Complexity and vulnerability in water supplies

California aqueduct
All water in Dubai is desalinated and they apparently don’t reclaim and reuse. By contrast, buildings in Chinese coastal cities have two sets of plumbing, with salt water being used for toilets. This makes sense, why use drinkable water for purposes that don’t need it? California has a sprawling system whereby much of the southern part of the state uses water that comes from hundreds of miles away.

What do all these systems have in common? They’re big, complex, expensive, and highly vulnerable to disruption. And let’s be clear. Disruption means no running water in cities with millions of people who have no recourse to other sources of something as critical and essential as water. There’s no slack in the system. Nothing to fall back on.

I lived in L.A. for years, and live in Las Vegas now. Every drop of indoor water in Vegas including toilet water is cleaned up, then pumped into Lake Mead to be used again. Southern Nevada is apportioned a mere 1.8% of Colorado River water. The constant recycling is how it lives. In 2015 it only used 1.2% and sold the excess to Southern California in the middle of a bad drought.

Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson, and yes, Los Angeles use less water now overall than they did twenty years ago. Not per capita. Total usage. With much larger populations. So, change is happening. Cities are trying to plan ahead, to have redundant systems in case of system failures.

The electrical grid is even bigger and more complex that water supplies, which tend to be localized or regional. By contrast, the grid is nationwide, because it has to be. But what happens when there are failures?

As a society we have no interest in thinking about these things. Nor are we even remotely prepared to adjust to what is probably inevitable.

I disagree a bit. Cities and states are getting smarter about water and energy. Yes, we have a long way to go. When the drought hit the Southwest and California, many water districts called in experts from Israel who were appalled that our big cities generally had no meaningful contingency plans for drought. Cities in Israel are required to have such plans.

Maybe the drought will function as a badly needed wake up call.

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