have been forced to shut off their taps because of algae blooms on the Maumee River and Lake Erie.

Jennifer Tank, a Notre Dame expert on stream and river ecology, has been asking classes and lecture audiences for nearly two decades whether they have heard of the Gulf dead zone. For a long time, few people had.

Now? “Any audience — whether it’s a lay public audience, freshmen, whatever — you ask, everyone raises their hand,” she says.

Awareness is one thing. Altering behavior is another.

“Some of these crises, we can count on them,” explains the Galla professor of biological sciences. “You can count on [the Maumee River] to look like pea soup. You can count on the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Until we really sort of do big changes, those are going to become part of our normal.”

Her research tests potential changes, like the use of cover crops to prevent runoff and to promote flexibility in periods of flood or drought.

After farmers harvest their cash crops, they can plant what amounts to a winter blanket — rye grass, for example — that retains in the soil some of the fertilizer nutrients that otherwise would bleed into adjacent rivers and streams. From an environmental standpoint, cover crops work.

“For every dollar currently that the federal government is investing in cover crops as a conservation practice, it’s getting back over $3 in terms of return for environmental benefits,” Tank says, “so keeping those nutrients on the fields has definitely got a positive outcome.”

To farmers, on the other hand, the management of an additional crop, whatever its environmental benefits, might add a financial burden that makes them reluctant to change longstanding practices. Incentive plans, like federal investments that allow researchers like Tank to study cover crops, last only so long — often not long enough to realize a return that would justify permanent, private investment out of farmers’ own pockets.

More common precipitation extremes have made the benefits of a cover-crop strategy more evident and immediate. In wet seasons, what Tank calls the “carpet” covering the fields helps to spirit excess water away through a process called evapotranspiration.

“Can you get your tractor out there earlier, or when others can’t because it’s a muddy mess? Yes, you can,” Tank says. “That sort of then resonates with them.”

When drought hits, on the other hand, the roots of those cover crops retain water “like this sponge that keeps things wet,” she adds.

Identifying agricultural practices that support steady production amid volatile weather patterns is part of what climate scientists mean when they talk about “resilience.” Cover crops provide one method.

Adaptable infrastructure could offer another. Hamlet, the Notre Dame climate scientist, advocates for more extensive water-storage methods, for example, to allow farmers to endure dry conditions, as well as variable drainage systems that can be plugged or unplugged as needed to retain or release a surplus.

Even though it’s expensive to upgrade existing infrastructure, Hamlet says, the climate projections argue for more flexible methods of handling the anticipated highs and lows. New systems, he adds, could be designed for gradual expansion when the conditions they need to meet become more immediate.

Aging and decaying pipes that have been in place for a century or more threaten the water supply for millions of U.S. citizens.

Urban areas face similar calculations about the short-term costs and long-term benefits of their water systems. Their limits are a function of their age and condition. Many are in dire need of replacement, at a collective cost in the trillions that taxpayers have been reluctant to pay.

Because many cities in the western U.S. have newer infrastructure than the urban areas east of the Mississippi River, that part of the country could have a paradoxical advantage in the coming decades. Although parched by comparison, the West has also developed a culture of conservation born of necessity and the political will to preserve its precarious water resources.

Las Vegas, for example, the driest big city in the U.S. by a large margin (Phoenix gets almost twice as much rain), is also “far more advanced in both water consciousness and water management than almost anywhere else in the country,” Fishman writes. Between 1989 and 2009, the average resident’s water usage dropped from 348 gallons per day to 240. The population grew by 50 percent in the first decade of the 21st century, but total water use in the metropolitan area did not see an appreciable increase.

Among the strategies to stave off the dire predictions that Las Vegas would deplete its water resources by 1995: requiring splashy water features like casino fountains to use recycled wastewater and stop tapping the city’s Lake Mead drinking-water supply. Golf courses have reverted much of their turf to the natural rocky and sandy terrain and irrigate the grass that’s left with recycled wastewater. And many homeowners have accepted incentives to remove their green lawns, the city paying $155 million to realize a water savings of 7.7 billion gallons a year.

Las Vegas has peculiar thirsts that its natural resources alone cannot slake, but creative management has made it possible to drink of an overflowing cup in the desert. Other western cities have adopted similar tactics to stay afloat.

Meanwhile, back east . . .

“There are so many Flint, Michigans waiting to happen, just from an infrastructure standpoint,” Huber says. “There are trillions dollars of maintenance and overhaul that need to be done on East Coast water systems.”

Flint’s deadly crisis, one of the most infamous failures of a public water system in the developed world, arose from a desire to save money. The city switched its drinking water sources from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. Officials did not use the necessary corrosion-prevention chemicals to treat the water in the local plant, resulting in lead contamination and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease blamed for 12 deaths.

Aging and decaying pipes that have been in place for a century or more threaten the water supply in similar ways for millions of U.S. citizens. The cities of Newark and Baltimore on the East Coast and of Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee in the Midwest have all experienced lead-contamination issues in the years since Flint flashed onto the national radar screen.

Next-generation technologies, many being advanced in Notre Dame engineering laboratories, have the potential to improve water quality. William Phillip ’04 designs nanoscale materials to facilitate more precise treatment methods intended to increase freshwater reuse. Kyle Bibby ’08 studies biomarkers in water that affect public health in order to identify sooner when beaches should be closed or produce recalled, to cite two examples. To judge from the array of research at Notre Dame alone, water is the subject of many, vast and deep areas of study, a matter of precise and gradual technological progress on several fronts that also plumbs the human psyche.

“Of course, we do all the technical stuff, and that’s the important part in trying to solve the problems going forward,” says Bibby, the Wanzek Collegiate Chair in environmental engineering, “but clearly economic and social issues, political issues, are really, really important.”

What are Americans willing to pay for clean, reliable water? Not much, at the moment, unless it’s bottled, in which case we hand over a staggering premium compared to what the same amount would cost from a tap. That water is, in effect, free. Our utility bills amount to the price of treatment and delivery. Resistance to increases only raises the price of maintaining and improving those systems, or the magnitude of crises caused by outdated equipment. 

How will we take to conservation strategies like using recycled wastewater to replenish the drinking supply? Not readily. The “yuck factor” is still a mental hurdle too high for many. Reverse-osmosis technology treats sewage to a level that’s “molecularly indifferent” from the freshest spring, Phillip says, but for some people, even an impending catastrophe might not be enough to make toilet-to-tap palatable.

The town of Toowoomba, Australia, went dry fast. A sudden, debilitating drought during the 2000s affected the whole country and came to be known as the Big Dry. Toowoomba’s mayor had a plan to grapple with the vanishing reservoirs serving her 120,000 constituents: Treat sewage and return it to local reservoirs that provide household water. Technologically, not a problem. The process produced water cleaner than what Toowoombans were already drinking. Psychologically, on the other hand . . .

Opponents of the idea organized the group Citizens Against Drinking Sewage (or another S-word in certain company) and defeated a referendum on the plan, perception superseding science to the detriment of their water supply. Wastewater recycling is not exotic. It’s done in Singapore, in Fairfax County, Virginia, and in Orange County, California, a more environmentally sensitive and cost-effective solution than energy-intensive and expensive seawater desalination, which for most of the world remains too impractical to pursue.

All drinking water, really, is recycled wastewater. “As one of my buddies from another lab likes to say, ‘At some point in time the water you’re drinking used to be dinosaur pee,’” says Phillip, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

Every drop that ever has been or will be on Earth is here right now. Molecules from oceans, lakes, rivers and streams — contaminated with, and cleansed of, every kind of organic waste imaginable from prehistory to today — evaporate and condense into clouds that produce rain that feeds those same oceans, lakes, rivers and streams. Whether people have the stomach to drink the treated water that emerges from that cycle depends, as Fishman writes, on “how big a gap in time and space and imagination has opened.”

“You trust it when it goes through the hydrological cycle,” Phillip says. “You’re just sort of reducing the size of that cycle, reducing the diameter of that circle, and people get less and less comfortable as the size of that circle shrinks.”

Shrinking that circle will almost inevitably be one of the ways the developed world keeps clean water flowing. Phillip’s lab works on technologies not only to keep water clean, but to incentivize industrial and agricultural users to retrieve their own contaminants for potential money-saving reuse.

A manufacturing plant, for example, might be able to reuse metal ions separated from water. Farmers could extract chemicals that pollute rivers and streams but nourish crops, reapplying the excess nitrogen and phosphorus to their fields and reducing the amount of fertilizer they buy. The cleaner rivers and streams that result would make treatment easier and cheaper downstream.

All this work is meant to maintain and enhance the symbiotic relationship between humans and water. To ensure it will continue to fulfill our needs and not overwhelm our defenses. To extend the bounty of “abundant, cheap and safe” to more of humanity. To guard against nature’s vagaries and our own excesses.

Humans have always found a way. Roman aqueducts were triumphs of engineering, supplying water for an empire. And for more than 1,000 years around what’s now Phoenix, the Hohokam people built a society around their irrigation genius, constructing canal networks that allowed them to thrive across an arid landscape larger than South Carolina.

The challenges today are different, but where the water goes remains a matter of ingenuity. Gary Gilot, the assistant director of community engagement for Notre Dame’s Center for Civic Innovation, spent more than a decade as “the local purveyor of water,” running South Bend’s public works department. He’s a low-key guy, but a little pride seeps out when he talks about the city’s “smart sewers,” a technology that the company EmNet developed though a South Bend-Notre Dame partnership.

A series of sensors and valves redirects the flow through the sewers depending on stresses it finds in the system — from localized heavy rains, clogs, leaks and the like. The system helps prevent backups that pollute the river or flood basements. Gilot estimates it has saved local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars on sewer upgrades. More than 20 U.S. cities now use it.

We cannot live without water. How we live with it has been a recurring lesson of human civilization. What makes habits and technologies “smart” differs by location and evolves through the ages — sometimes not looking so smart in retrospect, like the damage dams have done or the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer — but the ideas always flow from the same source.

“Inevitably it’s about society,” Gilot says. “How can people thrive and how do you have a better balance between the built and natural environment?”

Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.