Rain Ready: Taking on the Mighty Thor

Jupiter, Thor, Mother Nature, ritualistic rain dances – since the dawn of time, humankind has created ways to explain the inexplicable of weather, change the course of the unchangeable and deal with the harm it could often inflict on innocent communities. The mythical ‘weather gods’ offer people hope, for even if they themselves can’t control the weather, there is comfort in knowing some one or some thing IS in control – that there is a reason why one town can be experiencing floods while another deals with drought. 

This thinking still exists in many shapes and forms. However, an initiative called Rain Ready is defying “the weather gods” and changing the age-old conversation by putting in the hands of people around the world the control they thought was out of reach when it comes to weather phenomena. Started by the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), Rain Ready acknowledges that, while weather events may not be controllable, communities can control the impact of these events.  

Moreover, Rain Ready doesn’t just acknowledge this fact; it empowers individuals, communities, states and regions with the tools to do it! Harriet Festing, Water Program Director at CNT, sums up the power and importance of Rain Ready perfectly, “Through our years of research and advocacy on water management issues, we realized that there was something of a disconnect between information and action. Rain Ready seeks to close that gap by making it easier for homeowners, businesses, and government leaders to create Rain Ready plans.”

Whether you live in a flood- or drought-prone area or not, are a private citizen or civic leader, the Rain Ready website – which is better described as a one-stop tool shop for getting ahead of weather surprises – is worth exploring. The site also demonstrates graphically the devastation being Rain Ready can prevent right now, as well as its necessity for the future, as global climate changes indicate an increasingly warmer and wetter world.

Utilizing videos, fact sheets, educational articles, planning tools and best practices, the site gives people an extensive resource for taking action. Just some of the tools and topics for the various players include:

With all it has to offer, the Rain Ready platform’s purest power comes from taking the control and responsibility out of the hands of “mythical gods” and putting it where it belongs: in the hands of everyone. By focusing on residents, communities and states integrating their efforts, it paints a clear picture of the practical solutions and peace of mind to be had on every level.

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Making a Positive Environmental Impact One Grant at a Time

Despite searching our solar system for inhabitable planets, as far as we know there’s no substitute for planet Earth. The deserving recipients of the 2014 Environmental Grants Program now have some extra help in making sure we can enjoy our planet today and into the future. Now in its 9th year, this program offers funds for innovative, community-driven grassroots environmental projects that improve, restore or protect the watersheds, surface water and/or groundwater supplies in a number of communities. It’s a true support of leadership efforts of folks in our communities to be more sustainable.

This year a total of 45 projects throughout American Water’s service areas in 11 states received grants totaling more than $185,000. The wide range of initiatives has provided support to help communities improve, restore and protect our valuable natural resources. Here are just a few examples of this year’s projects:

Stratton Elementary School in Champaign is receiving a $4,000 grant from Illinois American Water to construct a rain garden containing 11 species of native plants, which will be used as an outdoor learning center to strengthen learning about and connection to the environment.

“Community Waterways Clean-Up,” coordinated by the Friends of Stoner Creek in Bourbon County in partnership with the Bourbon County Road Department, local school groups and the local Boy Scouts of America, is receiving a $2,400 grant from Kentucky American Water to support a clean-up effort for various sections of Stoner Creek, a major waterway in Bourbon County, Ky.

Missouri River Relief was awarded $8,000 from Missouri American Water for the “Big Muddy Clean Sweep.” River Relief will conduct a trash-barge voyage on the Missouri River with community cleanups planned in Brunswick, Jefferson City and St. Joseph in 2014. The cleanups in Brunswick and Jefferson City will include river education days for local high school students, and will consist of volunteers from across the state of Missouri.

Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey (Lebanon, NJ) was awarded a grant to install bat boxes near the Round Valley Reservoir. By thinning the insect population, bats help to reduce or stop the use of chemical pesticides, which produce harmful run-off into the reservoir. This project is funded by New Jersey American Water.

Friends of the Lower Appomattox River is receiving $1,000 from Virginia American Water for an erosion control project on the road leading to the canoe access point. Rocks will be installed to prevent soil erosion.

The City of Noblesville will use its $2,500 grant for The Hague Road Tree Planting Project, which will use green infrastructure to manage storm water runoff in the area by helping to filter pollutants before they reach nearby Cicero Creek. This project is funded by Indiana American Water.

Davenport Community Schools’ grant from Iowa American Water will be used for “Science in Progress: Connecting 5th Grade Science Curriculum with Water Quality”. The proposed project will establish a generational approach to watershed and water source protection by aligning city and school resources to empower 5th grade youth as environmental stewards and advocates, including introducing and supporting service learning opportunities such as cleanup throughout the community.

Every year I am amazed and inspired by the talented and innovative projects happening in our local communities. Helping to further the impact of ongoing programs, and turning new ideas into realities makes it even more rewarding to have a positive impact on the planet that we all inhabit.

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A Water Wheel In Baltimore Keeps The Harbor Moving

Do you remember the iconic 1970s commercial of the crying Native American, paddling his canoe through a polluted river?  It’s no secret that garbage and litter in our waterways has been an issue in U.S. cities for decades. Trash and debris have an impact on the visual landscape and create an environmental hazard to our ecosystems. I think he’d be proud of the simple and innovative structure in Baltimore that has proved useful to help clean up some of the trash and litter in the waterways (see the recent NPR story).

Before May 2014, Baltimore was just one city whose harbor was cluttered with trash and debris caused by runoff from the Jones Falls River. Originally, the city collected the trash using crab nets – costing them a lot of time without making much of an impact.

Then an idea came to John Kellett, a frequent passerby of the trash-laden harbor. He designed a water wheel, (which some say resembles a combination spaceship/covered wagon wheel) which would collect trash that flowed from the mouth of the Jones Falls River using power from storm runoff. Now the water wheel has collected over 40 tons of trash from the Baltimore harbor since it began turning in May. Talk about taking out the trash!

The success that the water wheel has brought to Baltimore, I hope, is a sign of more exciting things to come in the world of environmental innovation and design. I believe these results have the ability to create positive change in not only water pollution cleanup, but also other city issues.

Now I understand that not all cities are the same and not all rivers are the same, but the simple ingenuity of the water wheel is an inspiration on ways we can keep our collective water clean. Additionally, experimenting with water wheels in other cities could spur greater action and green innovation. Especially after June’s recognition as World Oceans Month, it’s clear that water systems are interconnected and don’t recognize man-designated boundaries.

Since the water wheel has cut down the manpower needed to collect debris from the harbor, Baltimore and other cities could use this newly recovered manpower for other city improvement projects. City cleanup doesn’t have to end with the water. There are still parks and streets littered with cigarette butts, paper napkins and plastic bottles. With water pollution under control, we may be able to focus our attention elsewhere.

Although the Baltimore water wheel hasn’t solved its trash problem 100 percent, it has certainly made an impact on those who cleaned it up by hand before. Unique in its design, the water wheel shows that we are moving in the right direction towards cleaner, trash-free water. All it takes is one successful project to open up a new world of environmental water innovation.

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Celebrating The World’s Water Bottle

June is World Oceans Month, a time to give special celebration and attention to the largest ecosystem on our planet!

Through advocates like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration there is a plethora of lists reminding the world of how life revolves around, and is dependent upon, our oceans – from the critical provision of life-sustaining water and food sources, economic livelihood for an untold number of communities, to enriching lives with strolls on the beach, snorkeling adventures and wildlife exploration. Other resources generate awareness and offer steps everyone can take to help keep the oceans healthy and, as President Obama stated in his official declaration of National Oceans Month, “resilient.”

My own reading in preparation for World Oceans Month led me to the theme of this article: the ocean as the world’s water bottle! It is estimated that about 96.5% of the world’s water supply is ‘stored’ in the oceans and that the oceans provide approximately 90% of the evaporated water that enters into the water cycle… the source of the water we use every day and that fuels industries and communities. In other words, the oceans make up one giant water bottle from which the entire planet drinks.

This analogy points to all types of lessons on the importance of keeping our oceans free of pollutants. For instance, would you take even one sip of water from a glass that was contaminated with pesticides or industrial wastes? Of course not. So we must refrain from creating the same unhealthy environment within our oceans. Treatment and reuse of wastewater effluents before they reach the ocean can provide valuable needed water resources without the environmental pollution.

Also, consider the food we eat. No one would pick a lobster for dinner out of a tank riddled with waste and mucky water. The ramifications of food sources coming from a polluted ocean are much worse than spending a few hours in a dirty tank. From caviar to canned tuna, seafood sources “are what they swim in”… they start in the ocean and develop in the oceanic environment long before they reach the frying pan. Even worse is to think of the seafood that doesn’t make it to the table. Certain species can become drastically unavailable or disappear altogether due to polluted waters that can no longer sustain them and/or irresponsible over-fishing.

A final lesson comes from considering water renewal. The oceans are the source and sink of the global water cycle. Finding efficient and effective ways to desalinate ocean water will be the ultimate solution to global water shortages. Mother Nature does this by evaporation and transportation through clouds and rain. Breakthroughs in nanotechnology, just now on the horizon, could provide solutions that could provide abundant water to thirsty populations. Biomimicry is the process of creating technologies that duplicate what Mother Nature already does with ease.

June is not just one month to honor the oceans, but instead serves as a motivational staring line for year-round efforts to better understand, respect and responsibly renew the world’s water bottle.

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Refilling Water Fountains In The Friendly Skies

Can you think of the last time you used a water fountain and drank directly from the water stream? Chances are, you were probably carrying a disposable water bottle or (if you’re more environmentally conscious) a larger re-fillable bottle. Recently, standard water fountains have been making a transition from being a place for a brief direct sip, to becoming a resource for filling up re-useable water bottles.

Bottle filling stations are becoming the new standard; it’s something you may have seen at least once in your daily adventures, and refillable bottles are a convenient way to reduce waste and protect the environment. Like I’ve written about before, with bottle filling stations in schools, we could cut the 50 billion plastic water bottles that end up in landfills each year just by refilling plastic or glass reusable water bottles. But not only can it save the environment, it can save travelers money as well.

Monterey Regional Airport in California recently increased its water conservation efforts by installing two new bottle-filling stations (funded by California American Water) located on opposite ends of the facility. Serving 500 customers per day, both stations come equipped with the original drinking spouts and filtered refrigerated water.

We all know the headaches of air travel these days…where we can only pass through security with no shoes and a zippered baggie filled with only 4 oz. bottles of liquid sundries. Then, once we get through to the other side, water bottles cost an average of $4.00 per gallon, meaning it costs thousands more than drinking water from a reusable water bottle. Knowing that a refilling station is on the other side of the x-ray belt is at least a nice consolation that I won’t have to waste money or plastic before boarding.

High traffic areas like airports and schools are great places to start the large-scale transition towards this evolution in water fountains, matching the way we live today and the growing environmental mentality. I’m glad that I can now add Monterey Regional to the club of airports like Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, and San Francisco where I don’t have to gulp or waste water before continuing to travel.

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Water: Rising Above the Law of Supply & Demand?

We’ve all learned it in school, or just as a lesson in life… the more people want something, the greater it costs. It applies to everything, from food, to clothing, to real estate and fuel, to top-level positions and even leisure time. It’s the law of supply and demand. It’s a universal rule. Everything is dictated by it; nothing can rise above it. Or CAN something?

What about water? Does supply and demand apply? Overall demand is higher than ever and continues to climb, yet the average price per gallon of water is about a penny. How can something everyone needs, something so many goods, processes, and industries depend on, remain so untouched by the rule of low supply + high-demand = higher cost?

After reading this very thought-provoking article, What is Water Worth, I’ve considered a few “water dynamics” that could be contributing to this phenomenon:

In economic theory, the extremely low cost of goods or services points to one loud and clear conclusion: people simply don’t value something as overtly as they should. That’s why the mission of the Value of Water Coalition is so important. The coalition’s aim is to educate the public on the importance of clean, safe, and reliable water to and from every home and community, and to help ensure quality water service for future generations.

Because of all the things water is to us as individuals, businesses and society, no one wants it to cost its true value. After all, if that was the case, who could afford it? The hopeful news is that there will be greater understanding of the real value of water in your daily life, and recognition of what is being done to keep it at such a reasonable cost.

Water is being reconsidered as the single most important commodity in the world, something to be treasured, and respected. And so, there are more innovations than ever, more creative minds on the crisis to formulate the solutions. Everyone just needs to keep working together to address the water crisis… to keep water flowing, available and affordable to meet the world’s demands.

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Water Works! Continuing Conversations From Infrastructure Week

Before writing this blog, I conducted an informal experiment to see how the ‘go-to authorities’ define infrastructure for the masses. My method was to do what most people would… an online search of “infrastructure definition.” Looking at the top three hits, every definition asserts infrastructure as being the basic physical facilities, structures and services installations needed for the functioning of a community, society or enterprise. They go on to give examples: buildings, roads, power supplies, transportation, and communications systems.

You’ll notice, sadly, that water is not listed among the examples of “basics” needed for communities to function, and not even the esteemed Oxford Dictionary includes water as part of infrastructure. I did find water mentioned as part of an infrastructure definition on hit #4 and then on Wikipedia. While we’ve made significant progress in awareness of water conservation and sustainability, society’s failure to recognize water systems as a vital part of the infrastructure – as, in essence, a basic need for functioning – presents an enormous challenge and casts quite a shadow on our future water outlook.

The Value of Water Coalition addressed the issue by hosting one of the Infrastructure Week events in Washington D.C. as part of the Coalition’s new awareness effort, Water Works! and by releasing its new report, From Invisible to Invaluable: Changing the Way We Think About Water Infrastructure.

More than just looking at the need to repair, upgrade and replace the aging water infrastructure, the panel addressed several key points – all making a strong argument for the critical need to include water systems in national discussions about infrastructure.

President Obama also weighed in on the issue during a speech at the Tappan Zee bridge, saying: “We’ve got leaky pipes that lose billions of gallons of drinking water every single day, even as we’ve got a severe drought in much of the West.

Water Works! is an exciting initiative aimed at generating wide-scale awareness and growing the conversations about the vital importance of the water infrastructure. Like all successful endeavors, assuring the health and capabilities of our water infrastructure starts with understanding and talking about it, and Water Works! is already in motion to do just that. You can learn more and get involved in the discussions at TheValueofWater.org.

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Drink Your Water, And Eat The Bottle?

If you’re planning a Memorial Day weekend get-together or getaway, you’ve definitely thought about refreshments. I hope that you’ll also think about the environment, wherever you may be celebrating the holiday. The need for a solution for drinks on-the-go that won’t pollute our environment with bottles is far from news, as the movement to increase the use of reusable/refillable water bottles has been gaining momentum for years. However, as the movement grows, so does the annual American appetite for drinks sold in plastic bottles – currently clocking in around 50 billion bottles, the production of which requires 1.5 million barrels of crude oil. The upshot? The current solution is doing ‘okay’ but it soon won’t be enough. The situation has many wondering if the edible “Ooho” water bottle may be the beginning of an alternative answer to disposable plastic bottles.

The somewhat strange-looking edible bottle was conceived by a group of Spanish design students and is based upon spherification. Created in the 1950s by Unilever and used for culinary novelties, the edible membrane is formed by dipping a frozen ball of water into a solution of calcium chloride, which forms a gelatin-like layer. It is then drenched in a second liquid derived from brown algae extract that helps to strengthen the formation. The longer the edible water bottle stays in the algae solution, the thicker and more durable the membrane becomes.

When fortified, developers describe the strength of the container as “comparable to the skin found on fruit.” I’ve bruised enough apples and bananas on hikes out west to think twice about throwing something like this in my backpack, but with more work it could be a viable option.

Speaking of ‘more work,’ the Ooho bottles most likely need improvement in several areas before enjoying more mainstream acceptance. First, the look doesn’t appeal to everyone, with some describing them as looking like jellyfish. Other engineering challenges include making the bottles re-sealable and keeping the skin sanitary so that it can be eaten.

The cost of Ooho bottles also currently remains a question mark. However, some food and beverage companies want to collaborate with the design team, perhaps helping to speed commercialization and lower costs. Moreover, with the project moving forward under a creative commons license, you’ll soon be able to follow an online recipe and create your own bottle at home!

Despite the challenges at present with the Ooho bottles, it’s great to see the creativity and resourcefulness of individuals and companies tackling a significant environmental issue related to disposable bottles. As we increasingly become a more health- and cost-conscious society, making choices like water instead of soda, and carrying reusable water bottles, solutions that are not only environmentally friendly, but also help to save money, are imperative.
Nonetheless, with traditional bottled water costing on average almost $4.00 per gallon, tap water is still the ultimate bargain at about a penny per gallon. Our tap water is readily available, pure and inexpensive, so filling a reusable water bottle to take “on the road” remains the best option.

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Winter Potholes – A Jarring Glimpse At Infrastructure Needs Below The Surface

This past winter’s pothole crisis had pretty much everyone with a vehicle, not to mention Department of Transportation crews, aggravated and digging into cash reserves. But as troublesome as potholes can be in their own right, they also signify a much deeper, more costly and potentially devastating situation – one that can disrupt life in mere seconds and cannot simply be patched up and smoothed over.

It is estimated the U.S. relies on more than one million miles of water mains, and those pipes have been subjected all winter to the same expansion and contraction dynamics that turn roadways into treacherous pothole-filled obstacle courses. Harsh weather aside, anywhere from 600-800 water main breaks occur every day due to the natural degrading of systems and lack of resources to upgrade aging pipes. As hard as it is to conceptualize that number, consider this: every pothole you swerve around or, even worse, HIT with your car, could represent an underground pipe that is cracked and leaking, or worse.

Consequently, this past winter (much like electric company crews, fire companies, EMTs, etc.) there was been a group of first-line emergency responders at from water companies working harder than ever to assure that the water that communities need to thrive and survive keeps flowing. These experts have been on the job consistently in the most severe conditions, repairing main breaks, and replacing broken pipes.

Despite the responders’ efforts and repairs, the biggest issue compromising water systems remains long after spring outshines the bleak memories of winter: much of our water infrastructure is in need of replacement, especially in older cities and towns. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ latest Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave the nation’s water and wastewater systems a D grade. Many people might be surprised to hear this – after all, water seems readily available without issue. But, aside from experiencing a main break or passing by crews performing upgrades and repairs, most people see very little of the reality.

The encouraging news is that those of us in the water industry DO see what lies below the surface, and we ARE constantly on the job to improve systems, research and develop better technologies, and be as proactive as possible in harsh situations and periods such as this recent winter. In fact, many top people in the water industry and beyond convened in Washington, D.C. this week for Infrastructure Week (including our President and CEO Susan Story and Senior VP of Corporate Strategy and Business Development Mark Strauss) to shine a spotlight on the needs and discuss possible solutions. But I’ll discuss that in more detail soon…

Solutions exist – and federal and state lawmakers are considering the role they could play in enabling private sector funding and partnerships to help turn the dire situation of our water infrastructure around. In the meantime, water utilities (both public and private) will continue to work on local levels to not only ‘fix the leaks’ but to revitalize and rebuild the infrastructure our communities need to be healthy.

While a pothole may be a literal bump in the road, the damage occurring to our underground infrastructure requires much more coordination, resources and effort to remedy.

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Drinking Water Week 2014: Ask Not What Water Can Do for You, But What You Can Learn About Water!

Drinking Water Week, we have a chance to not just appreciate and continue to care for the water on our planet, but also become better educated and aware of ways we all can be involved in the process of producing safe drinking water. With knowledge, we can celebrate the roles in which water is vital to carrying out everyday life.

From May 4th to May 10th, the American Water Works Association will be promoting interactions in communities across the country to encourage the theme “What do you know about H20?” For more than 35 years the American Water Works Association and its members have celebrated Drinking Water Week – a unique opportunity for both water professionals and the communities they serve to join together in recognizing the vital role water plays in our daily lives. And although we interact with water every day, whether it is apparent or not, there’s still a lot that folks might not know.

For instance, did you know that each American uses on average about 100 gallons of water per day? Do you know the process that water goes through so that you can use it (our Journey of Water video can help)? During Drinking Water Week it’s important to learn and pass on the knowledge.

Here are some additional places to find information so you can enhance what you know about H20:

The American Water Works Association, EPA, and water service providers work within communities to help educate and inform consumers almost every day of the year, and it is likely that organizations in your local community are taking part in special events or discussions for Drinking Water Week. I urge you to participate in at least one Drinking Water Week gathering, and share what you learned so that others can benefit as well.

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